Over the past several months I have had the opportunity to work with Americans for the Arts as a Fellow researching leadership development needs of midcareer arts managers. Inspiration for this work came out of my own questioning of what it means to be midcareer. The larger context for this research is the impending labor shift as pioneers of arts nonprofits, now on the brink of retirement, perceive a dearth of qualified successors. Those ready to take the helm are equally frustrated wondering if the field can foster their leadership aspirations. The concern is exacerbated by census statistics indicating a shrinking labor pool available to replace senior leaders in the next ten years.
The research methodology involved dozens of arts professionals from across the country who participated in roundtable discussions, peer groups, online surveys and one-on-one interviews. These candid discussions with arts managers, funders, educators, consultants, management service providers, and board members, as well as self-identified mid-career arts managers, have allowed me to paint a picture of midcareer leaders.
My conclusion is that the leadership pipeline is underdeveloped and midcareer is the point at which arts professionals seriously question their future in the field. No longer on the steep learning curve of establishing their footing, midcareer managers are experts in their area of focus ranging from mid-level and senior management to Executive Director. Despite their accomplishments a desire for developing management and team leadership skills is unmet. Career paths plateau because organizations lack the resources to offer professional development or career advancement opportunities. This has resulted in a vast migration of professionals moving between organizations in endless pursuit of advancement opportunities. For many it means crisscrossing the country every two to four years.
Most alarming is the belief that Executive Director is the only viable career aspiration for leading the field. Regardless of interest or expertise it was sited repeatedly by research participants as the only way to be involved in the strategic advancement of an organization and to earn a competitive salary. Further concern comes from the need to balance career expectations with life goals such as having the means to start a family and obtain property. When unable to reach these goals many wonder if their future is in the arts. For some the solution has been to career transition into other sectors of nonprofit management or to exit completely. As one interviewee stated, “midcareer is the last opportunity to leave the arts and see if you can make it in the corporate sector.”
Americans for the Arts appreciates your participation, as do I. If you would like to follow up on this research please contact Anne L’Ecuyer, Associate Vice President of Field Services at 202.371.2830.