I bumped into an acquaintance the other day who's on the "inside" of the classical music funding world, and he repeated what I've heard in several emails about the Opera Boston debacle - that Lesley Koenig had so alienated the Opera Boston Board that she was largely to blame for the company's demise.
Now, I have no way of assessing the truth of that statement, but I will say it seems to have many partisans. And as I walked away from the conversation, I began to mull what I realized might count as a recent trend in the Boston arts scene:
The women we choose to lead our arts organizations too often flame out.
Koenig's case is hopefully the low point of the trend: her organization did not even survive her tenure. But only a year or so ago Kate Warner fled the New Repertory Theatre, practically in the middle of the night, after a season of declining revenues, rumors of pay cuts for staff, and a predilection for leaning on old friends from her previous job for artistic content. And then there's Diane Paulus, before whom everyone bows in public, but rolls their eyes about in private; she turned her second stage into a bar run by her husband; almost all her staff quit, and she packed the empty posts with cronies; and she openly uses the Loeb as a launching pad for her own Broadway ambitions - the last of which was a brazen attempt to extend the Gershwin estate copyright on Porgy and Bess under the cover of fighting racism. She's definitely the worst of the lot, but perhaps only because thanks to her friends and the bucks she generates for Harvard, she has managed to hang on.
So that's three disasters in almost as many years. Which doesn't mean there haven't been women distinguishing themselves in leadership positions around town - there's Kathleen Fay at the Boston Early Music Festival, for instance, and Esther Nelson at Boston Lyric Opera, and of course Jill Medvedow at the ICA (I'm not really a fan of the programming there, but anybody who got a building built and oversaw the vast expansion in attendance that Medvedow presided over is by most people's definition a success). And perhaps (kind of) balancing the equation is James Levine's slow decline and disappearance at the BSO, which was so badly managed it would have been funny if it weren't so sad.
Still, you have to ask yourself - what's going wrong? To put things generally, there was a big push to promote women into leadership positions three or four years ago, and it hasn't worked out so very well. Medvedow is still probably the only woman in the city whom you could point to as matching the institutional successes of people like Mikko Nissinen and Malcolm Rogers. So what's the issue here? I don't subscribe to any sexist notions about women's abilities (that's why I feel free to criticize them) - so are we simply promoting the wrong women? Is a certain political profile - and the ability to manipulate that profile - too often obscuring deficits in vision and personality? (That's my guess, btw.) If that's the case, hopefully the problem will work itself out over time - but only if we admit to ourselves that we have made some pretty big mistakes. Now it would be sad to see a backlash take shape, with men taking back our cultural leadership; but I also think we don't need to double down on the urge to hire a woman, no matter what (and the more politically liberal the better!) - because maybe that attitude is one reason why we've been hiring so many of the wrong women.