Practical Tips for Arts Leaders

By Michael Killoren

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Photo by Jennifer Richard

Are you an emerging arts leader? I’ve been at it for more than two decades, working in local arts agencies and observing trends and best practices nationwide, first as an officer of the U.S. Urban Arts Federation, and most recently as the director of the Local Arts Agencies program at the NEA. From all of that experience, I’ve learned a lot along the way. Here are a few biggies that have stayed with me, and that I’d like to share:

* Provide opportunity: To paraphrase Kevin Spacey, “Those who have made it to the top have a responsibility to send the elevator back down.” There were many points in my career when someone gave me an opportunity. It’s important for current leaders to provide opportunity for the next generation. Sometimes you just have to take a chance and believe in someone.

* Perspiration. Opportunity is one thing; but making the most of that opportunity is taking it to the next level. That means demonstrating a willingness to work hard, to take on a variety of tasks in order to learn the job, and absorb as much as you possibly can about how things work in the organization. If it’s a good fit, you’ll find joy in the work, and have fun along the way, and hopefully end up in a position to send that elevator back down.

* All arts is local (to paraphrase Tip O’Neill). The most important (yet least talked about) skill required to successfully run a local arts agency is political management—both the small “p” and capital “P”. Local arts agency leaders must also develop and fine-tune their “translation” skills to represent arts and culture interests to various non-arts interests. A passion for the arts, and knowledge of the arts is essential for a local arts agency leader. Add political management skills to the mix, and hopefully, the resulting alignment can yield greater support for arts and culture in a community.

* No isn’t no until it’s yes.

* Sweat the small stuff. In the local public policy arena at least, gains are usually incremental. But over time, small gains can be cumulative, and ultimately lead to a tipping point, or big changes.

* Change doesn’t happen overnight, but sometimes change (seems like it) happens overnight. Sometimes change is initiated in the form of a simple, galvanizing concept or idea, like a dedicated revenue stream. This idea is often accompanied by a singular and relentless focus. Perseverance and patience (over what may turn out to be many years), coupled with sound, focused strategy, and —voilà!—change, even systemic changes, is possible. 

I once observed a successful community development corporation (CDC) director being asked to share the secret of his success. His answer was two words: “30 years.”

* And speaking of change, everyone loves change, right? Change is always easy—for the person making the change. If you are that person, think hard about the intended consequences, and even harder about the unintended consequences. The best way to do this is to go beyond the security of your inner circle to invite other points of view.

* It’s about artists and the arts: never forget that. Don’t take it personally. It can be draining to work in the administrative side of things, especially in systems that often seem to be designed to say no at every turn. Get thee to a gallery, museum, concert, performance, or community arts event on a regular basis to stay in touch and in tune with what energizes you about the arts!

Don’t be afraid to hire people who are smarter and more knowledgeable than you. Let them help you navigate the way to yes. Give them everything they need to thrive, and get out of their way. 

 two young girls in festive costume dancing with multi-colored fans

An Asian youth group performing onstage at the Living Traditions Festival in Salt Lake City, Utah, produced by the Salt Lake City Arts Council with support from the NEA. Photo by Douglas Barnes Photography

* Arts and culture are bridges of understanding among people. The demographics of this country are changing, and diversity and inclusion are top priorities in most all arts disciplines and in many local communities. Know and reflect the community you serve. Always be aware of who is at the table—and who isn’t at the table. Never stop thinking of ways to be more mindful of the gaps and more inclusive of the community you serve. Be present, and listen.

* Thursday’s newspaper wraps Friday’s fish. I’m not sure how to express this old-school chestnut in the digital age, but know that good leadership will attract both praise and criticism (see change, above). During those tough spots, just remember that this too shall pass. Eventually. (Unless you really screwed up.) And if you did, own it, and never publicly denigrate anyone.

* Let others take ownership. As the arts guy, everyone would expect me to speak out in support of the arts. But when the transportation director or the chief of police would make statements in support of the arts at a mayor’s cabinet meeting—well, that was ten-times more powerful.

* Know when to step forward and know when to step back. Sometimes, it can be more effective to work quietly behind the scenes. At other times, being bold, front, and center is the best position. Regardless, give credit to everyone who deserves recognition—but especially to those folks who aren’t usually in the limelight. And be willing to give up your personal ownership in success altogether—no matter where the idea originated—if it advances the goal.

* Finally, be humble and maintain a healthy sense of humor. Humor can cut through to the real issues and dynamics, and can also help diffuse tension. It’s also a good sign of balance, because you can’t be too serious or too intense all of the time. A good network of trusted confidants will also help keep you balanced and in check.

Good luck!