Changing the Game

by Kelvin Dinkins Jr.

in SpotlightOn

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For the 25th National Conference in Cleveland, TCG is highlighting the current recipients of the Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowship and the SPARK Leadership Programs. These programs are unique to the field, and provide critical support and mentorship for the future leaders of our art form. In honor of our longstanding commitment to professional development across the field, we feel the time is right to expand the Spotlight On brand beyond the Conference. With this in mind, we are excited to be hosting the Spotlight On Series throughout May and June—all content leading up to the Conference.

TCG: When was the moment that you decided to take on an active pursuit towards an executive leadership role in the field?

Kelvin Dinkins, Jr.: The moment that solidified my commitment to the arts and to executive leadership happened amidst a crisis that a good number of non-profit theaters are in the midst of or rapidly approaching: closure.  Viewing a nationally renowned regional theater struggle to stay afloat from the inside is a demoralizing and disappointing experience that some have weathered and others have looked back on with regret.  In the moment, I was constantly torn between a fight or flight mentality but kept asking myself “how could this happen?” and “who let this happen?”  The financial crisis facing the theater was not my fault, and yet I felt no less responsible for maintaining the effort to help “save” this struggling company by any means I could. In one of the more reactive moments of my internal struggle, I found myself searching through grad school programs, out of curiosity, and considered whether or not to apply; if for no other reason than to have something to do in the (very likely) event that I would lose my job and have nowhere to go.  At that moment, I decided that I never wanted something like that particular crisis to happen to me or any theater that I was running.  I knew that I had to learn more about my craft and that if I was serious about becoming a producer/manager, I would have to gain the experience and education that could heighten my skill-set and perspective in the field that I had already decided to commit so much of my time, energy, and passion. Pursuing a Master’s Degree in Theatre Management & Producing was an investment that put me in the active pursuit towards the path to executive leadership in the arts and I have found it to be the greatest decision I have made for myself, especially at such a trying time in my life.  This decision was the first “Aha!” moment in my career and it guided my realization that the system is breaking and, in order to survive, we as the next generation of leaders will have to change the game.  To be frank: the existing system and its leadership roles were not designed with me in mind.  It is my intention to prepare and equip myself with the necessary resources and education it takes to redefine an executive leadership role in the arts for leaders of color.

TCG: As an executive leader what issues in the field do you hope to address? How would you like to do so?

Kelvin: Based on the myriad of articles surfacing about how the performing arts are in desperate need of good governance and leadership, I decided to commit my time in graduate school to understanding the dynamics of the relationship between board and executive management.  Amongst the arguments surrounding a much-needed resurgence in the field, are the trained managers who can swoop in and work miracles from the box office to the board room and, for some institutions, attracting and compensating such talent becomes increasingly difficult when keeping an eye on the bottom line. Laying the groundwork for innovative leadership and recruiting multi-talented producers and managers matriculating from grad school programs will take a lot of work for the current, forward-looking leadership in the field (executive leaders AND board members).  There is no consensus amongst theaters across the nation on what we would have the field look like over the next fifty years, but I would have to imagine that, if such a thing existed, sustainability, financial security and engaged board membership would be at or near the top of the list.  My thesis is entitled, “When Change Comes: The Sustainability Crisis of Nonprofit Theaters in America and Seeking Adaptive Capacity Through Change Management.” In it, I call for institutionalized board reform, organizational restructuring and change/crisis management training for students pursuing arts management in the non-profit arts.  The recommendations are by no means all-inclusive but they call for the dexterity needed not only to change the game but to change the rules and the players.

The best way for me to be of value to my field is to continue observing best practices and engaging current executive leaders in conversations that include these words: succession planning, board engagement, and organizational restructuring. Without new ways of evaluating whether or not our organizations, as well as the field at large, can be sustainable in a constantly shifting economy, I know few other ways to improve our standing.  New models of producing and addressing our audiences’ adaptive capacity for engagement are two target areas that I want to continue studying for the sake of keeping an arts organization healthy and boldly producing engaging work for its audience. I am aware that these are in fact lofty goals, but I see no other way to continue my passion for executive leadership than to make change by being the change I want to see.  I do believe that there are best practices as well as unavoidable circumstances in the non-profit arts world and that an executive leader should be equipped and ready to lead and engage a capable team of leaders around him in proper strategy and planning that looks beyond an organization’s present and towards the generation of leaders who will inherit these institutions.

TCG: Talk about a game changing moment in your career – a “big break” where you felt you could create a lasting legacy through your work as an executive leader of color?

Kelvin: I do not feel I have had this experience yet.  Though my current position has been the biggest leap for me in my career yet, I have not yet engaged my own capacity for creating a lasting legacy. I am of the mind right now that that kind of change happens at the executive level for people like Board Presidents, Managing Directors and Artistic Directors. From all of my positions so far, I have had the opportunity to watch others manage their legacies and commitments to an organization.

To shift gears, I would say my engagement in the SPARK leadership program has set me on my path to actually comprehending what my own legacy would/could be for the future.  I am, for perhaps the first time, engaging with other leaders like myself who do not necessarily reflect the current leadership in the field and it’s exciting!  I am currently interacting with a generation of leaders who have big ideas and unique ways of pursuing their own visions as leaders and leaders of color.  I can only start by addressing this opportunity as my “big break” because developing a relationship with these 9 other impressive and seasoned leaders has changed the game for me and my outlook on the type of leadership that inspires me.  They are a part of my team and in any game where winning is the objective you need the support of a team willing to aspire to similar goals and help one another in times of need.  We owe it to ourselves and those on a similar path to be resourceful, approachable, and generous with our innovation and time.  We are part of an ecosystem of artistic communities fighting a myriad of conflicts and still managing to create art that provokes, stimulates, and enriches our lives.  We must, as a field, afford the opportunity to be an integral part of these communities to leaders of color and promote equitable climates in which they can take charge.  It is disappointing that the field’s leadership is not a diverse sampling of the multitude of races and cultures in this country and I intend to be as prepared and qualified as possible when my time comes to be in an executive role.  To be at the helm of a theatre as an executive leader is very much my intention and if I can inspire other leaders and leaders of color to promote equity, inclusion and diversity at every level along the way, then I will have created a lasting legacy designed to benefit someone I have never met…and that is reward enough.

Kelvin Dinkins, Jr. is a Creative Producer/Theater Manager born in Queens, NY and raised in Atlanta, GA.  He developed a passion for arts administration and producing while an undergraduate at Princeton University where he received his A.B. degree in English and received a Certificate in Theatre & Dance from the Lewis Center for the Arts.  Kelvin received his M.F.A. in Theatre Management & Producing at Columbia University’s School of the Arts and is a member of the Graduate Board of Trustees, for Princeton University’s Triangle Club —which produces an original musical comedy and a national tour every year. His career has taken him to National Artists Management Company (NYC), Intiman Theatre in Seattle, WA (Associate General Manager),  National Corporate Theatre Fund (Development Fellow), and The Civilians (Communications and Development Manager).  Kelvin is the recipient of the EMC Arts/ArtsFWD Blogging Fellowship where he also contributed content for HowlRound on innovative solutions to challenges facing the arts field.  Kelvin is currently the General Manager of Two River Theater Company in Red Bank, NJ and is also a member of the inaugural Theatre Communications Group (TCG) SPARK leadership cohort for the professional development of leaders of color.