Arts and culture organisations must plan for life beyond their founders
By Snehajaya Karanth
Succession battles, as the satirical dark comedy series and many real life examples show, can be entertaining for viewers and onlookers. Not so much for an organisation or business going through similar circumstances.
In the arts, many organisations are fuelled by the energy of their founders. What happens when that founder tires, or ages, or just wants to do something different, or — we live in an era of untimely losses — if they pass on unexpectedly? If an organisation must grow beyond its founder, it always helps to have a second rung, trained, and groomed to take over. New leaders can come from within the system, or be brought in from the outside, but it seems logical to have a succession plan in place is as important, perhaps more so, than to have an impeccable track record, meticulous accounts and a well-structured calendar.
We spoke to a few organisations to better understand how it works in practice.
When the late theatre-maker Veenapani Chawla moved Adishakti Laboratory for Theatre Art Research — the research and repertory company she founded — from Mumbai to Pondicherry in 1993, the future leadership was already being discussed, and over time, not one leader but two were groomed to take over: her student Vinay Kumar and actor and dancer Nimmy Raphel. Kumar became artistic director and managing trustee after Chawla’s demise in 2014, and Raphel is next in line. It is critical, Kumar says, that a designated successor be aligned with the organisation's vision, which would come from working with the organisation. Other important factors: a clear vision and ideas, both for the self and the organisation, a hunger to achieve, and the person’s age.
With the West Bengal-based Jana Sanskriti Centre for the Theatre of the Oppressed, the plan is to let the community decide, when the time comes. Sanjoy Ganguly, founder and artistic director, says the organisation has kept evolving over three decades of its existence, and its members span three generations, forming a community that spans 30 satellite towns, with a coordination team and a general body. Ganguly says the Jana Shanti has been deliberating over the way forward for over a decade, but that the community is intellectually independent enough to take the decision when it comes up. He thinks the leadership will emerge from the talent pool within the organisation, and would ideally be from among the younger members who may have joined later but have been contributing significantly to the organisation.
After founding Bengaluru’s Indian Ensemble in 2009, Abhishek Majumdar and Sandeep Shikhar worked on building the company — making plays, training programmes, and outreach — but also saw the need to hand over to an artistic director to make space for fresh ideas. It had to be someone who has an interesting creative vision, Majumdar says, someone with the ability to build confidence in others, who could execute their objectives: foreground artistic choice before anything else, ensure that the training programme is free for those interested, and equal sharing of money between all the artists. The person they chose was someone who was already part of the team, its associate artistic director, Chanakya Vyas. Vyas, a director, playwright, and teacher, was familiar with the company's ecosystem, an important consideration. He has led several outreach programmes during the pandemic, but he is now ready to hand over leadership and focus on his own creative endeavours. But first, a new leader must be found, and Vyas will stay on until he can hand over. His successor would need to know the economics of running a theatre company, and be aligned to its core goal: theatre based on original texts in Indian languages backed by thorough research.
The not-for-profit funding organisation India Foundation for Arts (IFA) was set up by Ford Foundation and its then programme officer, Anmol Vellani became IFA’s first executive director and led it for 18 years. The transition to its second leader was smooth: Arundhati Ghosh, who joined IFA as its first fundraiser in 2001, and rose to deputy director, working closely with Vellani, took over the leadership role in 2013. When asked who's next, she said that there is a succession strategy in place, and “The process is inclusive and democratic, guided by the Board of Trustees,” but did not go into details.
Some comparatively newer organisations have already begun work on their next leaders. When Abhishek Poddar first envisioned what became the Museum of Art & Photography (MAP) in Bengaluru in 2016, he also built a founding team, and found a leader with experience working with museums and the ability to build a forward-looking institution, Kamini Sawhney, to be its first director. The criteria defining the search: the right person would be from India, drawing on Indian cultural experiences, but able to think globally. Sawhney encourages her team to multitask between departments to ensure they can handle multiple responsibilities, a part of the plan to build a strong second rung. A proper succession planning exercise is in the works, she says.
At TIFA Working Studios in Pune, founder-director Trishla Talera says that leadership will change in the next five years. She plans to build several verticals and will have middle management taking care of them, and eventually a programme director will take over and she herself will move to an advisory position. The director would have the autonomy to make decisions for TIFA, she says, and will probably be someone external with prior expertise and experience.
DC Books, the well-known publishing house, has been, thus far, a family enterprise. Dominic Chacko ‘DC’ Kizhakkemuri, founded and ran the company until his health began deteriorating; Ravi DeeCee, his son, had worked closely with his father for a while, took the reins. DeeCee says it is too early to comment on what the firm’s plans are, but that the vision is to grow the organisation independent of the family.
Sometimes even well-planned successions do not work out. Bengaluru’s Ranga Shankara, founded by film and theatre actor Arundathi Nag, saw her juggling multiple roles before she experienced burnout, and handed over the leadership to S. Surendranath, a friend, playwright, and director with many years of experience in theatre and television. He was also a trustee of Sanket Trust (the non-profit administering the theatre’s activities), and therefore knew the organisation well. But during the pandemic, he decided to step down, and Nag stepped into the breach, but only as an interim measure. The next leader needed to be young, someone who could lead Ranga Shankara into an uncertain future, maintaining its excellence while also keeping it an inclusive and generous space. The quest led to Sapan Saran, poet, writer, and actor, who took charge as the artistic director this month, for a term of three to five years, with the remit including that she train the next director. Nag says this is a happy transition, one that she sees as hand-holding and then letting go.
Founders with the kind of foresight that Nag has — and the ability to let go — don’t make for good television drama, but they will ensure that the organisations they create will grow beyond them, harmoniously.