Tuesday, November 8, 2005

November 08, 2005

HESSENIUS GROUP 3 online now.

Hello everybody.

"And the beat goes on.................."

This week's participants include:
Ben Cameron - Theater Communications Group
Shelley Cohn - former Executive Director of the Arizona Arts Commission
Moy Eng - Hewlett Foundation
Nancy Glaze - Packard Foundation
Sam Miller - LINK

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As the baby boomer generation of arts leaders nears retirement from the field, how do we insure that the storehouse of knowledge, experience, contacts, and understanding (of both the practical aspects of arts administration and the broad policy issues and their implications) is best preserved to the advantage of all of those of us who remain? How do we archive that knowledge and experience so that the maximum number of people can access it in the future?

Shelley Cohn, you've just retired after 21 years in your post as head of the Arizona Arts Commission. What are your thoughts for other leaders who might retire in the near term:

Now that I am actually one of those baby boomers who has retired (for all of three weeks), I have some thoughts on this issue.

Leave a legacy of your values and information both practical and conceptual through mentoring of staff members and students before you leave; I chose a time to leave when there was a firm foundation and relative calm with the legislature giving a new leader time to get their grounding.

Be available after you leave, but don't be a shadow expecting to influence decision making and direction as you did before you left.  Support the new and emerging leadership on their terms, not yours; speak when asked and avoid imposing yourself when not asked.

This transition has actually been very liberating on both sides. I have seen the remaining staff demonstrate their maturity and knowledge, taking responsibility and initiative, that maybe I stood unintentionally in the way of when I was there. We are very respectful, exploring new boundaries. Neither the staff nor the board nor the retiree has the chance to practice these changes. I am the only person who had residence in my particular space (for 21 years as director and 30 years at the agency).

Where I might have been fearful about how the work would move forward, I am pleased by the initiative of both the staff and the board.

I also know that there is energy around dealing with issues that I had begun to find tedious and irritating or too much trouble. I see others dealing with those issues for the first time with positive energy and an ability to make lemonade where I had begun to be satisfied with lemons.

Trust and be calm have been among my annual resolutions throughout my career in state arts agency work. Those qualities are still at work through this transition.

Sage advice Shelley. Now how do we make sure your three decades of arts experience and all that you have learned during that time is somehow preserved and not lost to the future? Sam, can we do that?

I'm not sure you can. It would be nice if this generation of leaders could transition from active to emeritus roles within their respective organizations but there would probably be a bit of resistance to this idea - lack of space, lack of funds, previous leaders looking over the shoulder of new leaders - that sort of thing, but maybe, in some cases, they could be placed at aligned or proximinate academic institutions where they could teach (or team teach) a course informed by their experience.

It would also be nice to imagine these leaders "downloaded" into interactive databases - some material available to all, some password protected and restricted to the organization(s) connected to this leader. This material could include oral history, previous writings, annotated publications (maybe even board minutes), and a timeline documenting key events, etc. This idea assumes that organizations are maintaining instituitional histories, that might also need to be encouraged.

I could also imagine commissioning some time-based cultural histories that would not be institutionally specific, sort of like Edmund Wilson's review of literature by decades (the Twenties, Thirties, etc). These would capture and contextualize the movement of people, ideas, and policies across and between institutional practice - the CETA Years, Dance Touring, the legacy of American Dialogue, Backstage at the Ford Foundation - that sort of thing.

And then a series of dialogues at field convenings might be fun - multiple leaders could look back with some facilitated rigor and then these could be documented and disseminated.

Moy, you've thought about this a lot, what's your take on this?

The decentralized nature of the US nonprofit arts sector has enabled the proliferation of artmaking of staggering breadth and diversity. Yet that decentralized nature coupled with low salaries have conspired against the creation of a system to develop and nurture leaders. Yes, there are a handful of respected arts administration and nonprofit management university programs to train potential new managers. I graduated from one of them: the master program in arts administration at New York University which melded the study of nonprofit arts management practice with M.B.A. training. And there are also a number of good management intensives for professionals. That said, the development of leadership remains informal, decentralized and fragmented.

Could we create an organization or program that could comprehensively address the issue of leadership development from "cradle to grave": training, professional development, regular forums for conversations, networking, coaching throughout arts manager's careers, archiving of e- and print-resources on arts and culture from performance studies to cultural policy to arts management "how tos"? And could we capture the power of technology in this effort?

Riffing off of Sam's response, perhaps we could share the knowledge and experience of our elders through live interviews and conversations over the net - of those who played a pivotal role on critical issues over the past sixty years such as the 1990s politicization and demonization of contemporary artists, 1970s appearance of identity-centered art: African-American, Chicano, Asian, Queer film and live arts, and 1980s emergence of performance art, fusion and mixed genre work. A combination of contemporary arts, US history and leadership development. These conversations could be recorded live and then virtually housed within an organization centered on cultural policy, leadership, nonprofit sector and scholarship such as Harvard University and the Leveraging Investments in Creativity initiative. Supplementing this effort could be written essays by mature and mid-career individuals addressing critical historical matters, contemporary issues and future trends.

There might also be a way to create and link on-line a network of mature leaders in the field with mid-career and younger individuals working in the field. Using the net this way could provide e-coaching: immediate access to experts across the country (if not internationally) for problems from how I do gracefully transition a board of directors which is comprised of fatigued board members to successful advocacy strategies on easing visa application practices for international artists appearing in the US and US artists performing and teaching in Canada.

Nancy, didn't the Packard Foundation fund a program that addresses this issue?

For the past six years, Bill Moskin and Jill Jackson, with funding from the Packard Foundation, have been exploring ways to nurture the next generation of arts leaders. The program that was created, Arts Leadership for the Future, includes the use of world-class mentors (all boomers) and hands-on problem solving. This model program mines the knowledge of the old-timers and combines it with the fresh thinking of the newcomers.

Apart from the problem of funding various projects that might deal with this issue, finding the right leadership to shepard them, and figuring out how to sustain those efforts, let's explore a little further the ideas of using virtual space to preserve a knowledge / experience base, of assembling those who are making an exit at conferences where they might share some of that knowledge, of peer network mentoring, and the idea of some sort of journal that captures (in the retirees own words) their experience in specific areas. Any thoughts about how we might move on any of these approaches?

Frankly, this question leaves me of two minds. Especially in a technologically driven age, there seems to be no shortage of options--this blog being a prime example--of forums in which people can leave their thoughts and opinions to posterity. Between blogs, self-created websites, home video cameras, in-house archives and more, there are many opportunities to commit thoughts and practices to paper, e-espace, video and more.

The real challenges to me increasingly are as follows:
1) The plethora of options has a downside--as Deguid and Brown said in their book THE SOCIAL LIFE OF INFORMATION (and I paraphrase here), in this information age, we are drowning in information and starved for wisdom. How do we sort through the increasingly deafening white noise?--a direct reflection of...

2) Time. Who has time to record these thoughts in a meaningful way, and who has time to read/view them? I'll be absolutely frank here: while I am deeply grateful to my predecessors here, I have yet--after almost eight years on the job--to delve into their files and documents. In this moment when the pressure is on us to hit the ground running, who has the time to sort through that same increasing volume of paper, websites, and more?

3) Isn't legacy most strongly felt in the work left behind and the relationships that we make and create in our work? While there is much I respond to in both Moy and Sam's suggestions, the idea of yet another organization makes me a bit weary, and I wonder whether the issue isn't more that we think differently about our roles in our daily lives as active mentors, transmitting what we know on a daily basis, passing along our work and thoughtfully engaging others. Are we willing to think differently about how we structure the time of our leaders, encouraging them, for example, to be constantly active in teaching--at least in an adjunct capacity--on a fairly regular basis? Can we take seriously to heart Shelley's suggestions even before we contemplate transitions or retirement? Perhaps if we think about transmission of information as an exit or retirement moment, we are missing the proverbial boat: any commemoration of ideas or insights that are committed to paper/video/etc., are at best reminders of the lessons that have already been transmitted in an ongoing way through the work the leader has done, through the relationships the leader has developed, the example the leader has set.

I totally agree with Ben on the issue of who, new to their jobs, has the time and inclination to delve through the written documentation of an organization, particularly when it is not organized to share knowledge and insights.

At the same time, there is need to provide some documentation that provides context and is presented in a meaningful (rather than stream of conscious) way.

I am looking forward to the book initiated by the Ohio Arts Council and Ohio State University on the first generation of state arts agency directors (from the 60's and 70's). State arts agencies is a new field and the oral histories of these former directors provides an important story about the environment and attitudes in the arts and public sector support of the arts at the beginning of the field.

Another monograph recently published by the Wallace Foundation and writiten by Mark and Galen Moore also provides a very succinct and compelling story about state arts agencies. Until now there really was not a publication that spoke to the history, approaches and policy implications of state arts agency work. Arizona is using this monograph as a key orientation piece for new staff and board members.

You are of course right Ben, about no one having the time, and that there are many ways knowledge can be shared along the way, but I have seen the scenario countless times in individual organizations where new leadership comes in, and spends considerable wasted time repeating the mistakes and re-inventing the programs of a previous administration, and there ought to be some way that we could avoid that waste - if for no other reason, as you point out, we have so little time in the first place. We all share a healthy skepticism of new layers and new organizations, but sometimes it seems to me, another layer might be just what we need. As Shelley points out, the difficulty in availing oneself of past written knowledge is that it remains unorganized - and therefore, largely inaccessible. The question remains how do we share past knowlege to our benefit? How do we preserve the wisdom without the information overload?

I am very much aware and concerned about the generational shift in the field and from a variety of perspectives, including arts practitioners, funders, and those that are assisting and advising the arts. There is a body of knowledge, and perhaps as important, a set of principles and values of a given generation. Not only is the generation changing, but the environment in which everyone is working has changed enormously as well.

One issue for me has been this sense of wanting to download in some way the years of history, experience and stories. At the same time the person or persons on the receiving end has to be interested and ready to hear. The two partners in communication have to be ready for the give and take of the exchange; and the exchange has to go both directions.

Additionally, my generation has to also be aware that some of things that we believe are so precious and vital are not seen in the same way by the next generation. The exchange is an important and sensitive and timely one.

So how do we manage that download, particularly as you and Nancy suggest, there are generational concerns to consider if we want the exercise to be relevant?