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Oh, the times they are a'changing, and it seems like those times just never end. These days, the saying "the more things change, the more they stay the same," seems never more true. Upsetting the comfort of the status quo has now become the norm, and we are seeing a lot of change happening across the entire arts spectrum.

One of the interesting aspects about the shifts now being made in many arts enclaves, is rather than drastic moves, there is a sense of a continuum as well. For instance, with the departure of the lauded Virginia Johnson as artistic director of Dance Theatre of Harlem, the reigns have been turned over to someone with a very long artistic history with the company. There remains a sense of safety and familiarity that has been invited, as well as an encouraging level of freedom for new Artistic Director Robert Garland, to expand his own signature within a company that has been a strong part of his entire dance career. I marvel at this mostly because it is an example of succession planning that has obviously been well thought out.

When Judith Jamison left her post as Artistic Director for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, dancer, choreographer, and former Ailey artist-in-residence Robert Battle was selected by Jamison, and he has served as Artistic Director of the company since 2011. What the changes in both these companies reflect for me is a strategic and thoughtful sense of mentorship and preparation. Both Jamison and Johnson took obvious pride in preparing the next leaders to assure continuity while inviting fresh ideas.

Ailey Associate Artistic Director Matthew Rushing, Artistic Director Robert Battle, and Rehearsal Director Ronni Favors. Photo by Dario Calmese

This kind of thoughtful change doesn't happen enough in the art world in general. Rather, we witness the tight clutch of power that can hinder long-term sustainability. If you are leading an arts organization and have not engaged in the process of strategic replacement, consider the ways in which whatever hard work you may have put into growing and holding the organization might all be lost. Play a positive role in making the needed space for new ideas and next-gen leadership to occur, whether or not you have planned your exit. Legacy organizations can only become such if the past is well honored with a plan for the future. Be the change you want to see!

For further education on the topic, Americans for the Arts put out a report entitled Succession: Arts Leadership for the 21st Century, which you can find on their website.


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