2018 Robert Wilson

Robert Wilson: An Artist and A Leader

by Herb Rubenstein and Jan Garden Castro

Herb Rubenstein

Herb Rubenstein is the lead author of numerous books and articles on leadership. He is President of Herb Rubenstein Consulting and served as a member of the board of directors of the International Leadership Association. Throughout his career he has held numerous leadership positions and taught leadership in the government, business, education, health, and nonprofit sectors. He holds a law degree from Georgetown University, a Master of Public Affairs from the LBJ School of Public Affairs, and a graduate degree in sociology from the University of Bristol, England. You can reach him at herb@sbizgroup.com. Learn more at www.herbrubenstein.com.

Jan Garden Castro

Jan Garden Castro is an arts consultant and author of the best-selling book The Art & Life of Georgia O’Keeffe; Sonia Delaunay: La Moderne, and additional books. Her many writing credits include essays in anthologies and monographs and seventeen cover stories for Sculpture Magazine, where she is Contributing Editor. Castro has taught undergraduate and graduate humanities subjects at many institutions including Lindenwood University and Touro College. Awards include a CCLM Editors Award for River Styx Magazine and a YWCA Arts Leadership Award for her work as an author and as Executive Director of the nonprofit Big River Association. See http://www.jancastro.com and/or sign up for Jan’s monthly art blog at jancastro1@gmail.com.


On January 29, 2014 George Bradt wrote an article in Forbes titled, “The Three Types of Leaders The World Needs Most: Artistic, Scientific, and Interpersonal” (Bradt 2014). Artistic leaders, according to Bradt, “inspire by influencing feelings. They help us take new approaches to how we see, hear, taste, smell and touch things. You can find these leaders creating new designs, new art, and the like. These people generally have no interest in ruling or guiding. They are all about changing perceptions.” While the intersection of leadership and the arts is frequently discussed in terms of leadership as an art or the artistry of leadership, this article opened up a fascinating question for us: How many visual and performing artists are leaders and what does their practice of leadership teach us about the phenomenon in general? In this article, we make the case for the relevance of studying artists through a leadership lens by briefly exploring the life and artistic leadership of Robert Wilson.

Robert Wilson is a visual artist, a director and producer of world acclaimed plays and operas, an international art collector, and a collaborator par excellence. He is also a Founder (with the Byrd Hoffman Water Mill Foundation) of The Watermill Center on Long Island where he officially serves as Artistic Director, a title that does not do justice to all that he does. In addition to his own theater productions worldwide, each summer Wilson mentors about 80 artists from dozens of countries around the world at The Center.

Artist leaders, like Wilson, often find, create, build, or lead a physical space in which they manifest their leadership. Leonard Bernstein’s physical space was the New York Philharmonic and the world’s greatest musical performance halls where he conducted great scores of music. Alfred Stieglitz had his galleries, including Photo Succession, a movement that turned photography into the highly valued art form it is today, and 291, which led to the discovery of Marsden Hartley, Georgia O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove, and other American artists. Wilson’s space is The Watermill Center.

In 2017, we had the pleasure of walking with Wilson through a large portion of the 8.5 acre grounds and the large main U-shaped building comprising The Watermill Center. Dozens of working artists, visiting artists, and construction experts were busy finishing elaborate preparations for “FLY INTO THE SUN,” the 24th Annual Watermill Center Summer Benefit & Auction. During the walk, Mr. Wilson often engaged the artists and crew in two-way conversations, both listening carefully and offering direction, humor, and inspiration. Because he knows the grounds, buildings, and plans for the benefit intimately, he could easily make conscious on-the-spot decisions about reinforcing pathways, new plantings, and other preparations for an influx of over a thousand art-loving visitors. He directed people working on the construction of temporary performance platforms and spaces, dining and auction tents, and a 10-foot high wall bearing a message “SHE OUTWITS HIM. SHE OUTLIVES HIM.” directed at President Donald Trump. Inside a large central room, two elaborate monumental entrance banners created by Jared Madere to flank the outdoor stairs leading to the event were drying.

While most leaders seek to improve the productivity of those around them, we observed Wilson seeking to improve the actual people around him. When he gives an employee, contractor, or vendor a directive, he does so in a way that teaches the person that this is the way to do this at this time. And, while giving this direction or instruction in the present time, Wilson also does something all great leaders do. He implicitly encourages the person he is instructing to strive for a better, more creative, and successful way to address the situation in the future when he is not around to offer direct instructions. When he leads people, he teaches them to think more broadly, more creatively, more collaboratively, and more in harmony with every human being, every plant, and every animal on the planet.

When someone works with him, excellence is the minimum standard they bring to their work. More often than not, those who work with him bring to their work “creative genius.” Wilson does not directly ask people who work with him to show their genius, but he prods and suggests and instructs, in his soft-spoken way, that their work display all of the talent they have, all of the creativity they have, and all of the collaborative potential they have. People follow Robert Wilson’s lead not only because he has, in every endeavor he undertakes, a clear vision, but also because they know that for every endeavor Wilson himself undertakes he will display all of the talent he has, all of the creativity he has, and all of the collaborative potential he has.

The importance of artistic leadership visioning is another key leadership insight from the trip. All of the artworks we observed being built and standing on the property during our visit to The Center were temporary. It takes great vision to give the expected thousand-plus visitors a transformative evening. Visitors could also view some of the contemporary to permanent art works sited strategically on the grounds. These, for Wilson, are profound and filled with meanings he shares freely with friends and colleagues. Both the temporary and the permanent works offer the viewer visual, sensory, audio, olfactory, and other experiences. Art is important to think about and to experience. Wilson’s key to leadership is that he seeks to promote thought in other human beings with his art and his artistic productions. He is the rare artist who creates life-changing opportunities for other artists, as well as significant opportunities for arts patrons. His ability to raise the money to fund The Watermill Center and his ability to build and manage a diverse staff in the Foundation that supports The Center is a testament to the fact that he leads people and manages them capably.

Robert Wilson bought this property, a research laboratory abandoned since 1965, from Western Union in 1989. By 1992 he was already hosting a summer artist-in-residence program. Today’s international participants in art, dance, theater, and writing are encouraged to work on their original projects and to collaborate with each other during their stay. Wilson’s leadership creates a dynamic and astonishing atmosphere at The Center. He frees each participant to be his and her best by providing a supportive and nourishing environment, including spaces for collaboration, and — ever-important — delectable, nourishing, family-style meals for residents and guests.

In close collaboration with his staff, Wilson oversees the flow of special artists-in-residence, summer residents, and visitors. He makes the key decisions that have propelled The Watermill Center to be known for its world-class interdisciplinary, international, and innovative mixed media arts, yet he also delegates responsibilities and empowers others to practice their areas of expertise. One of The Center’s signature events is an annual international conference on the intersection of science and the art. The Annual Art and Science: Insights Into Consciousness Workshop hosts nearly forty participants including research scientists, mathemeticians, professors, and artists from many disciplines in a thoughtfully landscaped and architecturally brilliant setting. The campus combines the serenity of a bamboo lined entrance to the property; the vitality of thousands of plants, wild grasses, and abundant trees; and many gentle paths to walk among the art, flowers, shrubs, and blueberry bushes. The property has architecturally significant structures, platforms, stages, and carefully designed open areas where outdoor performances, lectures, and yoga take place.

It was clear to us during our visit that Wilson cares deeply about the vast cultural and artistic knowledge, understanding, and art that humans all over the globe have created. In his prodigious travels, he has studied hundreds of cultures throughout the world, embracing rituals, practices, stories, and histories. He is audacious and brave in his art, plays, and operas, and in everything that he does, because Robert Wilson does not just “do” things. His vision of where the world has come from over the past millennia is seen in his museum-quality art collection of 8,000 sacred and secular objects dating from 5000 B.C. to the present. He is not merely an art creator and collector, he is also an art steward who will also let you hold a water pitcher his Foundation owns that is thousands of years old to show you his respect and admiration for ancient artistry.

Wilson has developed both an international following, and an international, collaborative network designed to promote great art and also to help sustain his quest for a future where every person respects the history and culture of every other person, society, and country, big or small. He works to ensure the art of all civilizations is preserved, studied, and appreciated for its intrinsic beauty, its uniqueness, and its contribution to civilization.

The Watermill Center is the physical roots Robert Wilson has created for the art world. It is his contribution to the future, not only of the arts and sciences, but of humanity itself.

Studying artist leaders like Wilson illustrates that when we define leadership as merely a skill or practice using a set of leadership tools, leadership loses a key element of its connection to ethics, art, and humanity. Wilson’s life represents a fruitful source of many leadership lessons that can enhance our understanding of leadership theory. His dedication to bringing people from many cultures together while maintaining their own distinctive contributions to humanity demonstrates what is missing in today’s leaders in business and government. For Wilson, leadership is a natural expression of his identity, his vision, and his ability to create, collect, and preserve art, ideas, productions, foundations, and locations like The Watermill Center.


  • Some artists are leaders who are worthy of further study and publications about them in the leadership literature
  • Leadership scholars and educators can glean great practical wisdom and theoretical constructs worthy of teaching from artists who are leaders
  • Artists who are leaders are a legitimate and unique subset of leaders worthy of being studied as a subset
  • The field of artists as leaders is a worthy subcategory for future leadership studies and has been largely ignored in traditional leadership literature
  • The leadership teaching faculty around the world should include case studies and well documented examples of artists acting as leaders when they research and teach leadership

Leadership by artists is becoming essential for the arts to flourish in times that emphasize economics over art. More and more, the art world needs to create economic and social ecosystems that provide artists the support and income they need to produce great art. Wilson’s Watermill Center is helping develop the still-undersupported fields of theater and performance arts and writing in many genres. The Watermill Center is a model for centers all across the world that support artists. Many states and cities have programs to support the arts, and some charitable foundations are teaming up with government agencies to support the arts. Internationally, Res Artis is a network of 600 international residencies in seventy countries that offer other distinctive arts leadership models.

When artists can achieve economic security individually and as a group, then many of them will have the wherewithal to cultivate and demonstrate their leadership talents. Wilson invests his time, his resources, and his energy in support of artists of today and tomorrow as well as artists from the past who have produced the plays, artifacts, operas, and exhibitions that give humanity its soul and civilization its foundation. He strives to use art to further civilization and peace and to make life better for all. We call on leadership scholars and educators to undertake new research on artists who are successful leaders. Such research would significantly enhance the study, practice, and art of leadership.

Learn More About Robert Wilson & the Watermill Center

Jan Garden Castro, “Robert Wilson: The World Is His Studio,” International Sculpture Center. https://blog.sculpture.org/2017/10/04/robert-wilson/

Jan Garden Castro, “Robert Wilson's Watermill Center: Containing the Universe,” Art & Architecture Quarterly / East End http://www.aaqeastend.com/contents/robert-wilsons-watermill-center-containing-the-universe-by-jan-garden-castro-new/

The Watermill Center: A Laboratory for Performance, Robert Wilson’s Legacy. Edited and compiled by José Enrique Macián, Sue Jane Stoker, Jörn Weisbrodt. Stuttgart: DACO-VERLAG, 2011.

Field Reports

The ILA newsletter's Field Reports column dives into the work of ILA members, sharing new knowledge, actionable nuggets of wisdom, and thought-provoking ideas. Have an idea for a column? Contact Debra DeRuyver at dderuyver@ila-net.org