Why Arts Leaders Don’t Change?

Canadian psychologist Robert Gifford recently described seven psychological barriers that keep people from changing. Gifford’s area of interest is the environment – people don’t change their energy consumption habits even though global warming is likely to be catastrophic – but his observations apply just as well to the arts where leaders don’t change their management habits even though the industry suffers from chronic, potentially fatal, audience declines.

Here’s a brief paraphrase of what Dr. Gifford calls his “Seven Dragons of Inaction” along with some examples from the arts.

Limited Cognition

Humans simply may not be wired to anticipate future catastrophes and then change their behavior to prevent them from happening. For thousands of years we’ve dealt mostly with the here and now, and it’s only in the last few decades that we’ve been asked to gaze into the future, imagine the dire consequences of our actions and make wholesale changes in the way we live. Given the way we’ve evolved, we’re not very good at wrapping our minds around abstract future problems so we tend to drag our feet, assume that the problem is someone else’s or cling to irrational causes for optimism: “But sales were really strong for our Marvin Hamlisch tribute.”

Michael Kaiser complained recently in a Huffington Post blog that his consulting clients weren’t implementing sensible strategic plans even though they understood that inaction could have devastating consequences. It could be that when arts professionals fail to act it’s not because we’re lazy or stubborn, but because we simply don’t have the cognitive capacity to do it.


Some belief systems are so strong they blind people to reality. We all know how political ideologies can influence what people think about global warming, but there may be equally powerful ideologies preventing arts pros from understanding why change is necessary.

Long term tracking studies by the NEA have demonstrated chronic audience declines and conspicuous resistance among baby boomers to adopt the habits of their arts-consuming parents. Yet it’s still surprisingly easy to find arts professionals who’ve maintained a lifelong belief – and aren’t ashamed to profess – that people will somehow magically turn into arts patrons when their hair turns gray.

Significant Others

This one’s sort of like the blind leading the blind. I was working for a small museum a while back where I recommended some changes designed to appeal to new audiences. The museum decided they weren’t comfortable with the changes so they checked with other museums in the area, found that they weren’t contemplating such changes, and opted to stick with what they’d always done – even though it wasn’t working.

Sunken Costs

People who’ve made significant investments in the status quo are likely to defend those investments even if their long-term value is questionable. This helps to explain all those tuxedo-clad conductors on the covers of symphony orchestra brochures. From a new audience perspective they’re pure poison, but those photo shoots cost a fortune so there’s not a chance the pictures will be left out of the brochure.


One of the easiest ways to avoid change is to discredit the people who tell us that change is necessary. The energy industry does it by casting doubt on accepted environmental science. The arts industry does it by categorically dismissing management approaches that forecast and prepare for future threats and opportunities. “We’re the arts. We shouldn’t be expected to behave like businesses!”

Perceived Risks

Change is risky. One of the benefits of refusing to change is that you can avoid responsibility for failure. In the arts, it may be easier to succumb to seemingly inescapable external threats than to make proactive choices and have to answer for what happens. “Despite our best efforts to attract new audiences (i.e. doing the same things we’ve always done), we simply couldn’t sell enough tickets to keep the doors open.”

Positive but Inadequate Change

People do change, but the changes we’re willing to make are often not enough. Assigning a low-level staffer to tweet out show announcements is a nice gesture, but if it’s not part of a comprehensive long-term plan to participate generously, humbly and meaningfully in the broader social media conversation, it’s the equivalent putting a “Save the Environment” sticker on a Lincoln Navigator.

Gifford suggests that change is possible, but that we’ll need to understand and address these psychological resistance factors before we can bring about the change we want. I’m not sure how that would work in the arts, but at least his seven dragons give us a more focused way to think about the problem.


3 thoughts on “Why Arts Leaders Don’t Change?

  1. Trevor, I have written a similar blog post in the past. Contemplating change can take a long time. Deciding to change and take action can take an instance.

    I have had some similar experiences where I have suggested new programs, and a client was uncomfortable with going for it. I have learned that you can lead someone to water, but you can’t make them drink. They have to decide what they feel is right for them. If they feel they need to stay within their comfort zones, you will only be able to suggest small changes. I know that this can build frustration in us to see people that are not open to change presently, especially since we know the change can do them a world of good. Why are they still doing things the same old way if they are not getting results? However, ultimately it is not our decision to make. It’s their baby, not ours.

    Here’s a thought, we can help to guide people to take on small changes and continue this process until their comfort zone is stretched a little further (and further). Some people may feel brave to take the plunge, but others can still reach the same destination albeit over a longer period of time. As in life, everyone is on their own path, and we do need to respect this fact.

    Yes, we rather see the changes be implemented quickly and efficiently to see a stronger arts world in the present. We can become impatient since we sometimes forget to acknowledge that change is currently happening in our field. Change is happening and it will continue to broaden in time. Plus, there are people that will serve as the innovators to blaze the trail and guide the way for the rest of the industry.

    So, it may not be a matter of figuring out the psychology of resistance (although that could be helpful). It may be a matter of dealing with the resistance we have as consultants to work with the client’s time frame for change. They have their own journeys, and they will change in their own time, if they want to change. The world will keep changing around them, and it will up to them whether or not they want to join the new movement or be left behind. We can only guide as best as we can and decide whether or not we want to work with clients that are resistant to new methods of building their audiences and strengthening their arts businesses. They may have the desire to change, but have not yet made the decision to take action.

    Yes, it may mean that some people will be left behind, or forced to close their arts business, but they always have the option to jump back in with a fresh, new attitude. It is their choice to make in their own time. On the flipside, we can evaluate and choose who we want to work with to spearhead change. We still have some choice in the matter too.

  2. I’m a new arts administrator. Actually, I’m still earning my masters in arts administration, but was lucky enough to receive a job in marketing for an opera and ballet company while still finishing the degree. I have been reading and following what is going on and believe that we are at an awkward phase with current arts administrators and marketers. Why awkward? I’m fortunate enough to be working in an office where I’m not only learning, but my voice is being heard. That is sometimes rare for young entrepreneurs because there are still people that think we do not know what we are talking about. There is a stigma with my generation; we don’t read enough, we are always on our phones, we don’t respect ourselves enough, etc. That’s kind of why you see a lot of individuals that start their own companies when they get out of college from being in a drama department or art institute. Why is that? Because I think we feel it is harder to find a job these days with the top dogs that started from nothing to create a wonderful arts organization. Instead of working our way to the top with these role models, we rather be our own boss. I personally would rather work at the bottom and see if I can make way to the top in a place I admire. We all have to buy coffee once in our lives before we can ask someone to get it for us.

    For now, I think some arts organizations are stubborn because they might not be ready to accept that the way people these days enjoy their luxury goods (watching a movie, going to the opera, or symphony) is not the same anymore. Sometimes changing a pattern is like pulling teeth. Maybe they should look to new, young leaders because there are those of us that do want to make a difference and help.

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