A Periodic Broadside for Arts and Culture Workers
August 2006. Vol. 10, No. 3.
Center for Community Arts and Cultural Policy
Arts & Administration Program, University of Oregon                        ISSN 1541-938X

Boomers, XY’s and the Making of a Generational Shift in Arts Management (1)

Victoria J. Saunders

In 1999, Americans for the Arts (AFTA), a national arts advocacy and service organization, created a peer group called the Emerging Leaders Council as an advisory body to assist in the advancement of programs and services that promote the growth and development of emerging arts professionals nationwide (Americans for the Arts, 1999). What AFTA addressed with these efforts is the recognition that:

1) Between 50 and 85 percent of non-profit executives plan to retire in the next five years;

2) The current generation of young professionals who are between the ages of 20 and 35 are preparing to take the helm of arts and culture organizations in communities across America; and

3) There is a need to nurture and develop these young professionals into strong successful leaders if we are to continue building on the foundation that the previous generation has established for the field of arts and culture administration.

While the itemized list above could be simply described as a standard set of current environmental conditions for the non profit arts administration field, they have become the topics of more impassioned discussions at conferences, professional gatherings and in web blogs around the country. Like the conflicts between young people and their authority figures that were made famous in the generation gap of the late 60's and early 70's, we are beginning to experience similar tensions between those emerging non-profit arts leaders who are entering the field and those who are soon to be retiring but who are still managing and directing. Of broader concern is whether or not both age groups will be able to work together to encourage and affect a rich and rewarding transfer of arts leadership from one generation to the next. To do so will enable the field as a whole to emerge stronger and more resilient in the long run.

This article is the first of two that will examine the generational shifts occurring in arts management leadership and the implications for the field as a whole as we begin the transition from Baby Boomers to Echo Boomers (children of Baby Boomers more commonly referred to as Gen X and Gen Y). In this article we will define the differences between the lifestyles and work habits of these generations and how those differences will play a pivotal role in the successful transition of leadership from one generation to the next.

Defining Generations

While generational transitions in leadership are not unusual, they are more pronounced today due to the size of the outgoing Baby Boom population and the changes in technology and lifestyle that affect the incoming Echo Boom demographic. The following is a brief and select summary of the characteristics and issues that each generation brings to the table:

Baby Boom Generation and the Emergence of Professional Arts Administrators

The Baby Boom took place between 1946 and 1964. Baby Boomers represent 30% of the population in 2006 and a workforce of 75 million strong. Between 1980 and 2000, the pool of prime executive age men and women (ages 34 to 54) swelled to 35 million (Tierney, 2006). This year, the first "Boomers" are reaching a retirement age of 60. This generation is marked by its workaholic tendencies and the need to define its success by its productivity. Boomers pushed the trend towards 65 hour work weeks and take pride in their ability to "multitask", a term they developed to describe both a computer’s and human being’s ability to simultaneously perform two or more tasks at once. Ideals that fueled social consciousness and creativity also led to the creation of the field of arts administration as we know it today—from grassroots community arts movements to the emergence of non profit arts organizations, state and local arts agencies, and the National Endowment for the Arts. John Kreidler (1996), Executive Director of Cultural Initiative Silicon Valley and the author of Leverage Lost: The Non profit Arts in the Post-Ford Era stated:

…by far the most significant factor in …[the non profit arts] movement's origin was the sudden arrival, in the 1960s, of a huge generation of …artists, technicians and administrators, driven not by funding or economic gain, but rather by their own desire to produce art….This training and desire resulted from several broad influences that coincided at roughly the same moment: significant shifts in societal values, a peak in economic prosperity, the arrival of the massive baby-boom generation on American college campuses, the momentary ascendancy of liberal arts education, and a high water mark in leisure time.

Given the newness of the field, there were no classes or university degrees in arts management for early arts administrators; much of the professional field was created on the fly. Those who were establishing the field were in their 20's and 30's and had left other careers to embark on this new journey we call arts management. Today Boomer arts administrators, now in their 50's and early 60’s, are proud of their contributions to the field and have found it hard to relinquish the reigns for reasons that range from economic necessity to a love of their work. Goldbard (2006) explained this difficulty letting go in the following terms:

Almost without exception, [Baby Boomers] persisted because they started those organizations and nurtured them through innumerable permutations of power-sharing, so that to contemplate leaving them (as they eventually must) is pretty much on a par with abandoning their children.

Now entering retirement age, Boomer administrators are finding themselves hovering between holding on and letting go of their current leadership positions in a field they largely established. The next generation is markedly different from theirs, however, and they are apprehensive about handing over the reins. For the past six years arts consultant Bill Moskin has been exploring ways to nurture the next generation of arts leaders through a project funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. In a recent interview, Moskin (2006) noted that the older generation is concerned that when they leave, the vast knowledge of the field and its history will be lost. Established leaders are also concerned that the current academic programs in arts administration are geared more towards developing expertise in matters such as grant writing and fund accounting while ignoring the "soft skills" of leadership like community and political organizing, making presentations to elected officials and arts advocacy. Established leaders are looking at today's young leaders in terms of their own leadership style rather than in terms of what makes the newer generation, with its distinctive characteristics and perspective, equally as capable. While they acknowledge the next generation’s viability, they are not sure how to work with it to move the field forward after they retire.

Echo Boomers: Generations X and Y

Generation X (Gen X) identifies those who were born between 1961 and 1981; today they are between the ages of 25 and 45. Closely tied to Gen X are those born between 1977 and 2003 who are identified as Generation Y (Gen Y). The first Gen Ys are turning 29 years old this year; the same age at which many Boomers began leading local arts organizations in the late 60's and 70's. Generations X and Y (XYs) more frequently experienced the absence of parental involvement due to divorce and increased work demands. The first "latch key kids" have learned to become self-reliant adults. Yet they also experienced new child-rearing styles that led to an entitlement to high self esteem and parents becoming both friends and authority figures. Thus, today's young leaders yearn for greater recognition from as well as a more equal relationship with their bosses than their predecessors.

More workplace differences rise because XYs are not willing to follow the Boomer's workaholic style, have a stronger need for work/life balance and are highly influenced by quality of life concerns (Green, 2006). This has created tension in the workplace as XYs choose to spend comparatively less time in the office and more time in other artistic or personal pursuits than their predecessors while still wanting to maintain financial stability and gain recognition for their leadership in the field. While seemingly contradictory to Boomers, it is nonetheless a real need that characterizes the XY generation. This point has been brought out in several AFTA Emerging Leaders listserv threads as well as in a recent focus group of young arts administrators held in San Diego. The focus group was convened to get a first hand account of these concerns from the Emerging Leaders of Arts and Culture San Diego, a group of 20-35 year old arts administrators in San Diego’s arts and culture community. 

A major difference for XY's that has been brought out in listserv threads and the focus group dialogue is the frustration that XY's have with the dissimilarity in technological experience between the Boomers and the younger generations. The computer age begun by the Boomers has been capitalized on by XYs—who grew up with home computers, video games, and the internet. Thus, XY's are the first to completely incorporate computers and technology into their everyday lives. They know more about how to use technology than their supervisors and are often frustrated by the amount of time they spend helping older staff members navigate their computer systems. Many feel that they have expertise that is frequently called upon by their bosses and that they provide a significant contribution to the organization’s productivity and yet, they do not receive the recognition for their expertise or their contribution.

Another difference with the XY's is that larger numbers of young arts leaders are entering the field with undergraduate and/or graduate degrees in arts administration and with far more academic training in the field than their predecessors. This creates friction as young professionals emerge with sound educational qualifications but none of the extensive practical-on-the-job experience held by the older leadership. Boomer heavy boards of directors, charged with hiring successors to retiring leaders, are uncertain of the leadership abilities of these less experienced up and comers and are less likely to hire them for upper level positions. Young arts administrators in the San Diego focus group noted an age-defined "glass ceiling" hanging over their ability to move up the institutional ladder, especially in larger and more well-established organizations. Further complicating matters, is the notion that the non profit field is losing ground as a viable employment option as young leaders begin demanding higher pay. Laden with the high cost of their college education, today’s young leaders are not as eager as their predecessors to forego financial stability or competitive wages for the "desire to produce art". Thus, they are more likely to look beyond the non profit arena in search of employment in the creative industry's private sector. As such, it raises a concern about the potential loss of future leadership as young arts professionals may opt out of the non profit realm. And finally, while some are ready to move on and others are just waiting for the Boomers to step aside, still others are unsure of their professional expertise and leadership acumen and are interested in mentoring opportunities with established executives to learn from their experience and build their skills as leaders.

Next Steps

A Generation Gap clearly exists in the non profit arts sector. Armed with our ability to utilize the information we have about the qualities and characteristics of each generation, we can move forward, celebrating the experience and skills of the outgoing leadership while capitalizing on the vibrant energy and fresh ideas of the incoming generation. Moskin (2006) noted that the shift in leadership and its implications has held sway in issue-oriented theoretical discussion in private conversations as well as in public roundtables, blogs (Hessenius, 2005 and 2006) and professional circles. However, Moskin also offered that there has not been any overall movement towards bringing the generations together in a concerted way. As such, it is important to create an environment where established and emerging arts administrators can begin to explore how they might be able to learn from one another, share with one another, and work together despite their differences. In this way, they will shape the future for arts management and the sustainability of arts and culture programs and services for future generations of patrons and audiences.

The arts and culture field values collaboration, diversity, and inclusion. The profession goes to great lengths to ensure that these values are transmitted and expressed through our artistic processes, grantmaking, and board and staff development efforts. We pontificate on diversity at convenings, publish articles on collaboration in journals, and encourage discussion about inclusivity in college classrooms. It is now time to put our best understanding of these concepts into practice. This generational shift in leadership and all its implications is the perfect opportunity for arts leaders to embrace cross-generational collaboration, age diversity, and professional inclusivity with our own colleagues as we enter into a process that will help move the field through a difficult transition. This can be done with the collective goal of creating a future that ensures that the arts remain a relevant force in the American experience. The next article will examine ways in which this leadership transition might take place.

1. This is the first of a two part series.  Part two will focus on select ways in which arts institutions and community arts groups may address leadership transitions.  This article will be published in the Fall 2006 issue of CultureWork.


Americans for the Arts. (1999). Field services; Emerging leaders in the arts. Retrieved July 10, 2006, from

Focus Group of Emerging Leaders of Arts and Culture held in San Diego on July 27, 2006, facilitated by Victoria J. Saunders.

Goldbard, A. (May 19, 2006). Nobody here but us chickens. Retrieved June 18, 2006, from

Green, E. (2006, June 12). Work zone: New grads seek jobs focusing on fun, ethics and social worth. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved June 18, 2006, from

Hessenius, B. (2006, March 14). Barry's blog and update: Hessenius group focus on involving younger people in the arts. Retrieved June 18, 2006,

Hessenius, B. (2005, November 8) Barry's blog and update. Retrieved June 18, 2006, from 

Kreidler, J. (1996, February 16). Leverage lost: The non profit arts in the post-Ford era, Part 2 - The Ford era 1957-1990: Leverage gained. In Motion Magazine. Retrieved August 1, 2006, from

Moskin, B. (2006, July 7).  Personal Interview.

Tierney, T.  (2006, June 1).  The leadership deficit.  Stanford Social Innovation Review. Retrieved June 23, 2006, from   

Victoria J. Saunders is an arts management consultant in San Diego. In October 2004, while a staff person at the City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture, Saunders launched the first professional and leadership development program for young arts administrators in San Diego—Emerging Leaders of Arts and Culture San Diego. She continues to work with this group while researching the issues of leadership and professional transition in the non profit arts and culture sector. Saunders received her MA in Arts Education, Community Cultural Services from the University of Oregon in 1991.

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Editors: Julie and Robert Voelker-Morris                                        Advisor: Dr. Douglas Blandy. 

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