Aug. 20 2013 08:43 PM

With the old guard entrenched, their careers are stuck in a holding pattern

Clockwise from top left: Whitney Roux, Alexander Jarman, Van Tran, Tyler Hewes
Photos by Justin Hudnall

Events for art patrons are looking pretty good these days: The San Diego Museum of Art (SDMA) just offered up its week-long Summer Break Series, inviting local artists to collaborate with the museum's art and cater to riskier sensibilities; La Jolla Playhouse's Without Walls (WoW) series brings interactive, experimental theater down from the rarified air of La Jolla to public places in urban San Diego; the Museum of Photographic Arts' (MoPA) POP Thursdays brings films, performances and drinks to Balboa Park after hours and new arts spaces like Bread & Salt and Helmuth Projects have been popping up and putting on shows at a speed with which only social media can keep up.

Alongside this uptick in progressive programming, there's been an increasing generational turnover in arts administrators—men and women in their 20s and 30s, often from, or educated in, other cities, largely motivated to work in the arts because of the ability it gives them to effect social change and community engagement: Kait Sewell at Space 4 Art, Whitney Roux of the NTC Foundation, Melissa Pfeiffer at MoPA, Alexander Jarman at SDMA, Van Tran of the San Diego Guild of Puppetry, Erin Decker of La Jolla Playhouse and Tyler Hewes at Mainly Mozart, to name a handful.

Their voices are starting to resonate through the cobwebs of older institutions and the still-wet paint on the new ones.

The thing is, a lot of booms have gone bust in San Diego. As exciting as the prospect of an emerging arts-and-culture renaissance is, it's as tenuous as the willingness of those leading it to stay in the city and in their field, and there are good reasons why they shouldn't do either. 

"I wouldn't be surprised if in 10 years, San Diego didn't have a brain-drain of arts administrators," says Roux, 27. She believes the drivers will be low wages, zero chance of career advancement and a generation of older executives who treat younger leaders as competition.

Other emerging arts leaders echoed her sentiments; what fuels their frustration is the belief that the situation is avoidable.

Lack of funding for arts and, indeed, the entire nonprofit sector, is an age-old problem, but it's far from the only problem. Critics like Dan Palotta, in his TED talk "The Way We Think about Charity is Dead Wrong," points to nonprofits wooing donors who want their money going to feel-good programs but not salaries. As a result, nonprofits cut back on administrative costs, often at the expense of effectiveness and decent wages.

"In my grad program, we talked about this a lot," Roux says. "But if those donors want things done right, you're going to have to pay me to do them, unless they want idiots up here."

Tyler Hewes, 32, associate director of Mainly Mozart, puts his finger on it: "Across the arts, but also across the nonprofit world, there's this idea you should be willing to take a lesser life because you are working in your, quote-unquote, passion. That's bullshit. That's why so many talented people leave this sector. They're not getting paid what they deserve, and because there's so much stasis in the administration of these companies, they're not going to invest in the younger generation because there's no need. It's like the Hollywood system: There's always another young starlet stepping off the bus from Iowa."

The stasis Hewes talks about, in which nonprofit arts founders and top executives stay in power sometimes for decades, ends up harming the organization.

"If someone offered me the job of Mainly Mozartís executive director upon [current director and co-founder Nancy Laturno Bojanic's] retirement, I would turn them down, because Mainly Mozart is and always will be—until at least three years after she retires—Nancy. As the founder for 25 years, she's given such a wide berth by the board and by the community that the person that follows her is screwed."

A founding leader who stays too long risks dooming her or his successor to failure, both in artistic and fundraising terms—not because the replacement isn't capable but because the organization's supporters had formed a bond with the person at the top, not the organization itself, and that bond does not necessarily carry over. 

Hewes points to San Diego's dance companies that are named after their founders, like Jean Isaacs Dance Theatre, Peter Kalivas' PGK Project and Malashock Dance. This makes sense because they are, after all, the famous person initially, but there's a perceived drop in value when their careers end. "Would you want to be the guy who follows Alvin Ailey?" Hewes says. "Hell no."

It's a large enough problem that Hewes encourages donors like the San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture to insist that "if you have had management in place for 10-plus years, we need to see a plan of succession on our desk if you want your money."

Alexander Jarman, 31, manager of public programs at SDMA, says leaders should mentor younger counterparts rather than view them as competition because it's the only way for an organization to avoid reinventing the wheel.

"I feel there are lots of situations we've run into at our museum where we just don't have the institutional memory, the information, that says what we've done before, and so we repeat ourselves. The people who work here might not realize it, but the people who have been going to my museum for 20 years sure do."

Jarman acknowledges what Roux and Hewes point to as emerging arts leaders' greatest weakness for manipulation: They aren't in it for the money. They do want to make a difference and have a visible impact on their community. He points to his generation's willingness to collaborate, to operate outside a vacuum, to acknowledge the shortfalls of what's been a mostly privileged and white sector; these are the qualities of a leader that will keep the arts flourishing.

Arts organizations ought to pray he's right if they want to stay in business another generation. As one young board member of a very old San Diego institution, who declined to be identified by name, told me, "Our target market is literally deceased."

"To see so much success through Groupon, through Living Social," Hewes says, "the generation that you and I belong to, we're looking for experiential, artistic outlets in music, theater, dance, but price point is the biggest issue. People are leery how they spend, so they're testing us out."

But in the end, we're at the beginning of the problem. Tomorrow's leaders need health insurance, and they need to pay off their student loans, and someone has to get out of the way to let them do that.

"If we could just get the emerging leaders we've got now to stay here, this whole place would be totally different in 30 years," Roux says, hopefully. "But I don't care if people are standing on that glass ceiling. I'm coming."

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