Barry Hessenius was worried about leadership.

More specifically, as the former head of the California Arts Council, he was worried about where the next generation of leaders in arts organizations would come from. With baby boomers retiring and fewer workers in the succeeding generation, Hessenius foresaw a fight to recruit new leadership that often-cash-strapped arts organizations would be ill-equipped to wage.

By last spring, Hessenius had transformed his worries into a plan of action with “Involving Youth in Nonprofit Arts Organizations: A Call to Action,” a sixty-two-page study underwritten by the Hewlett Foundation that outlined the problem and proposed some solutions.

Now, after months of barnstorming the state to sound the warning to the current crop of leaders and their boards about the potential crunch, the former arts administrator finds himself guardedly optimistic.

“Sometimes you write these things and everyone says, ‘Hooray!’ and then it sits on a shelf somewhere and that’s the end of it,” Hessenius says. “But I think we touched a chord. Any number of organizations are picking up on it. I don’t know if we’ve reached a tipping point, but we’ve gotten people’s attention.”

He cites places like the San Diego Museum of Art, whose director, after hearing Hessenius speak, recently applied to the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services for a grant to involve more teenagers in her institution.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the Community School of Music and Arts in Mountain View, which hosted a roundtable on the issue with Hessenius, has embarked on a range of actions to cultivate the next generation, including the creation of an advisory group to the school’s board on youth involvement, and making it a focus of a coming board retreat.

And in San Jose, Arts Council Silicon Valley, in conjunction with the national Americans for the Arts, hosted a gathering that brought together young adults curious about a career in arts administration with local arts leaders who shared their own career paths into their work and answered questions.

California’s Challenge

While the problem of recruiting a new generation of leaders may be a national one, some issues unique to California may make it more acute here.

For one thing, Hessenius says, the state has cut funding to the arts to the lowest levels of any state in the nation-about three cents per capita-in recent years. That’s compared to $2.20 per capita in a state like New York. Indeed, the state body Hessenius headed, the California Arts Council, which distributed money for local arts, lost virtually all its state funding in 2005 and has received only a pittance since.

Involving Youth in Nonprofit Arts Organizations

Barry Hessenius’s report has caught the attention of a number of arts organizations.

For another, a decade of cuts to arts education in the schools has created a generation that has little familiarity with dance, theater, and music, let alone a desire to lead organizations supporting them.
When asked whether that knowledge gap has had an impact on engaging a new generation in the arts, Danielle Brazell, the director of Arts for LA, a Los Angeles organization that lobbies government for sound arts policy, is emphatic: “Yes. Absolutely. Without a doubt.”

Nationally, the picture is somewhat better.

Rebecca Borden, manager of professional development at Americans for the Arts in Washington, D.C., is in charge of the group’s efforts to cultivate the next generation of leaders. The group helps organize what it calls “Creative Conversations” like the one in San Jose designed both to cultivate a next generation and connect local arts leaders to a national community. In 2007, Americans for the Arts helped organize forty such conversations in twenty states.

“We’ve been invested in this for eight years and this year, for the first time, about 15 percent of the people who attended our national convention in Las Vegas were emerging leaders,” Borden says. “The number had always been about 5 percent. This year they were on the stage presenting things. It’s like a tipping point. Now I know it’s never going to go away.”

The Interests of a New Generation

Of course, the question of generational succession is more complicated than a new generation simply taking the reins of existing organizations. Borden says she sees a “new ecology” emerging, with new organizations working in new forms like spoken-word poetry, street theater, and media arts. And those organizations, typically led by a new generation of leadership, aren’t necessarily engaged with existing arts organizations.
“It’s going to be fascinating as we move forward,” Borden says. “New leaders and new forms go hand in hand.”

A further change Borden mentions is that for the new generation of leaders multiculturalism and diversity aren’t so much an issue as simply a way of life.

Victoria Saunders, a former staffer with the City of San Diego’s Commission for Arts and Culture and now a private consultant on the arts, agrees that new groups are emerging, but says that often there is a disconnect between them and the existing arts community.

“I don’t think it’s a leadership gap,” she says. “It’s a communications gap.”

One of the efforts underway as she left the city commission earlier this year was to find ways for the more traditional arts community of San Diego to reach out to young artists who were either not part of an organization or perhaps working at for-profit organizations, which is another emerging trend.

“The thing I think we are losing,” she continues, “is advocacy for the arts. The next generation doesn’t seem to know how to participate. They’re not as engaged with the civic organizations that once might have plugged them in. I’d love to see a conference of emerging leaders and potential patrons from all across the state at a conference in one place.”

For Hessenius, who plans to stay engaged with the issue, talking to the emerging leaders themselves is the next step.

“The report focused attention on generational succession,” he says. “Now we need to ask young people what they think and why they do or don’t get into the field of arts administration. I hope that we’re able to get that dialogue going. It might not seem fundamental, but it is. It’s the future.”