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Many transitions at the tops of arts groups

Gary Graffman literally grew up at the Curtis Institute of Music, first walking through the doors as a 7-year-old piano protege. He became the school's director in 1986, but well into his second decade felt that was enough.

"It's big turnover time" at nonprofits, says Peggy Amsterdam, president of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance.
"It's big turnover time" at nonprofits, says Peggy Amsterdam, president of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance.Read moreAPRIL SAUL / Inquirer Staff Photographer

Gary Graffman literally grew up at the Curtis Institute of Music, first walking through the doors as a 7-year-old piano protege. He became the school's director in 1986, but well into his second decade felt that was enough.

As he told the school, "I thought after all this time maybe they wanted a fresh face."

Now they have it. In 2006, after ensuring that Curtis would remain tuition-free under its new director, Roberto Diaz, the 77-year-old Graffman left for his New York home near Carnegie Hall.

The passing of the baton at the Curtis is part of an unprecedented shift in the Philadelphia region, where the leadership of many of the largest arts and culture groups has changed hands in the last several years.

The departures include Peter B. Lane, who spearheaded the Mann Center's expansion (and left for the Bethel Woods arts center in New York), and Janice C. Price, the Kimmel Center's first professional arts-management leader (for an arts festival in Canada).

"It's something we can anticipate for several more years," says Laura Otten, director of the Nonprofit Center at La Salle University. "We did a local survey in 2006, and two-thirds of nonprofit leaders said they would be leaving their jobs by 2010. It's not unique to arts and culture."

Among the major organizations with new presidents, chief executive officers, or artistic chiefs:

The Barnes, the Fleisher Art Memorial, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, the Academy of Natural Sciences, and the Philadelphia Zoo. The Independence Seaport Museum, the University of the Arts, and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

"It's big turnover time," says Peggy Amsterdam, president of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, who sees the movement as mostly generational. "It's not just here. It's a national trend. Those of us who came up in the early 1970s got into this business when it was really new, when funding was becoming more and more available through the [National Endowment for the Arts] and other sources, and there was a lot more emphasis being put on being a well-run organization."

Robert Capanna, for 26 years the executive director of the Settlement Music School, plans to step down next year. The Free Library of Philadelphia, which has an interim president, expects to have a new leader in place by July 1. And Nancy Kolb, president of the Please Touch Museum, aims to hang up her hat a year or so after the children's museum moves in the fall to a mammoth new home in Fairmount Park.

"Nationally, it's a huge crisis, because the group that I represent, people between 55 and 70, have been the leaders for the past 30 years," Kolb says. "Some of these individuals aren't thinking about transition, and that's irresponsible."

Each group has its own reason for new leadership. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts sought two new heads after its director left to run the Barnes.

The main task for the Seaport Museum's new director is to rebuild an organization and community trust after the previous president was sentenced to 15 years in prison for defrauding the Penn's Landing museum out of more than $1 million.

Although it's impossible to predict whether so much change at one time will be beneficial, arts veterans say the new talent, in general, is impressive.

"The turnover that has occurred has brought in such a wide range of visionary and capable leaders, it is all to the good," says Olive Mosier, director of arts and culture at the William Penn Foundation. "It shows that there is a wonderful pool of talent out there."

"In the Fleisher's case, they found a great, young, energetic, smart and very enthusiastic new person" in Matthew Braun, says Nancy Burd, president of the Burd Group, a nonprofit consulting firm. "But we see many organizations that go through leader after leader because they didn't get the right person or the board didn't know what they wanted."

This wave of change is hitting now because a lot of current leaders entered the job market 30 or 40 years ago as arts groups were coming of age, adding programs and staff. Those leaders are retiring, or looking at a second act for their careers.

Amsterdam says she got her first arts administration job - running the Fairfax County Arts Council - under the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act during the Carter administration.

"I was 24 years old running the arts council in the wealthiest county in Virginia. I was making it up," she says.

What's different about the new breed of arts leaders, she says, is that they have training and degrees in arts administration and "are much more schooled and well-versed in what it takes to run a theater company or museum."

They also might expect higher salaries. Some groups have been run by founders who kept their wages low because it was one line-item they could control, or who even volunteered. Hiring a replacement at market value can strike an organization with sticker shock.

Nonprofit salaries at major groups are highly competitive, especially when a leader comes from a similar job in another job market. At the upper end of the scale, Price, the Kimmel's former CEO and a career performing-arts executive, earned $418,000 in the year that ended June 2006, according to tax forms.

Seth Rozin, producing artistic director at the InterAct Theatre Company - with a budget a fraction of the Kimmel's - received base compensation of $41,958 in the year ended June 2007.

Unlike board leaders, whose terms are often limited by an organization's bylaws, paid executives can stay for decades, feeding the misconception that they and the organization are one.

General wisdom says art museums whose directors have stayed too long, or chamber groups whose founders linger for decades, can suffer from stagnation.

Getting a "productive conversation" going about career transitions is the aim of the Legacy Project, a program of the Pew Charitable Trusts' Philadelphia Cultural Management Initiative, which gathered 21 of the area's arts leaders for the first time in 2005.

"It grew out of the fact that the baby-boom generation has been in these in roles for a very long time," says Martin D. Cohen, director of the initiative. "There's been a lot of research in the nonprofit field that began to say, 'We know that this transition is coming,' and 'What are we doing to prepare for it?' "

Some groups are preparing for change earlier so a new leader can be put in place before the old one leaves. That process took a year at the Kimmel Center when Price left.

At Please Touch, where Kolb's departure is more than a year away, work has begun on finding the new CEO within the staff. What's worrisome, Kolb says, is that while there's "enormous talent out there, very few of them want to be CEOs" of cultural groups.

"It's a horrible job," she says. "We want somebody to come into these organizations and be everything. They've got to manage a board, manage the staff, know the field, be good at fund-raising and marketing, and have no life. Who would want to do that?"

Capanna, 55, who joined Settlement with a background as a composer, says the job has never been easy.

"The school could benefit from a fresh perspective, and so could I," he says. "I have been planning for [this year's] centennial and related activities for a very long time. Seeing them come to fruition is very gratifying, but I am not sure that I have the appetite for the next big thing, whatever it may be."

The next thing for him is consulting, and keeping his hand in a school project to provide software to other community music schools.

"And definitely spending more time writing music, and probably more time playing tournament poker," he says, adding: "The one thing I do not want is to run another large organization."