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Jillian L. Johnson

Art vs. the Bottom Line: A Study of Leadership in Chicago Theaters

        Vision and mission are what guides most arts institutions. With these two ideals firmly identified, an arts organization can successfully connect its artistic purpose to its role in public service. The arts and other cultural institutions that present, interpret, and preserve mankind’s artistic endeavors are necessary entities. Their presence, development, and growth are vital to maintaining communities, providing learning experiences for all ages, and enriching lives. It is this basic connection that is the heart of why theater and other cultural institutions matter.

        In recent years, however, there has been a growing concern that theaters and other arts organizations have lost this sense of artistic purpose and are no longer driven by a vision but by the financial bottom line. Fiscal concerns are more commonly becoming the driving force behind an organization’s decisions. Because of this, the lines between the nonprofit and the for-profit sectors are blurring. In order to maintain the basic purpose of nonprofit organizations, which is about the art and not the dollar, it is essential to find a financial and artistic balance.

        What might constitute a “best practice” solution concerning leadership in the restructuring of the theater institutional model? What can be done in order to restore the balance between artistic vision and the financial bottom line? Answers may be found through examining the leadership theories that are used in today’s theaters. Three prominent theatres in Chicago will allow an analysis of their unique leadership style: Victory Gardens Theater, the Goodman Theater, and Steppenwolf Theater Co.  Each of these theaters started as a small organization run by a group of artists in order to showcase and nurture Chicago-based talent. These artists were committed to the organization and its vision that was based on the people and community whom they served. These theaters are now nationally and internationally recognized. Close analysis of their institutional structure as well as their internal structure of leadership and management will be examined in order to establish a “best practice” solution and ensure future successes. This analysis will also be used to construct the leadership profile that is needed. The studies will draw their data from all levels of these institutions.

        The lessons learned about the balance between art and financial bottom line might present answers to similar problems found in other kinds of arts organizations. In this way it will not only offer insight into the internal challenges of the theater institutional model, but will also add to the conversation about leadership issues in non-profit arts organizations.


        In 2002, Jillian L. Johnson received a BA in Vocal Music with minors in both Theater and Arts Administration from the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater. While pursuing her MAAA degree, Jillian served as the Exhibition Coordinator for BookMark’s Collaborative Project, and interned with Equity Library Theatre Company on the Midwest premier of Arthur Miller’s The Ride Down Mount Morgan.


Thesis Advisor: Nicholas LoweVisiting Artist, Arts Administration

Thesis Reader: Megan Matthews Lecturer, Arts Management, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

Second Reader: Lolita Sereleas Adjunct Professor, Public Services Management Program, DePaul University; Executive Director, Fund Consulting, Inc.









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