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Posted at 2:14 PM ET, 11/24/2010

Founding fathers

By Anne Midgette

Transitions are hard for an organization, especially a fragile non-profit in a tough economy. The Virginia Opera's story with Peter Mark, whose ongoing departure has been particuarly fraught, raises some perennial questions about how an organization moves past the tenure of a founding leader, a single charismatic personality who built it up.

It's not only an issue in the arts, of course. I remember years ago reading an article about Hue, the hosiery company, which began as a project started by two friends in a New York loft. The article said that most small companies aim only to cover expenses and make an income for their proprietors; taking a company to the next step requires a major rethinking, reinvestment, and often, for the founders, letting go. (Hue's founders sold in the 1990s.)

The Virginia Opera is at a similar point of transition. A difficulty with arts organizations, though, is that there's not a lot of profit-making potential, and people who get involved to help keep the organization going -- as patrons, or board members, or volunteers -- may not want things to change any more than its founder does.

The choral landscape in Washington, which offers parallels to the Mark situation (in the last decade or so, both the Washington Chorus and the Washington Men's Camerata handed long-time directors their walking papers), is a perfect illustration. An arts organization may want to be innovative, but an amateur chorus is also bound to its membership, who have signed up for weekly rehearsals and a certain amount of exposure to the great masterpieces. Some choruses are exploring just how far you can go within that framework -- including the Washington Chorus under its current director, Julian Wachner, which has started an annual concert devoted to the works of one living composer, and the City Choir of Washington founded by the former Washington Chorus director, Robert Shafer, which is doing a range of different kinds of work, and seems to be enjoying it.

New wind is especially important in the arts, where creative energy is the most important “product” on offer. There have been countless examples of a leader staying around too long (Götz Friedrich’s tenure at the Deutsche Oper Berlin comes to mind). Kevin Smith is in the process of leaving the Minnesota Opera, which he’s helped fashion into a significant force on the American scene (especially for new work) simply because it’s time. I remember a leading arts administrator saying to me long ago that it was important for someone in his job to move on after about ten years. (The administrator in question was as good as his word, though in the best tradition of departing arts administrators he tried to make sure that he had a hand in setting up what came after him; Peter Mark attempted to do something similar in Virginia by seeking to ensure the succession of Joseph Walsh, the assistant music director, whose contract is set to expire in May, 2011.) Of course, there isn’t always a logical place for an old director to go.

What are your thoughts on founding directors? Are there examples of long-term directors or successful transitions that should be noted? Should term limits be built into artistic contracts? And what should or could the Virginia Opera do next to build toward the future?

By Anne Midgette  | November 24, 2010; 2:14 PM ET
Categories:  random musings  
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You, Ann Midgette, are the main reason I come to this site!!!! (I know, that's off topic.) Let me say this first, I don't know anything about founding directors, but I know about conductors. It is normal not to want to go after achieving a comfort and artistic level that people used to admire you for. Nevertheless, I am opposed to term limits. The minute you carve something in stone is when you find yourself making exceptions. It gets messy. If the people who hired you are no longer quite satisfied with you then the best way to say bye is to not extend a contract. It's a nice way of firing someone. HOWEVER, I keep sayihg over and over and over and over and over that the arts need new material more than anything - new works. Not mediocre works, but great works of art. Until that happens, we shall see directors getting blamed for what composers and other creative artists are not doing. Bringing in new blood is not going to rejuvenate the same old body.

Posted by: pronetoviolins | November 24, 2010 6:49 PM | Report abuse

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