When should arts organizations survive their founders?

Black Mary
Cedric Mays (Citizen Barlow), Austene Van (Black Mary) and James Craven (Solly Two Kings) in the Penumbra Theatre production of August Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean."
Photo by Michal Daniel

Let's be clear: most artists never really retire. Their jobs don't pay well enough for them to build up a substantial nest egg, and their artistic creativity doesn't just shut off when they hit 65 or 70.

Dale Warland
Dale Warland is the former artistic director of the Dale Warland Singers.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

Dale Warland is 76 years old, and he's booked for the next two years teaching and conducting choirs all over the world. But at the age of 72, he decided he needed to say good-bye to his favorite instrument of more than three decades: "The Dale Warland Singers." Warland says it was much harder than simply quitting a job he loved.

"In my case the Dale Warland Singers were me! It was my life," says Warland. "It's you, it's really you. So that's a painful process to go through."

Dale Warland managed to end on a high note, as it were. He was in good health, and the Warland Singers were receiving rave reviews.

Many other Minnesota arts organizations are going to face similar situations in the years to come. A number of Twin Cities theaters are run by directors in their 60s and they're realizing they need to come up with a succession plan.

Nancy Fushan is a senior program officer at the Bush Foundation in St. Paul. She works closely with arts organizations on long term planning. She says every company faces a different situation, and each will have to come up with its own unique answer. Fushan says she empathizes with the stress many arts organizations are feeling right now as they attempt to face these transitions. But she says they need to remember change is healthy.

"Change can lead to amazing things, even for the people who are leaving positions," said Fushan. "Opportunities can present themselves, but I think we have to be open to that."

Lou Bellamy
Penumbra Theatre Artistic Director Lou Bellamy worked closely with August Wilson, and is now memorializing the playwright by performing all ten of the plays in his 20th Century Cycle over the next five years.
Photo by Ann Marsden

Fushan says each organization's board needs to look at the artistic impact its director has had on the company, and on the community at large. It then has to decide whether and how that mission should continue. And while they're at it, Fushan says those boards should work on making sure their artistic director has enough money to retire on, too.

Lou Bellamy is the artistic director of Penumbra Theater in St. Paul, which is attempting to do just that. The theater got its start in a community center in the predominantly African American Rondo neighborhood.

"They got $150,000 and hired me as cultural arts director," chuckled Lou Bellamy. "I didn't know what that was, but I knew how to do theater, at least enough to get myself in the door."

That was thirty two years ago. Now Penumbra Theater is known nationwide for it's work telling the stories of the African American experience through compelling plays. Bellamy says while it's his artistic vision that has shaped the theater's particular style over the years, he feels the theater must continue on after he's gone.

"We're a professional theater inside of a community," said Bellamy. "This is art that's low to the ground, reflective of the people. And we've come too far; if we don't have that kind of continuity, we will never build the kinds of institutions that my community needs to sustain itself."

Penumbra Theater has hired an associate artistic director to work alongside Bellamy choosing plays and directing. Sarah Bellamy, Lou's daughter, is now the theater's education director. And for years Bellamy has been teaching the craft of directing to students at the University of Minnesota, ensuring that there's a new generation of artists ready to step in when his generation steps down.

And stepping may not be such a bad thing, according to Dale Warland. Warland says in the years he led the Dale Warland Singers, he never missed a rehearsal. He says he regularly turned down offers to guest conduct and teach, because he felt he had to be working with his ensemble. His retirement has led to opportunities he never imagined.

"Even though I'm working as hard as ever now, I do have some breathing space and a chance to say yes or no to things that come my way," said Warland. "So in that sense it's better. Do I miss it? Yes. Do I have any regrets? Yes."

Warland is thankful he was able to depart on his own terms. He recommends other artistic directors start planning early, so that they can do the same, before some sort of crisis forces the decision.

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