Is theatre its company, or its Artistic Director?

Here in Portland we’ve been seeing a great number of companies announcing the exit of their Artistic Director.  The search now begins for the new!  As I’ve considered the ramifications of this type of major transition, it’s made me consider… Is an artistic company defined within itself, or does the public associate it entirely with it’s artistic leader?  If it’s the latter, then what happens when that leader leaves due to retirement, a new position elsewhere, or some other reason?

In the different cases here in Portland that I remember in recent years, I think there’s been a combination of the two identities.  In some cases a charismatic and affable artistic leader can bring donors, sponsors, artists and audiences into the fold through their inspirational speaking and personable nature.  In others a more timid artistic leader may prefer to recede to the background when it comes to selling the organization to funders, preferring to let the work shine and other members of the staff and board take the more public role.  Both can work, but in my experience the Artistic Director in the spotlight, schmoozing the audiences and convincing them of the importance of the work we do as artists is the more common, and probably preferred model.

So if that is the case, what happens when that leader leaves?  It’s a very challenging and often difficult transition.  The news must be kept unannounced until the right time.  A search must be conducted; often nation wide, sometimes involving an agency to help in the search and filter process.  Then when the time comes, the news needs to be kept positive, exciting, and used as a means to transfer the energy of the audiences, donors, sponsors and others toward the promise of a new and thrilling vision.  ‘We’re not losing our beloved AD… we’re getting a fresh face with a fresh approach and a boost of new energy to the company.’

What the company hopes will NOT happen is that your supporters and fans feel betrayed, that they are less interested in the new direction the company is taking, that they will be comparing everything new to everything former, and in worse cases, they no longer wish to support you.  If that were the case then an entirely new audience may need to be found and developed, and the company could very well not survive the transition.

Not unlike the scrutiny of Apple in a post-Steve-Jobs world, the artistic company faces similar challenges but with one very different dynamic… The world of art is one of creation within a lens of a specific point of view.  We’re not making a widget.  We’re making stories, told in visceral ways, live before your eyes.  A great artistic leader will work to engage the audience on many levels, inspiring their imaginations and their sensibilities, to think, to feel, to want to share the experience.


Patrick Spike - Marketing Director of Arts People


Patrick Spike is the Theatre Community Liaison, system expert, and one of the original architects of the Arts People software system, with over 30 years in performing arts creation and administration.


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