Where We’re Headed: A Grad Student’s Point of View

A behind the scenes look at the organizational culture responsible for Hulu’s massive success.

I’m currently studying arts administration in the context of an MBA program. At the end of my first week last fall, I remember noticing that Apple had already been mentioned in every one of my core business classes. The massive success of companies like Apple, Google, and Hulu (see above), the current speed at which start-ups nationwide are generating new products and apps, and the separate but related DIY/pro-am movement in the creative sector has led to a collective cultural focus on innovation and change.  No doubt, it’s not just MBAs who want in. Young people entering the non-profit arts crave the same excitement and sense of creation, and often assume they’ve chosen a field conducive to that.

But that’s not always the case. The Next Gen Arts Leaders Quick Poll conducted by ArtsFwd a few months back gave voice to the frustration young arts administrators feel when their ideas aren’t heard and their organizations aren’t flexible. It was no surprise that “80% of next generation leaders who self-reported working in highly innovative organizations see their organization as ‘one they’d want to move up in,’ as compared to only 38% in non- or slightly innovative organizations.”

I imagine this problem is compounded for graduate students of arts administration. Whether it’s an MBA, MFA, MA, or MS, such students have taken time out of their lives to study and reflect deeply on how to be better leaders in the arts. In addition to gathering hard skills in finance, policy, curation, and management, they’ve also likely been reading and debating about organizations that work and those that don’t, about trends in creating and presenting art, about exciting work being done around the world. The need for change and innovation in our field is reinforced day after day in such programs, whether directly or indirectly. And yet, as graduates, few will find themselves in a position to do much about it in the short-run if they work for established institutions. In fact, in a course on business strategy, only one student raised their hand as having participated in strategic planning conversations in their previous place of employment. Will that change when we graduate?

I think so, for two main reasons. First, there’s a mass of new arts administrators who have been raised on the blogosphere and academia’s incessant dialogue of change in the arts (personally speaking, the words of Greg Sandow and his ilk—however controversial—ring in my ears every day). Though we haven’t necessarily been taught to make our voices heard, and probably can’t be, being a team player, studying the organization rigorously, and making smart, creative decisions can go a long way to getting that proverbial seat at the table and having the opportunity to implement new ideas. And sure, depending on an individual organization’s structure, recent graduates will sometimes have to work harder and with more than a little chutzpah to get to that seat as fast as they’d like.

Second, organizational structures are evolving away from traditional top-down models, making room for innovation from the ground up. I like this quote from Bill George, the Harvard Business School professor and former CEO of Medtronic:

“The hierarchical leadership style that was so prevalent in the 20th century is no longer effective. Today’s successful organizations are filled with knowledge workers who don’t respond to hierarchical leadership. Command-and-control leaders are finding it difficult to motivate those workers who are closest to the needs of the communities they serve and are ill-equipped to take advantage of their knowledge and wisdom.”

In other words, the Google-esque environments that young non-profit arts workers want to be a part of are becoming the norm. If your organization wants a good starting place for inspiration in this direction, check out Hulu’s philosophy. The oft-cited Trey McIntyre Project is also a good example of this new, democratic, creative organizational model taking hold in the arts. As Jon Michael Schert said in that post, arts organizations, by nature of their product, should be the one’s leading the way in new business models. Still, even if non-profits continue to look at for-profit models of success as they have in the past, it is clear the change is coming.


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