There was an article recently in the Chicago Tribune about the compensation for theatre Artistic Directors which suggested, "...Maybe you don’t need an artistic director, but a savvy producer programming potential attractions." It's hard to understand what an Artistic Director does because just like a play Director, it’s impossible to describe what it really takes to be an impactful one without doing it. The Las Vegas theatre landscape is a stark example of the difference between an Artistic Director and a “Savvy Producer.” For theatre makers to survive here, they constantly switch roles between both, but only one of them advances the work of the art form itself. Savvy producers swipe the golden egg and commercialize it. Artistic Directors are the collective brain of the goose that labors to lay them and most of the companies who are part of the body only receive chicken feed to make it happen. Whether a large budget or small, the required talent is the same, though an Artistic Director of a larger company contends with visibility and stakes that are much higher. An Artistic Director is a conduit of aspirations passing between the artistic world on one end, and the community it serves on the other. They must be 100% a part of both to form the vision required to leverage each side in service of one another. They must relate as an artist to the public on behalf of the creators and company. To tune one’s empathy to that world, one must also practice their own art. Simultaneously, they must relate as a leader in their community in order to identify both the needs of the society and opportunities for artists to meet them. This is how a theatre inspires sustainable support for advancement. This is how relevant, innovative work is developed and championed.
Artistic Directors are the tip of the spear for both the artists who must be challenged to take risks and the community that suffers without a shared vision. Our call is to provide the most valuable Theatre we can with the help of both the artists and the audience in the empty space. Establishing a single point of focus for a host of humans with different points of view is an invisible effort to most who benefit from it. But, it is essential if a company is to reflect an authentic understanding of our human experience and to break down collective barriers wherever we encounter them. The artistic thrust of a company must inform the business model or there is no purpose beyond sales to make the work, and then the theatre dies. It takes a long-term commitment to a playwright or project in concert with immediate investment in a company’s operation to create the conditions necessary for a professional theatre to serve its fundamental purpose. In our era, it takes an Artistic Director to generate both. In my view, the Chicago Tribune piece doesn’t reflect the spine of leadership that a great artistic director provides to both the nonprofit organization and the community it serves that must support it. If the other artists and staff are compensated fairly and the board has the money to spend to keep a talented leader at the helm, then congratulations on a great operation. A leader worth the money knows that their compensation should not be extra flush if the operation runs mostly on low-income labor. They want to build something that is sustainable and positioned for more impactful growth in the lives of their team and the public and should advise the Board to offer what is appropriate. There are some companies where the burden is large enough to deserve higher compensation, but that number cannot be arbitrary. It, like the choice of shows produced, must be responsive to the individual resources and vision for their company.
We need more Artistic Directors to receive compensation in developing regional markets, not less. Ironically, in the semiprofessional world where all new work and career professionals are born and raised by Artistic Directors, they are the ones who are compensated last, if at all. That is the sector that the LORTs and commercial theatres typically ignore and exploit, and it cuts the American Theatre’s progress off at its knees. Instead of questioning the need for Artistic Directors, we should question what they and their companies have done for their mid-level markets and local professional pipelines. Do they import the future or do they foster it at home? If they make a lot of money, to what smaller, local companies have they given sustainable contributions? How often do they bring their Board to a smaller theatre's show? Do they exchange promotion with developing companies? How diverse are their hiring practices? What outreach do they offer to underserved students to provide a pathway to professional advancement in ARTS LEADERSHIP, or do they just use internships for inexpensive grunt work? Do they reach all the way to the bottom of economic status to find local members for an advisory board? Do they go to public schools without theatre programs and offer to help implement them? Do they open their doors for the community to use for meeting space? If they do all that, then the return on their salary might make it worth it. If they don’t, it’s probably not the position or the pay that has to change. It’s the person in the job.