There could be worse ways to handle succession planning than the one chosen by the Miami City Ballet, but it would be hard to think of one. The board of directors, concerned that the ballet company would collapse when its famous artistic director Edward Villella retired, decided to test its own theory by forcing him out before he was ready to leave. Some board members blame the outcome on Mr. Villella, who apparently refused to greet several of them at the company’s gala; but it’s hard to blame him when one of them called a meeting with him for the purpose of handing him a book on succession planning.
The Times article “Bitter Departure for Miami’s Ballet Patriarch” reaches for the classic suits-versus-artists narrative, saying that Villella’s ouster reflected the Board’s determination to place business stability above artistic product; but that’s unfair. The Board is responsible for the continued health of the company, and a failure to consider new leadership when the current leader is 75 would be a dereliction of duty. But what we’ve got here is failure to communicate.
As Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theatre board learned back in 2000, you don’t call in the company’s artistic engine and hand him his walking papers—or even the sort of broad hint inherent in gifting a book about succession planning. You’re talking to someone about his life’s work and his passion, and you can’t talk to him as if he were a CEO who had been recompensed all these years in cash and who expected to be recompensed the same way in retirement. An artistic director who is compelled to retire—and yes, indeed, some of them should be—has to be offered a form of compensation congruent with what they’ve been receiving up until that moment, something involving artistic control—even if it’s only the control inherent in leading the search for his own successor.
And even if the artistic director’s retirement creates the opportunity for the board to step into its proper role of leadership—say, supervising the managing director instead of having the artistic director do so—that’s an opportunity to pursue once the new artistic director begins. From the board’s standpoint, having the managing and artistic directors report co-equally is a way to lighten the artistic director’s load while assuring that the board itself receives comprehensive information. But from the standpoint of the incumbent artistic director, it’s a slap in the face, and suggests that the board wants to interpose a business person (and a businessperson’s veto) between the artist and his vision.
Of course the board is the boss of the company, including the artistic director. But the most effective bosses wear their power lightly, in cooperation rather than conflict with the artists they mean to be serving. By this measure, the board of the Miami City Ballet just fell on its face.
A word to wise arts boards everywhere.