Richard Nixon was president and the Dow Jones Industrial Average was 929 points when Lynne Meadow was hired as chief of the fledgling Manhattan Theatre Club. Her annual salary: $10,400.
She remains at the helm 40 years later.
Speight Jenkins became general director of the Seattle Opera in 1983. The 75-year-old, who earned $384,000 in pay and benefits in 2010, says he still loves his job.
“I’m as excited about producing an opera as when I did my first one here,” he said in an interview. He expects to leave in 2014, but so far no successor has been announced.
Unlike some of their European counterparts, American arts leaders tend to stay put once they’re in a high-status job.
Longevity can help cultivate donors and sustain an organization.
“We have a different tradition here,” said Meadow, 66, who helped grow MTC’s budget 157-fold while her pay and benefits increased 40-fold, to $428,000 in 2010. “You have to look at the track record.”
But a seemingly permanent appointment can also perpetuate a sensibility that may grow stale.
Turnover “is a good cleanse, it’s a new set of tastes,” said playwright Adam Rapp, a Pulitzer Prize finalist whose “Through the Yellow Hour,” a drama set in post-apocalyptic New York, was recently seen at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. “I don’t know that it’s a good idea for one person to run a theater for 30 years.”
The question was raised by the release of the new James Bond film, “Skyfall,” of all things. The movie was directed by Sam Mendes, who led London’s Donmar Warehouse for a decade until 2002, when he left to make movies and direct elsewhere.
Likewise, Michael Boyd oversaw the Royal Shakespeare Company, creator of the Broadway-bound musical “Matilda,” for a decade until passing the baton to Gregory Doran in September. Nicholas Hytner has run London’s National Theatre, producer of “War Horse,” since 2003. He’s said he plans to leave by about 2015.
Todd Haimes has run New York’s Roundabout Theatre Co. for 22 years and Andre Bishop has led Lincoln Center Theater for 21 years.
Under Meadow, the Manhattan Theatre Club has presented six plays that went on to win Pulitzers, more than any other New York nonprofit. Among them was “Doubt,” one of eight John Patrick Shanley plays the company has staged since 1986.
“Lynne Meadow kept me in the game when a new leader might not have had that loyalty,” Shanley said in an e-mail. “MTC has remained vibrant and financially stable for decades. Two great arguments for Lynne Meadow’s long tenure.”
But turnover can be a plus for theater administrators and up-and-coming writers.
“There’s a sense of opportunity, ascendancy and openness as new roles open up and people move on and up,” said Nina Steiger, a Princeton, New Jersey, native who’s associate director of London’s Soho Theatre.
Steiger said she isn’t critical of longstanding U.S artistic directors, many of whom she admires. Those at theater companies with budgets over $5 million stay on average of 14 years, according to a Theatre Communications Group survey.
Chief executives at Standard & Poor’s 500 Index companies last an average of 8.4 years, according to a 2012 report by the Conference Board, a research organization. A CEO can earn huge rewards but also risks being summarily fired.
“A nonprofit CEO has no stock options but more job security,” said Melissa Berman, president of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, which advises donors.
Michael Kaiser, head of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, said many arts chiefs lack alternatives.
“There aren’t many places to go,” Kaiser said. “Each organization has its own aesthetic. It’s not so hard to go from one corporation to another. You’re still pursuing the same mission, earning profit for shareholders.”
He plans to leave at the end of 2014 after 14 years but won’t go far: He’ll run the Kennedy Center arts management arm through 2017.
Great pay is an incentive to stay. Kaiser made $1.3 million in salary and benefits in 2010, roughly double that of Tony Hall, the chief executive of the Royal Opera House who recently left for the BBC after 11 years.
Longtime leaders insist their experience helps the arts. Mark Volpe, managing director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra since 1997, said he’s in the “relationship business.”
“It takes time to develop the relationships” with musicians, staff and donors, he said.
Even so, the BSO has found it challenging to replace conductor James Levine, who was ailing for years and resigned in March 2011. The orchestra is still without a leader. Volpe, who made $587,500 in pay and benefits to manage the orchestra in 2010, said it will hire a new music director within months.
The San Francisco Opera board asked David Gockley, 69, to stay until 2016. He joined in 2006 after 33 years at the Houston Grand Opera and earned $459,000 in pay and benefits in 2010. Like Jenkins in Seattle, he downsized to suit a smaller budget. But would a younger leader connect more easily to a different donor set and develop a new artistic imperative?
Assessing success in the arts is subjective, complicating the turnover discussion.
James Steinberg of the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust, a theater philanthropy, singled out New York’s Playwrights Horizons for staying vibrant 17 years after Tim Sanford took over.
Rapp differed. “I wonder if his long tenure has created an aesthetic that needs to be shaken up a bit,” said Rapp, who hasn’t been presented at Playwrights since November, 2008.
Sanford notes he often presents little-known writers. “I’m not a believer in turnover for turnover’s sake,” he said. “Shaking things up is my identity and the theater’s identity.”
Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of New York’s Public Theater, said that while management longevity can help with fundraising, some English institutions were created fully-funded. Artistic directors there move more easily between theater, film and television than in the U.S., he said.
After the departure of Meadow and Executive Producer Barry Grove, who created MTC “out of nothing,” it should consider limiting successors to ten-year stints, Eustis said.
“It’s a good thing in principle for those jobs to turn over at a reasonable rate,” said Eustis, who himself took over in 2005 and tries to produce outside his comfort zone of “hyper-articulate, left-wing intellectual male playwrights.”
Gregory Mosher, director of Lincoln Center Theater from 1985 to 1992, said U.S. theaters have been slow to adapt to new technology and replace the subscription model.
“We don’t need new leadership because the plays will be better, but because young leaders will have a much better sense of how to connect artists and audiences in the 21st century,” Mosher, a Columbia University professor, said in an e-mail.
‘It’s very hard to transform a successful institution -- much harder than fixing a broken one -- but the world changes, and institutions need to change with it,” Mosher said.
Muse highlights include movies and New York Weekend.
-- Editors: Jeremy Gerard, Zinta Lundborg.