Executive directors in the arts are a unique breed. They’re equal parts creative and strategic, with a firm grounding in your artistic discipline as well as business operations. With interview questions that address both aspects of the job, you can find the candidate who understands your goals and knows how to achieve them.
Know Your Goals
Before you begin interviewing candidates, take time to assess your current state and come up with goals for the future. Then, work with your staff to decide how the new director can help you reach each goal. If you’re just starting out, for example, you might want a gregarious and well-connected candidate to help you build the organization’s visibility. If your organization is already established, you might look for someone who can revamp the strategic plan or woo large donors.
Every arts professional is different, especially when it comes to core philosophies. Some believe heavily in education, for example, while others are focused on pushing artistic boundaries. Your new director’s beliefs can have a big impact on the organization, so it’s important to learn about them before you make an offer. One option is to ask straight out, “What is your core philosophy when it comes to the arts?” Alternatively, you might ask, “What do you see as the future of the arts, and how would you put those beliefs to work in our organization?”
Leadership can be difficult to assess in an interview, but reality-based questions can help you understand a candidate’s style. You could say, “We work with 20 different visual artists, each with different temperaments and styles. Can you describe a time where you had to manage creative personnel while still achieving the organization’s goals?” If you have a limited staff who are prone to overwork, see if a candidate can promote healthy self-care with questions such as, “How do you know when employees are over-extending themselves, and how would you respond?” or “Arts administration often requires evening hours. How do you create work-life balance?”
Each sector of the arts has its own challenges and quirks, so the right executive director should have an in-depth understanding of your organization’s discipline. Look to candidates’ resumes for clues about their background, and ask followup questions such as, “I see you directed several community theater productions. Do you have any exposure to professional theater?” or “You’ve worked extensively in modern dance. How does that experience apply to our classical ballet company?”If you feel doubtful, try posing situations. If you ask, “How would you deal with a principal opera singer who refused to do interviews during vocal rest days?” you can find out whether the candidate understands common singing prep work.
Once you’re confident that an executive director candidate understands your arts discipline, it’s time to talk strategy. You might start with an applicant’s background: “Your resume says that you increased gallery attendance by 50% in your last job. Can you tell us about your process?” Or, use your organization as a model: “Given what you know about our choral group, what steps would you take to help us create programming that keeps our audiences interested and builds interest in non-traditional audiences? How would you implement them at an operational level?”
An executive director is the face of your arts nonprofit. They deal with your major donors, represent you in TV interviews, and interact with the people you serve. Messaging is key; your director should be able to adapt your mission and vision to suit any audience. To test this ability, try coming at an issue from multiple angles: “How would you respond if a reporter asked you to describe your most arts advocacy initiative? How would you explain the same initiative to a group of people who volunteered to work on it? How would you introduce it to a potential donor?”Interviewing candidates for an executive director position is an exciting process. By using questions that relate directly to your artistic mission, you can find the perfect fit.