Go Deeper

Other Blogs: The Thoughts of a Lame Duck Artistic Director

Posted July 30th, 2013
Rick Shiomi, photo by Lia Chang.

Rick Shiomi, photo by Lia Chang.

Currently on Howlround is a great piece by Rick Shiomi, the artistic director of Mu Performing Arts, that details his days since he announced he was stepping down from the helm of the Minnesota company he helped create, and what it’s like to start anew at sixty-six. Zen and the Art of Leaving is greatly revealing about the thoughts of an artistic director who gave two years notice so that a successor could be found, the delicate maneuvering so as not to appear he was interfering with the search for a new leader, and the strange waiting once that succession is in place but his term is yet to end. If you’ve ever work at an organization where this took place and ever wondered what your boss was thinking during his/her final months, this is a rare peak into that situation.

With this long lead time, as if at his own funeral, he has been able to witness the process of his “passing” from a unique perspective. “Many people thought I was being very smart and generous in making the move to open the way for new and younger leadership. In fact I began to get questions asking me what retirement was like a year before I was to leave.” And once his replacement was selected and the transition period begun, yes, he did notice that “gradually, staff have begun to look past me to Randy when asking questions.” But instead of being jilted, came the relief of not being the one to carry the everyday stress of making “important” decisions and being the leader.

The article–more of a meditation–is especially interesting and observant because of his reasons for leaving. “As I approached the usual age of retirement, sixty-six, I decided I wanted one more kick at the can as an individual artist.” When he began reaching out last fall to friends and professional acquaintances about doing work, he found “that those with whom I had already worked were ready to hire me again, but those who hadn’t, had to make some adjustments in how they perceived me. In looking at me as a freelance director or playwright, they were not sure exactly how I might fit into their seasons. I had some success directing and playwriting at Mu but because I was the artistic director, I wasn’t evaluated as an individual artist.”

To me, this is such a fascinating phenomena, the change in how your peers perceive depending on your title, position, etc. Clearly, Shiomi has a career that demands respect and credibility, and he has benefitted from those contacts, but all the same once he goes on the other side, the individual artist side, he is suddenly viewed differently, no longer a contact to be cultivated because of his official position (my interpretation). Likewise, as he embarks on grant writing for his projects he finds that despite being “highly respected for my work with Mu, I have not found my niche (so to speak) in the world of competing for individual artist grants. I have one more serious application and now face the possibility of striking out on my first three swings. This has been a good lesson in changing the framework of one’s work. It’s not so easy being an individual, independent freelance artist. And that’s good to remember.”

And while he has a number of projects lined up, he has also begun to experience anxiety dreams. Still that comes from a man who instead of retiring is heading off on a new path, while also having  time to reflect on his life’s journey to this point, which has been full of turns he took when somewhat random opportunities presented themselves. He ends with this bit of wisdom, “So for me I think it has not been so much about planning and strategizing, as being open to what is possible when something happens that I hadn’t planned. I am a believer in that old boy scout saying ‘Be Prepared’ but my closing thought to those considering such a transition is ‘to respond to whatever comes your way.’ It’s a form of Zen, I think, and I have had rich and rewarding life experiences whenever I responded to whatever came my way. But the challenge is that responding in this way means that you have to embrace the uncertainty, because that’s when exciting things happen.”


–Said Johnson