Sunday, February 19, 2012

Are we promoting the wrong women?

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.


  1. I am a fan of yours and frequently defend you to other people in the theater world, but this post is just gratuitous. It's exactly the kind of thing that allows people to ignore your impressive insights and dismiss you a racist, misogynist, homophobe, or whatever.

    In the course of three years, you have found three women among all the arts organizations in Boston who either didn't work out or you don't like. And the circumstances in all three cases are vastly different. I don't see how you can even begin to see a trend here.

    If we changed the sample pool here to ten years, I bet we could find ten male artistic directors who didn't work out. I bet we could find three failed shows by men directors that failed in three years too. Would that mean we were promoting male directors too fast?

    I applaud your desire to provoke your readership and usually feel it happens in a very thoughtful way. This post is different.

  2. Sorry you feel that way, Lawrence, but when three high-profile women flame out within three years, it is perforce a trend. And all these situations have been EPIC failures, not just problematic careers troubled by mistakes. One company was actually disbanded, apparently, many claim, to eliminate the director in question; another one was headed toward commercial collapse, before the director was basically forced out; and the final one of course is a commercial success, but has been essentially gutted as a non-profit artistic enterprise. These women have all been worse than any male artistic director I can think of in the past decade (or more); one I'd argue could be the worst artistic director Boston has ever seen.

    So to your claim that I could find as many male flame-outs in as many years, if only I looked - well, good luck with that one! Because I did indeed think back and try to recall even a single man who actually drove his company into the ground, or eviscerated it. But I could only think of one (and there, the collapse was largely the fault of the Board). There have been bad male artistic directors in these parts, certainly, but none on this scale. Comment again when you find these guys.