The television star Joan Collins once said something along the lines of age being just a number and totally irrelevant unless one happens to be a bottle of wine. But when it comes to the leadership of arts organizations, good young leaders, like good young wine, should be tried and allowed to mature – their ages disregarded – after the old wine has begun to turn to vinegar.

In our neck of the woods, the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra hired 28-year-old Evan Gidley for the position of Executive Director, effective May 23, 2022, and just weeks before the orchestra began its summer season. Gidley – made responsible for managing the company’s operations and its financial resources, concert productions, musician relations, fundraising, and marketing – hit the ground running, taking on the kind of multi-tasking job that older arts administrators would run from.

In some instances, arts leaders sprint out of the gate without having any predecessors into whose shoes they must step. Such was the case with Tanya Bravo, the Executive Artistic Director of Miami’s Juggerknot Theatre Company an interactive theater  and performance collective with a focus on the development of new works by emerging playwrights, that this young Latina theatre artist has led for some time.

Another example is that of Michel Hausman, aged 40, the founding artistic director of Miami New Drama, a theatre company based in Miami Beach that focuses on producing new works, and Nicholas Richberg, the company’s Managing Director, aged 43, who has been a regular fixture of the South Florida theatre scene as one of the region’s most valued actors.

Sometimes opportunities for young arts leaders come available after serving in secondary positions, such as assistant conductors in symphony orchestras or marketing directors in theatre companies, but often appointments to the top positions in arts organizations are made after extended searches. For years, South Florida’s Gablestage was led by the late Joseph Adler, one of South Florida’s theatre pioneers, after whose death a nation-wide search brought to the job of artistic director Bari Newport, a stage director in her early forties and former artistic director of the Penobscot Theatre Company.

Beyond regional arts organizations the Metropolitan Opera Company’s Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin landed his plum job at the age of 36 after major tenures as music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra. In the field of visual arts and museums, Max Hollein, now the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, made history when 20 years ago he was hired to lead the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, Germany at age 31. Alex Gartenfeld has led the Institute of Contemporary Art in Miami, Florida from age 27, making well-earned gains in a field largely dominated by white, middle-aged men in their fifties and sixties.

In the area of orchestra conductors, the Finn, Klaus Mäkelä, aged 27, the African-American Jonathon Hayward, aged 32, the female orchestral leaders Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, 36, a Lithuanian, the Austrian 27 year old Katharina Wincor, the Chinese Elim Chan, 35, the Colombian Lina González-Granados, 36, the New Zealander Gemma New, 35, and the Finn Dalia Stasevska, 37 – all thirty-somethings have been making waves in the classical music field.

To look in a positive way at the issues of women conductors and conductors of color – two large minorities in classical music – I came up with two short lists: one of established female conductors now active internationally, the other – shorter in length – a listing of orchestral conductors of color. Both featured more names than I expected, and I was pleasantly surprised to see the proverbial glass half-filled.

A handful of women conductors of various nationalities now lead various international orchestras as music directors. Joanna Carneiro oversees matters musical for her birth country’s Orquestra Sinfónica Portuguesa; Lithuania’s Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla is now at the helm of Great Britain’s Birmingham Symphony Orchestra; Simone Young is the newly appointed chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra – the first female conductor in that orchestra’s history; Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music– trained, Chinese-born Xian Zhang is again at the podium of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. Recently Nathalie Stutzmann, a respected French-born Baroque music specialist, contralto singer, and conductor has just made history by being appointed to lead the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra – the second woman in America ever to lead a major symphony orchestra, after Baltimore’s recently-retired Marin Alsop.

Several other female conductors have artfully put together ensembles of their own, closer in spirit and repertoire to their artistic identities. Such is the case with Cuban-born Odaline de la Martinez, who leads both her own Lontano Ensemble and the European Women’s Orchestra, both of which she founded, as well as holding the distinction of being the first female to conduct at the British BBC Proms.

France’s Emmanuelle Haïm, also a noted Baroque music specialist leads the early music ensemble Le concert d’Astrée, while Finland’s Susanna Mälkki leads the Ensemble Intercontemporain, a group of musicians that focuses on new music. Another invaluable early music ensemble, Chicago’s Music of the Baroque has as its distinguished leader, British-born Dame Jane Glover.

While younger white conductors are gradually being given the much deserved and heretofore denied opportunities in symphonic music, their Latinx and Black counterparts are by and large still waiting at the gates of American orchestras. The names of Gustavo Dudamel and Andres Orozco-Estrada and Giancarlo Guerrero will readily come to mind, but countless other musical artists from Hispanic and Black roots still cool their heels impatiently waiting their turn.

Sometimes jobs open because house-cleaning is in order. Four years ago, 43-year-old Edward Stafford was appointed Artistic Director of the New York City Ballet, succeeding 73-year-old Peter Martins, who was asked to resign after being accused of sexual harassment. Jacob G. Padrón, the 39-year-old Latino now at the helm of New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre came to his new position in 2018, succeeding septuagenarian Gordon Edelstein, who was asked to resign after being accused of sexual harassment. James Levine, music director of the Metropolitan Opera from 1976 to 2016 was terminated in 2018, aged 75, over sexual misconduct allegations.  Levine was 33 years old when he assumed the directorship of the largest musical organization in the United States. Stafford rose from the ranks of the New York City Ballet gradually, while Padrón came to his job at the Long Wharf handpicked from among several candidates after years at the helm of his Sol Project, which he founded while in his twenties.

Internationally, nationally, and now locally the up to now half-empty glass of diversity is slowly beginning to look – one drop at a time – less empty and fuller than before, but we wish the pouring of talent would go quicker and generously.

Gen X, Gen Y, Gen Z… the alphabet soup of generational classifications continues to befuddle so many of us born not long after the end of the Prelapsarian Age. But to speak plainly and to the point I want to focus on those arts leaders that could easily be the children or even grandchildren of us Baby Boomers that have had the honor of leading arts organizations during the best years of our lives. Those artistic children and grandchildren of ours could be anyone born between 1980 or thereabouts and 1995 or thereabouts: mostly young men and women in their twenties or thirties or early forties, for whom room must be made so that they can re-invigorate the arts in our country. Whatever they may lack in on-the-job experience they can acquire while they bring to their various leadership positions energy, enthusiasm, and creativity.

Rafael de Acha ©2023

Cuban-born Rafael de Acha has enjoyed a distinguished career in the arts as a performer, stage director, producer, and educator. He has taught courses on the History of Music at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music and at Florida International University, and has contributed writings and reviews to and to his blog:  

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