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A Balancing Act: Executive and Artistic Leadership in the Performing Arts Speaker Series

by Samantha Sartori

Day and night.

Yin and yang.

Left and right.

You can’t have one without the other.

The same holds true for performing arts organizations: you can’t have the artistic side without the executive side.

Our MSLCE Speaker Series this winter set out to demystify how the two sides come together to connect the creative and artistic vision with an organization’s business strategy. Erica Daniels, Executive Director of the Victory Gardens Theater, and Al Heartley, Managing Director of Northwestern’s own Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts, spent an evening talking about their journeys from performer to performing arts business executives.

First things first: if you want to be a leader in the performing arts, you need to be interested in getting to know every aspect of it, according to Heartley. From casting to directing, to everything that is going on behind the scenes—in order to be a successful leader you need to know all of the ins and outs. Plus, you should probably have a strong mentor, especially in a close-knit theater scene like Chicago. 

Luckily for Heartley, his initial mentor is still sitting right beside him. Well, she was that night, as Heartley started his career interning in the casting department at Steppenwolf, where Daniels was the casting director at the time. Back then, she helped him build his network by giving him the opportunity to meet a wide variety of leaders in the Chicago theater community so he could get a full perspective on arts management. 

When discussing her shift from artistic roles to serving as an executive director today, Daniels expressed that being a producer has always been her nature. Her prior roles all focused on producing the creative experience, which gave her a solid foundational knowledge about production costs and budgeting. In addition, her experiences have shaped her people skills, which are crucial, especially in today’s world.

“People want a voice in everything because we often feel disempowered by the world around us,” said Daniels. “But at some point, not every decision can be democratized.” As Executive Director at Victory Gardens Theater, Daniels deals with a delicate balancing act. She has to keep her team motivated, which can occasionally mean holding back business news when the timing isn’t right. Being a leader often also means having difficult conversations. Daniels describes the Victory Gardens Theater staff as deeply passionate about their mission: being a leader in developing and producing new theatre work and cultivating an inclusive theater community. But with that mission, Daniels has to be aware of the reality of whether or not a show is selling. She’s recognized the importance of telling her team she hears them artistically, but from time to time has to say no. “People sometimes forget there is one person looking at the whole thing,” Daniels said.

Heartley outlines it best with a nod to the improv community, “in a world where it’s so focused on yes, and, how do you focus on collaboration when you need to say no?” He says at the end of the day, everything stems back to the mission. “You have to ask, why are we here and what is our core in terms of who we serve,” he said. “Yes, you want to have a consensus, but sometimes you have to step in and say this is where we are going.”

With all of the trials and tribulations of running a performing arts organization, at the end of the day, both the artistic and executive sides come together to tackle the challenges. And Daniels and Heartley stress the importance of holding both art and business in tandem: you can’t have one without the other.