Wanted: Individual to take over arts group

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 12, 2011 - 7:32 AM

Some of the best known arts groups in the Twin Cities face life without their longtime leaders. It's a prospect they find challenging and scary.

» Are you an eager, self-deprecating

individual ready to be compared to the impossibly charismatic founder of said organization?

» Can you smile broadly when disappointed

donors ask, "What happened to what's-his-name?"

» Are you ready to work 80 hours a week for little

pay and no guarantee of success?

» This position requires artistic brilliance and enough hubris to believe you can actually replace the megalomaniac who had the courage to start this thing.

Don't be surprised if you see this ad over the next few years as some of the best known arts organizations in the Twin Cities confront the future without their founding visionaries. Consider:

Leaders -- and fans -- of the Jungle Theater held their breath in November when Bain Boehlke suffered a mild heart attack.

In October, Minnesota Film Arts announced changes designed to lessen the responsibilities of founder Al Milgrom -- changes with which Milgrom is not entirely pleased.

The "Prairie Home Companion" organization is sorting out the future of that show in the wake of Garrison Keillor's minor stroke in 2009 and his subsequent statement that he didn't see himself hosting "more than a couple of years."

"There is going to be this seismic shift in the next decade whether we want it or not, and I think it's a good idea to look at what that means for the community," said Jack Reuler, who founded Mixed Blood Theatre in 1975.

In the balance rests the future of these organizations. Can the singular product of an individual's vision be transformed into an institutional mission driven by strategic plans? For that matter, will audiences feel that the product is just as desirable as it was under the founder?

"I remember someone saying to me, 'There's nothing wrong with starting something and then stopping it," said Dale Warland, whose eponymous choral group folded upon his retirement in 2004. "Just because it's good doesn't mean it has to go on forever."

Planning helps, but transition -- the stuff of great drama -- is less science than art.

"It's like a family business," said George Sutton, executive director of James Sewell Ballet. "It depends on whether you can take something small and closely held and broaden the sense of ownership of the mission and values."

Willing to let go

Sutton was once managing director at the Jungle Theater, where Boehlke's age, health and a yearlong sabbatical induced whispers about succession. Furthering the discussion was the Jungle's appointment of director/designer Joel Sass to fill in while Boehlke was absent. Boehlke, 71, returned in 2010 and quickly scotched those rumors as idle speculation. As for his November heart attack, he said, "it was like a bump in the road."

"The doctor said my heart is great, my lungs are clear," Boehlke said. "I had a blockage of an artery and they put in a stent. I don't feel threatened by it."

Still, the incident heightened the question of succession for the Jungle board.

"We had conversations around [succession], especially when Bain was heading out on sabbatical without a lot of certainty whether he was coming back," said John Sullivan, Jungle board chair. "The first thing was getting an assurance from Bain that he views the theater as a community asset that is about something more than just him."

Boehlke's deal with the theater is that he or the board may give one year's notice that either he's leaving or the board wants him to leave. Intellectually, that method sounds fine. But emotion makes it a wild card.

"You don't know what your demise is going to feel like until you get there," said Rick Shiomi, who is actively planning his succession at Mu Performing Arts, which he helped to found in 1992. "Who knows? When it comes time to retire, I might be like Brett Favre."

Penumbra Theatre founder Lou Bellamy said he can't imagine ever "just cutting bait and walking away" even as he points to the company's New Era campaign, which focuses on developing junior staff. Asked if he has any time line, Bellamy said that at 66 he's retiring from teaching at the University of Minnesota this year and pointed to Penumbra's upcoming 35th anniversary.

"Those things tend to gain meaning beyond what you thought," he said.

In the meantime, Bellamy and the company's other leaders are looking beyond his official tenure. As outgoing board chair Phyllis Goff said, "The board realizes the need to move on to Penumbra the institution, which can survive without my dear friend Lou Bellamy."

Reuler has a contract to lead Mixed Blood through 2014, when he will be 61. He unsuccessfully tried to organize a number of theaters in similar situations to study what the coming transition will mean in the community.

"I was not taken that seriously," he said.

Linda Andrews, who has spent 28 years of "backbreaking work" to build Zenon Dance, said she has neither a concrete succession plan nor any desire to step away. She does, however, feel that personality is not simply about ego or company identity. It defines the art produced.

"It might still be a repertoire company, but when I'm gone it wouldn't be Zenon," Andrews said. "I feel like it's such a singular vision. It would have to change."

Plans are no guarantee

Happenstance can derail even the best-laid plans for institutional succession. Founders work for much less than the market rate because of their passion; hiring someone new has financial implications. Founders are the faces that donors love to see and the personalities with which audiences have grown familiar. Like it or not, the individual often is the institution.

"There is nothing that ensures the continuation of an organization," said Gayle Ober, who was the last managing director of the Dale Warland Singers.

The company had a plan that Warland would cultivate a successor and make a smooth transition to retirement in 2007. But the organization, at a crossroads that had less to do with Warland and more with financial health, determined in 2003 that it needed to expand its touring schedule.

"And Dale, at 72, said, 'I support this plan but I don't have the energy for it,'" said Ober. "So Dale felt that for personal reasons he needed to retire before the succession plan could play itself out."

Warland stayed at the podium through the next year, but timing and financial stress (national search, higher successor salary) left the board feeling it was best to shut down.

"The concern was that the organization would not survive the transition," Ober said.

Ober sees her experience as a cautionary tale for other groups that rely specifically on the artistic vision and magnetic personalities of their founder. She pointed to another signature chorus, VocalEssence and its longtime director, Philip Brunelle.

"Philip is not only the creative force, he's the chief fundraiser and the chief energy behind that organization," she said. "They have a succession plan, but who knows if it will succeed in reality when Philip finally retires, because of that unique role he carries."

Brunelle, who has guided VocalEssence for 42 years, expressed confidence in his organization's succession plan, which includes a list of potential candidates, but no timetable.

"It's not going to be 'Oh, dear, who's going to come in?'" Brunelle said. "This is a plum job."

The rocky realities

Founders often say they will work until they feel they no longer are contributing. But who makes that call?

In October, Minnesota Film Arts board members indicated a change was afoot regarding Milgrom, the 87-year-old visionary who had founded the organization's predecessor in 1962. The news stunned Milgrom, who was out of town. He said a few days later that he hadn't been informed.

In a recent interview, executive director Susan Smoluchowski redefined the board's intentions.

"It made it sound as if we had completed this transition, and the whole thing is that we're in the midst of a transition," Smoluchowski said. "We want Al around, but we all think -- staff, board, funders -- everyone knows there is a need for us to be implementing a transition."

Primarily, Smoluchowski said, Milgrom will share programming responsibility for the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival.

"That means a committee will have veto power and decisionmaking power as opposed to solely Al," she said.

Milgrom sounded only slightly mollified two weeks ago, saying that he was still the artistic director and director of the film festival.

"I'm working on the 29th film festival," he said. "If I decide I want to go out and smell the roses with my remaining years, I will decide. But right now I'm hoping to reach the 30th."

Milgrom's situation recalls the discomfort when Minnesota Dance Theatre's board moved Loyce Houlton into emeritus status in the late 1980s. She refused and later severed all ties with the organization she had founded.

"It can get ugly," said Kathy Graves, a consultant who helps nonprofits develop strategic plans. "It's like what happens when people don't have a will. If something happens and you don't have [a plan] in place, it gets ugly."

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299

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