The Delicate Balancing Act of Artistic and Executive Directors
By Gavin Larsen
When Lourdes Lopez began dancing in the New York City Ballet in 1974, she saw firsthand how the energy of George Balanchine’s creative genius and Lincoln Kirstein’s passionate, yet business-minded motivation wove together to put their shared ideals onstage. “Mr. B would say ‘Free tickets for everybody!’ and Lincoln would say, ‘Well, we can’t quite do that…,’” she recalls. “I witnessed that partnership between them, and whether it worked behind closed doors, did they agree, disagree, like each other, hate each other, that I don’t know. What I do know is that the company flourished. I think often about that relationship.”
As the recently appointed artistic director of Miami City Ballet, Lopez has an inspiring set of role models to refer to. But she takes the reins of MCB amidst controversy: the company’s founder and long-time artistic director, Edward Villella, reluctantly resigned under pressure from the board of trustees, who had also previously reorganized the administrative structure, relieving Villella of his title of CEO and designating that a newly hired executive director report directly to the board.
Although times have changed significantly for the arts since Balanchine and Kirstein joined forces in the 1940s, the model those two men established for the administration of the American dance company remains: an artistic director reigning over the creative wing of the organization, an executive director administering the business side of things, and a board of directors to ensure fiscal responsibility. Too Often an imbalance between the artistic and the executive arms of a company develops … especially when the push-pull dynamic between the innately challenging artistic director and executive director positions becomes overwrought. What can both partners do to work together and move forward?often an imbalance between those arms of a company develops, (as may have happened in Miami where rumors of tense arm-wrestling between Villella and the board swirled) especially when the push-pull dynamic between the innately challenging AD and ED positions becomes overwrought. The result of an overly tense AD/ED relationship can rarely lead to anything other than serious difficulty for the dance company as a whole: dissolution of the artistic product, financial instability, or even, tragically, both. But like a strong marriage or a grand pas de deux, many such partnerships do thrive. But they take hard work, skillful communication, and an evolving collegial relationship.
What does each of those partners grasp about the other’s job? What gives them the empathy to work in concert, trust each other, and keep their companies not just alive but vibrant? What characteristics do they have and what skills do they employ? Examining the leadership of several dance companies (and considering variations on the traditional organizational model) may help answer these questions about the delicate dance in the administrative branch.
The Artistic/Executive Director Dynamic
Every artistic or executive director recognizes that, as Washington Ballet Executive Director Peter Branch puts it, “The very nature of our jobs inevitably puts us into an adversarial construct. The artistic director needs to be an individual of limitless vision and imagination, and the executive director is charged with budgetary oversight, which is based in the realities of financial and resource limits. The AD is thus the yes man and the ED is the no man.” Overcoming that inevitability is not impossible, however, and it need not preclude the two individuals from forging a genuinely supportive partnership. Starting with recognition that the goals of each cannot be reached without the other, developing (or hanging onto) respect and empathy would appear to be job number one for an AD/ED team.
Building a Partnership
That empathy can develop in a number of ways (it may already naturally exist between two particular people before they take on their positions, for example), but, ultimately, this partnership can only be truly fruitful if certain circumstances exist: sincere trust and belief in the other’s expertise and abilities; embrace of a clear mission for both the organization and the individuals; and a close working relationship with constant and open communication. Interestingly, none of these elements can exist without the cultivation and maintenance of the others.
Hubbard Street Dance Executive Director Jason Palmquist and Artistic Director Glenn Edgerton, a team since 2009 (Palmquist started at the company in 2007), have clear priorities: the mission of the company comes first, and the strength of their relationship is critical to serving that mission. Jason Palmquist says: “The relationship between artistic and executive director is perhaps the most vital one for any organizations’ success, and as such, requires constant attention and care. Simply put, it’s my responsibility to ensure we have the resources to support Glenn’s artistic vision for the institution, though I have the luxury of an artistic partner who appreciates it’s not possible to separate our revenue environment from the artistic decision-making process.” The two directors’ habit of daily check-ins with each other, however informal (“even to just see how each other’s day is going,” says Palmquist), both on the road and at home in Chicago, has deepened their mutual understanding and support of the other’s efforts. Edgerton says, “We keep each other informed of all areas of concern. I make sure I know enough about any situation to put myself in another’s shoes.”
At Miami City Ballet, Lourdes Lopez and Dan Hagerty have only been working together as artistic and executive directors, respectively, for a few months, but they already have a strong sense of mutual respect. That allows them to focus on supporting each other, as opposed to delineating battle lines. Lopez explains her philosophy: “As an AD, you can’t think, ‘It’s all about me,’ because you are programming for your audiences, your dancers, your community. An ED can’t think, ‘It’s about me making this company strong,’ because it has two avenues: everyone comes together to create a mission. The AD creates a vision around that mission, and the ED helps put that vision in place.” Hagerty agrees: “Ultimately, as ED, I am doing what I do because I believe in the artistic mission and the quality that Lourdes oversees. There would be no need for my job were it not for the art — that’s the nature of a mission-driven organization. But we also recognize that one cannot exist without the other, and to be successful, we must have a mature and honest partnership.”
In his ten years as AD of Oregon Ballet Theatre, Christopher Stowell (who resigned in December of 2012) worked with three different EDs, as well as spending a period of time serving in both capacities. In December, he resigned from the company, but will continue to stage works and choreographer there on occasion. He’s come to believe that two key ingredients in an effective partnership are a natural compatibility and respect for each other’s roles. “You’re going to have to be a united front, so you have to understand each other’s communication style, almost be able to finish each other’s sentences — you need a comfortable rapport. So that’s the first thing. Then, the inherent difficulty for the ED is that the AD gets to be the ‘star,’ and that can be difficult. It needs to be discussed, probably repeatedly, and I try to remember to ask them periodically how they’re doing with that and make sure they get their moment as well. Not that they’re doing it for the glory, but the ED needs to be seen as the ‘star’ as well, not just as the finance person.” Stowell’s decision to leave OBT was startling to the dance world, given the decade he’d invested in cultivating it artistically and financially, steering it through serious turmoil in the process. The organization’s inability to attract — and retain — an ED with whom he could forge that comradeship he describes, as well as the board’s decision to downsize the company he worked to build, may well have been among the reasons for his resignation.
Knowledge breeds respect, and the more an AD or ED knows about the job of their “other half,” the better they’re able to work in tandem with each other. Lopez has worn both hats and has a unique perspective: after retiring from NYCB, she was executive director of the George Balanchine Foundation and then co-founded and briefly directed Morphoses with Christopher Wheeldon. She knows only too well how it is to be the bean-counter, but also that the finances cannot drive the mission of the company. “As an ED, first and foremost, you have to love the art form. Nothing is easy in the arts, and it is truly about passion. You can’t come at it from a completely business point of view — well, you can, but part of you has to be artistic. In terms of an AD, the more you know about budgets, the cost of things, governance, marketing, PR, development — the better off you are. Because you’re going to be pulled into all these departments, you want to make sure that all those aspects are part of your vision, of the branding of your organization. And if you don’t understand marketing, you’re not going to be able to have your voice heard. The more experience you have, the better off you are.”
Zenetta Drew and Ann Williams, executive and artistic directors of Dallas Black Dance Theater, follow a slightly different philosophy. Drew came into her position as ED with nearly no knowledge of dance, nor any particular interest in it. Targeted for her business expertise (an accounting degree and a career in the oil industry), a board member of the then-fledgling company in 1987 came to her with a plea for help in writing a government grant. Drew agreed to volunteer for two days to assist. Williams, recovering from a serious car accident and struggling to keep the dance company she had founded alive, realized she had no interest in running her company’s business — nor in acquiring the necessary knowledge to do so. She suggested to Drew that they team up, and seeing an opportunity to advance in the non-profit sector in a way she couldn’t in the corporate world, Drew accepted. “From day one, having met me only once, she turned over 100 percent business authority,” says Drew. “All contracts, all check-signing, all financial decisions, all fund-raising. Whether I could do it or not. So the first thing we agreed on was that there had to be ultimate respect, trust, between the two of us … that each person is capable of meeting that particular side of the need. Which meant that although I didn’t know anything about dance, or her personally (I didn’t have a clue), I had to trust that she was as good as her reputation said she was, and she had to trust that I was as good on the business side — and that the two of us, together, were going to make the mission of DBDT our ultimate objective. For any two business associates, the objective always has to be the mission of the organization.”
Although these two directors have chosen to remain more independent in their respective spheres, the underlying principles of mutual trust, focus on a common goal, and frequent, honest communication still guide them. What distinguishes the DBDT model from others is the major emphasis on clear job descriptions and personal responsibility, which Drew says is necessary for their organization to stay afloat.
“There are very clear lines and job descriptions in our organization, and we’ve also created a mission for every segment of the organization,” Drew explains. “So not only do you have to be within your job description, you also can’t be outside your mission. My mission [as ED] has nothing to do with the dance, so I can’t talk about the choreography or the execution. When the checks come in, the programs and facilities are there, and the art is produced in a professional matter, I’ve done my job. The AD has one job, to make sure the artistic programs are excellent, and all we know is that when the audience gives a standing ovation, she has done her job. The dancers have one job, and that is to deliver the dance. The board’s job is to raise money and provide fiduciary oversight. The conversation and organization gets out of focus when people are outside of the scope of the responsibilities they are supposed to provide.”
The daily working structure of DBDT clearly works extremely well — for them: over its 36 years of existence, the company has grown into a $2.3 million budget with 12 dancers, a second company, a new facility, a 50-member board, and carries no debt. But this arrangement was born of unique circumstances and individuals, and would not necessarily work as well for another company. A beautiful thing about dance companies is that they are built of people for art, but all dance is created differently, must be curated differently, and must stay relevant to its artists and its community. Each company’s organizational aesthetic, so to speak, will be as unique as its dancers, and as its artistic and executive directors.
Stowell, while at OBT, helped steer that company through nearly ten years of reorganization, transition, and growth, and feels the experience was informative. He worked to create a more collaborative organization based on the strengths of the people involved, including the EDs, and felt that one of his biggest achievements was instituting regular, open dialogue between departments and positions within them about what OBT needed to do as a whole. He thinks that often EDs who come from a strictly corporate background feel uncomfortable with this type of fluidity. “I saw the immediate benefits to opening up the conversation beyond just myself and the ED. I think some EDs have a background of ‘the leaders figure it out and then tell people ”this is what we’re doing,”’ but I really pushed to continue to include people. Especially in a not-very-big organization, it’s important that everyone feels included and valued, that their work is vital to the all-encompassing team effort, and that the heads aren’t just telling them what to do. The real route to success is about relationships.”
Conflict and Resolution
Every directorship team acknowledges that conflict will happen — and almost always, it will be about money. Whether it’s developing a budget, negotiating dancers’ contracts, haggling over administrative staffing, pushing to make a big tour financially feasible or courting a choreographer, the pressure will mount if the artistic or administrative branch (or both) of a company feel squeezed. We’ve heard how important empathy and open communication is to successful AD/ED teams, and here’s where it really comes into play. The number one strategy for preventing and resolving conflict? Talk it out.
For Stowell at OBT, weekly time for meetings is “sacred.” At Hubbard Street, Palmquist and Edgerton make a daily connection even when the company’s on tour. In Miami, despite citing time “or lack thereof” as one of their biggest challenges, Hagerty says that in addition to setting aside regular time for him and Lopez to meet privately, he tries to connect with her artistically as well. “I am trying to dedicate some time each week to being in the studio. Watching Lourdes teach class or run rehearsal, even if only for a few minutes, reminds me of what all the hard work is for.”
Establishing a connection on a more than superficial level makes the difficult conversations easier. “Putting together a budget for next season was a fantastic lesson for both of us — and was an opportunity for us to learn more deeply about the organization, and each other,” says Hagerty, “Tackling the budget brought us together, forcing us to ask very difficult questions and make difficult mutual decisions as well. We always begin with a frank conversation, and know that the other will not share sensitive information.”
Similarly, when Hubbard Street was in negotiations with its dancers over salaries, Palmquist and Edgerton were tested. But through open conversations about the issues and recognition by all parties of their dedication to the overall good of the company, they were able to resolve things amicably. Both directors emphasize that not only is putting the company first critical to solving problems, it also helps on a personal level: “The point for me is that none of these issues is personal, and that there’s a solution to be found if you keep the dialogue going. By working together and cutting away any old habits of ‘us and them,’ we recognize that we’re all part of one company, heading in the same direction — then real progress can occur,” says Edgerton. “Dance companies have to encourage one hand to meet the other, to coordinate around methods that are sustainable and progressive for the art form.”
With organization-wide agreement on a very clear trajectory for the company, and the compulsion of everybody involved to support that path, the likelihood of major disagreements or conflicts arising lessens considerably. Palmquist notes that he and Edgerton have worked hard to create an environment of trust and personal responsibility. “Everyone wants what’s best for Hubbard Street. A clear vision for the future helps make sure we’re all in alignment, and we resolve our differences in ways that recognize our collective duty to put our organizational needs first. As a result, fewer disagreements arise in the first place.”
A recurring side-note from every artistic or executive director has stressed the reliance of not only the company’s well-being, but the ability of the AD and ED to function as a team in working with its board of directors. As the precise chain of command or organizational flow will vary according to a company’s distinct needs, so will the degree and nature of the board’s involvement. But inevitably, without a strong, supportive, and selfless board, the AD and ED marriage will hit some snags.
Lopez stresses the importance of the board backing up the efforts of the AD and ED: “We’re only two human beings, and the board has got to be passionately involved in more than a sense of just going to the meetings. There’s so much focus on the AD/ED relationship, but one has to look at the role of the board and their support, because that’s really crucial to the organization. It’s not just the AD, the ED, the dancers. It’s all of us, and we’re only as strong as our weakest link.”
Stowell agrees. “It all hinges on the board,” he says. “The unfortunate thing that happens is that there are periods of time when the board is more supportive of the AD or the ED, and that’s rough. That’s where the test of the relationship comes in: the AD and ED need to get the board to embrace them each equally. We need to share each other’s challenges and hang onto each other’s values.”
And that’s what the board wants and needs to see as well. Dean Richardson has served on the board of OBT since 2007 as well as on the boards of numerous other dance and nonprofit organizations. He’s seen what can happen when the relationship between two directors is disharmonious. “When conflicts arise, the ED and AD need to themselves establish a means of resolving their conflict with the best interests of the company, not their respective positions, as the goal. They need to be committed to win-win and not win-lose dispute resolution. If they run to a board member or the board to champion their position, it is a recipe for dysfunction. Inevitably, they will throw the other under the bus to win their position and trust is lost.”
The artistry onstage is the public face of a company, but it is far from the only dance being performed. What the audience sees is only the result of the grand, delicate pas de deux of two people behind the scenes, whose trust in one another, commitment, passion, and strength must equal that of any dancer. Instead of performing onstage, they find gratification in furthering the mission of their company, as a couple, and in putting their art form ahead of themselves. Their mutual success depends on their substance, maturity, and wisdom, and regardless of the shape or form of their relationship, nurturing it is vitally important.
Jason Palmquist: “To not give it the care and attention it deserves will put any organization in peril. I honestly can’t think of an example of a dysfunctional relationship between an artistic and administrative leader that didn’t negatively impact their entire enterprise. At the same time, I can’t think of a situation where a healthy relationship between people in those roles didn’t create a better environment for artists.”
A partnership means working in tandem, separately yet in concert, supporting each other, and making the other better than they ever could be on their own, always with an eye to the reason for being. Miami’s Dan Hagerty says: “When there is a choice between making an artistic concession or an administrative one, I would try to prioritize the art first whenever possible. Mission first.”
Gavin Larsen danced professionally with Oregon Ballet Theatre, The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, Alberta Ballet, and Pacific Northwest Ballet. She retired from full-time performing in 2010 to focus on teaching, coaching, and writing about dance. Her articles and essays have been published in Dance Magazine, Pointe, Dance Teacher, Dance Spirit, and the Threepenny Review. She lives in Portland, Ore., where she is on the faculty of the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre.
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