Who Will Run Our Arts Organizations?

Lee Rosenbaum is a cultural journalist (i.e., a journalist who writes about the arts and culture). In addition to her mainstream-media writing, she maintains a blog, CultureGrrl, which I dip into from time to time. Recently, she wrote about what she calls "the coming arts leadership brain drain." She cites a recently-published report by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Involving Youth in NonProfit Arts Organizations: A Call to Action (67 pages), that reminds nonprofit arts organizations that they need to be aggressive in finding ways to attract and retain new leaders to take the place of the baby boomer arts administrators who are nearing the end of their careers.

Rosenbaum cites a "glaring omission" in the report: that a major reason that smart and ambitious young people don't look to arts administration as a career is that they can make much more money elsewhere. As someone with experience as both a young and not-so-young arts administrator, I think she's right on the money (pun intended). There is a fascinating but dangerous assumption in the nonprofit community (and those who fund it) that money for programming is legitimate and money for administration, including salaries, is less so. And often, Board members and staff are apologetic when speaking about compensation. Why?

Corporate society assumes that good products and programs are the result of smart people who envision, plan, execute and manage them effectively. It recognizes that if its best people are not compensated appropriately they will leave or become disaffected (and thus less effective) or both. Why should these assumptions be different in a nonprofit environment? Sadly, there's likely something else at work: we value the contributions of nonprofit managers less than those of for-profit workers. Perhaps we think that arts administrators should be motivated by their love for the arts. Of course, many are and should be, but can Board leaders of arts organizations -- individuals who often have been asked to serve in part for their business skills -- truly believe that this is enough?

I've often been puzzled why it is that smart, market-savvy business executives and community leaders who go on nonprofit Boards set aside so many of the tried-and-true principles that serve them so well in the for-profit world. Board members should fight for budgets that pay the arts organization's best managers fairly, and expect the expertise and accountability that they demand of their own companies' employees. And arts staff should stop apologizing for the (miniscule) increases they factor into their budgets for administration each year.

Unfortunately, I think that Rosenbaum is right. I don't think today's young people will be as accepting of the inevitability of being underpaid to work in nonprofit arts organizations. They simply won't take these jobs; or they'll say 'yes,' with stars in their eyes, and exit early. The loss will be ours.


Magpie said...

Fascinating. I've been in n-f-p arts management for 20 years now and I'm still rather appalled at the salaries. We hire people who are usually grateful for the job and the salary is fine, for a while. What's really hard is hiring someone who's been in the corporate sector and really wants to transition in, but we pay so much less (like 25-30% less). Part of it is the mindset from above - a boss who has no life outside the organization, no family, no obligations, and doesn't really care whether he himself gets paid.

Clara said...

Thanks for your comment. It really is a shame. And it doesn't seem like changes are in the offing. I was a nfp arts administrator 25 years ago and ultimately left because of the lack of resources (not just the compensation, but the inability to effect the kind of change that I wanted to see with the resources available.) If you want to read some good commentary on the Hewlett report, visit http://www.artsjournal.com/sandow/2007/05/scathing_report.html