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Being a founding director of a nonprofit arts organization is a bit like being a parent: if you do a really good job, your offspring should one day be able to thrive without you.

These days, many Metro Detroit-area founders are in the process of becoming “empty nesters” as they retire and hand the keys over to someone new.

Often (but not always), an organization’s board will recruit and find a new executive director, independent of the outgoing leader.

“I did not take part in the interviews because that relationship, we believe, is between (board members) and the new director,” said Peg Upmeyer, who co-founded Detroit’s Arts & Scraps in 1989 and stepped down as executive director late last fall. “The plan moving forward did not include me, because the plan moving forward doesn’t need me.”

James Henderson Arts and Scraps 7892James Henderson at Arts & ScrapsArts & Scraps takes recycled industrial materials and invites people of all ages to use them to think, create and learn. The organization started its life as a resource center in the basement of Detroit’s First Lutheran Church, and re-located numerous times before landing—in 2006—at its current location at 16135 Harper. Arts & Scraps’ new executive director, James Henderson, formerly worked as vice president of operations, outreach and strategic partnerships for Metro Detroit Charter Center, and Upmeyer spent her last three weeks on the job working alongside Henderson to ease the transition.

“I had no anxiety whatsoever in leaving the organization,” Upmeyer recalls. “We started on this three years ago, when the board developed a plan to replace me. We knew we needed to buff up the middle level of the organization, because there had always been a bunch of part-time people and me. For a while, that was fine, but … we were growing to a point where we needed more administrative work done than I had the time ability to do. And because money that we used to get from the school systems for our programs went away three or four years ago, … we had to start applying for more grants for scholarships. And it’s much more labor intensive to write grants and administer them, in terms of tracking and documentation. We were not equipped to do all that with just one full-time person.” Arts & Scraps has an annual operating budget of approximately $400,000.

Regarding the value of Arts & Scraps, Upmeyer said, “Kids don’t often get asked to think. They either follow directions or memorize, and we’re all about thinking and using the creative process … to help kids learn. They can learn that Venus is hotter than Mercury because of its dense atmosphere. Ho hum. But if a kid makes a planet, … they have to think about and use those facts. And because they have fun doing it, they absorb the lesson more.”

terry blackhawk 01 DMC 6769Terry BlackhawkMeanwhile, Detroit’s InsideOut Literary Arts Project—a youth poetry project that launched in 1995 with writers-in-residence at five Detroit high schools—experienced a gap between the time when its founder, Terry Blackhawk, retired as executive director in mid-2015, and the end of 2016, when Suma Karaman Rosen took the reins. (The organization operates with an annual budget of more than $800,000.)

Even so, “it’s been one of the smoothest transitions I’ve ever experienced, and that’s because of a couple of things,” said Rosen, who previously worked as director of development of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services. “The team here thought about what I would need the first couple of weeks, and they built a structure around on-boarding me. Like, the woman who helped recruit me for the position helped the handoff by being here for meetings for the first week. And the other piece of it really is, this is what I want to be doing. I feel like I’ve stepped into the perfect place for me. The organization’s mission aligns with who I am as a person.”

Like Upmeyer, Blackhawk stayed away from the process of selecting the organization’s next leader. “Terry reached out to me, and we met up between Christmas and New Year, when she was in town,” said Rosen. “We met as two people who care deeply about this organization. So it’s been a friendly transition in that way, too. It feels really good.”

afa dworkin 01 DSC 2410Afa DworkinThere are several changes afoot regionally, in terms of arts organization founders stepping down from leadership positions. Matrix Theatre Company (founded in 1991) co-founder Dr. Shaun Nethercott stepped down as executive director in 2016; Detroit Repertory Theatre co-founder and artistic and managing director Bruce Millan, along with cofounder and fiscal officer Barbara Busby, are currently wrapping up their 60th and final season with the company; and the Sphinx Organization’s founder, Aaron P. Dworkin, left in 2015 to become dean of U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance. (His wife, Afa S. Dworkin, has stepped in as Sphinx’s president and artistic director.)

Is there a reason why so many arts nonprofits are transitioning leadership now? 

"Your organization is like your child, and you want to [leave] when you feel it can be most successful."

“I don’t think so,” said Maury Okun, executive director of Detroit Chamber Winds and Strings and ArtOps, which operates in collaboration with Eisenhower Dance and the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival. “Part of it is, organizations … want to do it at a time when they’re on firm footing. … It’s difficult, no matter what. Your organization is like your child, and you want to do it when you feel it can be most successful. So it happens most often when the economy and the world are a little more prosperous, and things don’t look quite so dire. And you do it when you can attract the best successor you can. It’s easier to do that in good times than in bad.”

Okun noted that all arts nonprofits worry about “founder’s syndrome,” wherein the line between an individual and the organization that he/she launched becomes so blurred that the founder’s retirement delivers what is ultimately a fatal blow.

“It’s particularly hard for smaller organizations, because all the development contacts are owned, in a sense, by the founder, so once he or she is no longer on the scene, how do you effectively transfer those to other people?” said Okun. “When you’re giving the Detroit Symphony Orchestra money, you’re donating to it because it’s an important part of civic life, and the life of the community. But with smaller organizations, you have to develop relationships with people. … It definitely makes the founder stepping down more of a challenge.”

For this reason and more, stepping into any founder’s shoes can feel daunting.

“It doesn’t weigh on me too much, except for maybe making me even more committed to making sure InsideOut is here for many more years, and that it’s healthy and strong as an organization,” said Rosen. 

And for those leaving, after investing decades, goodbyes can be bittersweet.

“There are highs and lows that go with it,” said Laurie Eisenhower, the founding artistic director and choreographer of Eisenhower Dance, who will leave the organization this summer. “Part of me is looking forward to not waking up every morning and thinking about the company first thing. But I’ve given so much of my life to it that, it’s going to be an interesting change. In a way, I’m glad I’ll be moving away to Arizona, so there will be a cleaner break.”

Eisenhower is relocating West to be with her parents, who are 89 and 91. She established the Southfield-based professional dance company in 1991, after the Harbinger Dance Company closed its doors. She’d originally planned to leave Michigan, but since she knew her fellow dancers wanted to keep working locally, she launched her own company.

“Each year, the goals were to do more performances, and to pay the dancers more,” said Eisenhower. “26 years later, we’re an international touring dance company. But it started with baby steps. We just kept growing and learning and developing.”

Eisenhower, unlike Blackhawk and Upmeyer, played an active role in finding her successor: founding member Stephanie Pizzo, who’s long worked as the company’s co-artistic director and choreographer. 

“She knew the company inside and out,” said Eisenhower. “We’ve started preparing her this year, … so she’s doing as much as she can to run the company, and I’m more ‘back up.’ In some ways, it’s good, so she can ask me questions as she takes things on for the first time.”

The transition has been occasionally challenging, of course. “This year might be the toughest, because I’m taking a backseat already, and I’m used to being in charge and calling the shots,” said Eisenhower. “But I was never into this for my own ego. It was always about being in the studio with the dancers, and working with the donors and the board. … And sometimes, when there’s a change in an organization, it makes people think of new ideas, and new ways to do things. It can stir things up in a good way.”

James Henderson Arts and Scraps 7881Though each of these organizations has lasted for decades, the struggle to find new ways to survive inevitably gets handed down to new leaders. For instance, because Arts & Scraps and InsideOut have historically reached kids through programs in the Detroit Public Schools (among other systems), the schools’ increasingly strained, shrinking budgets make it hard to find a way to bring together the organizations and the students who likely need their programs most.

“DPS is not known for being flush with cash, and there’s always lots of turnover, including new school board members, so there’s a constantly shifting landscape,” said Rosen. “We’ve got a strong relationship with people in the schools, and that’s great, … but the schools don’t have money at this point, and we have this incredibly great product, this service that we know changes lives. So it always come back to, ‘How can we make things happen?’”

That’s the question all leaders face, of course. But just as independent, responsible adults still occasionally call their parents for sage advice, some company founders are willing to offer occasional feedback from afar.

“It’s not like I’m going away permanently,” said Eisenhower. “They can still call and ask me questions, even though it will be their company.”

Photos courtesy of Doug Coombe

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