Leadership Corner: Sixto Wagan, Director, Center for Arts Leadership, University of Houston


Editor’s note: From the Green Room continues its feature, Leadership Corner, disseminating the voices and experiences of leaders in the professional dance field across the United States. Comments or discussion can be posted below or on our Facebook page.

Sixto Wagan is the inaugural director for the Center for Arts Leadership at the University of Houston.  Prior to this role, he led the Houston-based presenting and commissioning organization DiverseWorks Artspace as artistic director, co-executive director and performing arts curator. During his tenure, he nurtured artists, communities and emerging arts organizations through commissions, professional development programs, and place-based initiatives. Wagan is known for collaborating with performers whose works tackle prescient cultural, social, and political issues. He currently serves on the boards of Dance/USA and Dance Source Houston, and serves on committees for the Texan-French Alliance for the Arts and the Greater Houston Partnership. He has served as a Hub Site for the National Dance Project, on the boards of the National Performance Network, QFest, and The MacDowell Colony. Wagan has served as panelist and advisor to many foundations and government arts agencies, and he has been twice awarded for dance presenting in Houston. 

Dance/USA: You have relatively recently taken a position as director of the University of Houston’s Center for Arts Leadership. Tell me a bit about your work there.

Sixto Wagan: A friend shared this definition with me: leadership is anyone at the front end of change. At the Center for Arts Leadership, we look at leadership not just in a hierarchical model but also as communal and collaborative. It’s about individuals and community and how the center can take a leadership role in the trajectory of the lives and community of Houston. 

Our students in the masters in arts leadership program are a combination of recent university graduates and people who have experience in the arts or even different fields and are now looking to move into arts leadership. I think that combination [in the classroom] allows both to enjoy and learn from each other.

D/USA: What are the major issues you see in leadership in the arts today?

SW: In Houston one of the things we have recently come to recognize is that the diversity of Houston is representative of how the rest of our cities will look in 20 to 30 years. So the question becomes: how do we overcome challenges in dealing with our increasingly diverse cities and communities, not only from an audience development aspect but also as a leadership development issue. Simultaneously, and not necessarily separate, we have to address developments in technology and new media. Technology is giving a whole new generation the access to create, find new audiences, and relate to their public in new ways. So with technology, the gateway to performance has changed, how do we key into that as artists?

For the center, we try to model these programs through research, the convening of large groups of people in the field, and small focus groups. We use this information to identify better questions and create frameworks for investigation. These actions happen at our summits and other gatherings. 

We also look at the positives, the democratizers and the conflicts. Then there are the issues around creative placemaking in a city that is continuing to grow and change. How can artists empower themselves by looking at creative economies in more detail and with greater insight? It leads to a question around conflict between non-profit and for-profit models: is it a binary? How can we learn from each and move forward in new ways? 

D/USA: You trained as a teacher and taught high school English in your first job. What skills or resources that you developed from teaching are relevant to your work as an arts leader?

SW: My experience and degree are both in curriculum development. For me it was always about creating a multidisciplinary approach – in the classroom and in the arts world. It was always about how people learn, hear, and see differently based on their experience and background. Here at the center, we’re trying to address multi-modal learning. We’re trying to address how not everybody hears and reads and sees the same thing because of cultural difference, language background, and other factors. We’re looking for ways to address cultural background and understanding in how we teach leadership. The center doesn’t go into discipline-specific factors because we recognize that people from across sectors can engage in our field in the best ways they can, that they can learn from others in other disciplines and from other backgrounds. We’re hoping to move leadership training forward in those ways.

D/USA: What skills do arts leaders of the next generation need?

SW: We’ve gone through a period of professionalization in the past decade or more. Everyone should have a working knowledge of business practice in terms of budgeting, accounting, and strategic planning. When it gets down to arts leaders, though, it’s not just having those skills, but knowing how to translate those skills into viable programming. In our center, we’re not just skills-based, it’s not only about acquiring practical knowledge, but it’s about  having a vision to realize, it’s about moving toward a vision and all that that entails. We try to look at larger problems and issues that require long-term development of solutions.

D/USA: Your work was described in a recent publication   as investigating “radical leadership.” Do you feel that the work you do or the methods you use are radical in any way?

SW: I don’t look at it that way. What we’re doing as an advanced arts leadership program is very much based in my own experience as a former arts leader and educator. It is trying to approach leadership not as a hierarchical model but as a model for equalizing across disciplines and publics.

D/USA: There’s an old adage that leaders aren’t made, they’re born. Can we teach leadership?

SW: Absolutely. We have to teach and develop leadership if we are to assure a model that reflects our current and future communities. We are talking about responsive leadership, which acknowledges that learning is not uni-directional. If we assume the model of born leadership, we ignore the consequence of how people raised in other cultures contribute to our society. We ignore the presence in our society of inequities that still exist. If we develop leadership, we will then see that leaders can come from the unlikeliest places. By understanding and responding to others’ experiences, we expand the capacities of our organizations to lead in our increasingly diverse environment. If we assume leaders are born, we will only get what we already have.

D/USA: What would you like to see from our next generation of arts leaders?

SW: I would like to see increasing diversity in our leaders and recognize what that could bring into our field. I also want new leaders to recognize that they have opportunities to work in the field at different points during their careers. They have skills that can be used in a variety of workplaces. Maybe they may work in the arts and culture field or with the local community in religious or education organization. The result is that by leaving and returning we are broadening the skills and knowledge of our leaders. I would like to see more cross disciplinary connections, see our arts leaders work in other enterprises. We should not only be a part of one genre or style. This will increase our diversity. We’re not there yet, but in our program at the center ….. that’s an aspiration. 

D/USA: What do you see as the main issues the dance field is facing now?

SW: First, I think that dancers and choreographers are some of the savviest artists I know. The work that they do translates language and cultures for a broad range of audiences. We have to understand how we can take advantage of opportunities and settings beyond just the concert hall and beyond what we know as entertainment. And there are ways between these two poles if we are going to create art across a spectrum. It’s about the impact art can make and the harnessing of opportunity to do that. It is exciting and it’s going to be a catalyst of new innovations in the field.

The other issue we are facing is that part of our task is to be able to tell our stories and to find our advocates within ourselves and in our communities. At the center we are advocating in all areas, political, social on the local and national levels. We want to increase the opportunities for arts education, we also want to see that all artists have the ability to make a life based on their artistic practice. 

Interviewer Lisa Traiger edits From the Green Room, Dance/USA’s online journal, and is an award-winning arts journalist who writes frequently on dance and the performing arts for a variety of publications, including Dance, Dance Teacher and Washington Jewish Week.

Photo courtesy Sixto Wagan

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