When Politics And Arts Management Collide

WE all know there’s nothing wrong with arts managers having strong political opinions and those opinions are of no business to the organization where they work. At the same time, how a manager expresses those opinions does impact the organization and a good manager needs to be aware of this when exercising his/her right to political expression. Case in point, the California Musical Theatre (CMT) fiasco which unfolded earlier this week…

The details behind the CMT fiasco are simple:

  • CMT artistic director, Scott Eckern, donated $1,000 to a campaign supporting California’s Proposition 8, which wrote a ban on same-sex marriages into the California state Constitution.
  • Washington DC-based political writer, John Aravosis, discovered Eckern’s donation via public disclosure documents and published the information at his political blog, americablog.com.
  • As a result, a large and diverse group of artists threatened to boycott CMT.
  • A few days later, Eckern resigned his position with CMT.

The issue here has nothing to do with Prop 8 (or any other political issue); instead, it has everything to do with the process managers use to take action on their political convictions (which applies equally to artists and board members). There are numerous reasons why arts managers, especially those in executive positions, need to be cautious when it comes to politics.

Due to the nature of public funding and the natural shifts in political power, arts managers need to remain apolitical. They need to learn how to get along with all types of politicians and become adept at finding the right way to deliver the organization’s message. Furthermore, managers need to avoid publicly aligning with political figures and issues that tend to polarize the general public.

With regard to supporting candidates or issues through donations, the simple solution for arts managers is to make donations anonymously in order to ensure make certain personal convictions don’t have a negative impact on the organization being served. The situation in California is sad on many different levels but at the very least, it can serve as an example to remind managers elsewhere to remain mindful on these issues.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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2 thoughts on “When Politics And Arts Management Collide”

  1. Anonymous giving probably isn’t really a solution in many cases. According to this FEC document (http://www.fec.gov/pages/brochures/citizens.shtml#introduction): “If you contribute more than $200 to a committee, the committee is required to use its best efforts to collect and publicly disclose on a financial report your name, address, occupation and employer, as well as the date and amount of your contribution.”

    The reason for this rule is that the public has a right to know how politicians are financing their campaigns.

    527 groups that don’t support specific candidates are a different matter–because they aren’t regulated by the FEC they can take anonymous donations of any size. In fact, in the case of Prop 8 advocacy, Eckern might well have been able to make his support to a 527 and avoid exposure. But generally speaking, if arts managers want to appear apolitical they need to limit their actual political activities.

  2. I’v been waiting for someone to point that out Galen, thanks. Like all good rules, there are always ways around and unless someone wants to donate a very large sum of money (in which case, why are they still a manager) folks can still find a way to give without revealing their identify. Since this isn’t the forum to discuss how to circumvent the law there’s no need to say more but suffice to say, knowing the law should help managers understand that giving to most political causes is a matter of public record.

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