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Are you arts leadership material?

Harriet Elvin

Leadership in the arts sector involves leading the process that connects a work of art with an audience, or links a community to its stories.
Are you arts leadership material?

Image:Triple pundit

Leadership, and leadership development, are hot topics for the arts sector. The Australia Council is currently seeking applicants for its 2015 Emerging Leaders Development Program, while the recent Arts Leadership Forum 2014 in Canberra tackled the big issues for the future of arts leadership in the region and the nation.


So what is leadership all about? What does it mean in the arts sector, and why is this important? The concept of leadership has generated extensive research and a multitude of academic theories. But I prefer to use a very simple definition, taken from the Oxford Dictionary. Leadership is defined there as:

To cause to go with one, especially by guiding or showing the way, or by going in front, and taking a person’s hand.

This presents an everyday, even gentle image of leadership.  We often envisage leadership in fairly grandiose, even heroic terms: military leadership, political leadership, business leaders, leading performing arts companies.  These images can make leadership quite intimidating and remote from our own experience.  In contrast, the Oxford Dictionary definition of leadership is something closer to our everyday lives, something to which we can all aspire.

Yet this definition is also profound.  In a few words, it conveys a number of complex concepts about leadership.  For if you are causing another person to go with you, you must know where you are going – you must have vision - and you must be able to persuade the other person to go with you - you must have influence.

Leadership in the arts sector involves leading the process that connects a work of art with an audience, or links a community to its stories.  What are some of the particular issues we face as arts leaders, compared with the corporate world?

Much in fact is similar.  The arts sector has, particularly in recent years, adopted many governance and management tools from the business world, often to ensure accountability to funding agencies.  The main difference is that in the corporate sector the focus will almost always be on profitability for owners or shareholders.  In contrast, an arts organisation has a more complex, and often competing, set of desired outcomes, and deals with a more complex set of stakeholders - government, community, audiences, funding bodies, sponsors - than in the corporate sector.

The successful arts organisation must have artistic integrity as its core purpose, while also achieving sound business administration, financial prudence, and usually a wider social mission and community relevance.  This all translates into a need for us as arts leaders to focus constantly on both the vitality and viability of our organisations: to display, perhaps, both charisma and pragmatism! 

These distinctions result in some particular challenges for arts leaders.  Firstly, financial viability, a challenge that is especially pronounced in a climate of increasing costs, static or declining funding, and restricted opportunities for sponsorship.  Arts leaders need an entrepreneurial approach, a market focus, to create and exploit income-earning opportunities, while still being true to our creative purpose.

Defining outcomes in a market sense represents a second key challenge for arts leaders.  Arts organisations may struggle to identify what they achieve in market-defined terms.  How do you measure excellence?  What should our performance indicators be? Why is all this important?  We need to have the answers to these questions if we are to attract attention and support.

A third challenge is that of the increasing diversity and complexity of our competitors and our audiences.  Arts leaders have to find relevance, and attract audiences, in a climate of increasingly sophisticated competition for people’s leisure time, not least from social media, the Internet and high quality home entertainment options.  We need to find new ways of engaging with our audiences, offering them something relevant, meaningful, and attractive to them, while still retaining our artistic integrity and independence.

Succession planning is another major challenge. Often an arts organisation is highly dependent on one individual’s creative vision, a source both of strength and vulnerability. This is particularly the case in the performing arts, where companies may even be named after one inspirational individual. One test of a successful leader is that he or she creates resilience in their organisation, ensuring it can survive their departure. They leave, as their legacy, people who have the confidence, conviction, and will to carry on.

A further particular challenge for arts leaders is that of people management. Staff of arts organisations are often passionately committed to what they do, not just as a means of earning a living but as a way of expressing their values, identity, and creativity. Many have a strong professional commitment or practice that goes well beyond their working hours, resulting in a continuum between their paid roles and the activities they pursue as private individuals. Indeed, they may have forgone the monetary rewards of other career options to work in a creative field.

While this is not unique to the arts sector, the concentration of people to whom it would apply is a particular feature of arts organisations. In leading such talented and creative staff, we need to be conscious that their professional practice, their creativity and their artistic judgement, are what define and give meaning to their lives; we need to be mindful of the wonderful quote from Yeats: “tread softly because you tread on my dreams”.

These challenges highlight a number of areas where we in the arts can provide lessons or models for the corporate sector. Foremost of these is that in the arts we often have to adopt creative, lateral solutions to survive in a climate of limited resources and competing demands. This results in highly creative partnerships and collaborations, in which arts organisations work with partners that could otherwise be regarded as competitors to achieve mutual goals.

As arts leaders, we have to be skilled at scanning the environment and adapting, in a chameleon-like way, to changing demands or trends, to ensure the viability of our organisations. We have to be flexible and nimble, in identifying the relevance of the arts to areas such as tourism development, urban regeneration, business attraction, employment, and education. We have to demonstrate that the arts sector is an integral part of city-making, giving our city a competitive advantage over others.

Finally, teamwork, trust, and a focus on delivering a clearly defined outcome by an absolute deadline are what we do particularly well in the arts. For us, the frequent delays experienced in, for example, the construction industry, are not an option. The teamwork required to ensure the curtain goes up on a live performance at the appointed time, or a complex exhibition opens on schedule, is quite extraordinary!

What does all this mean in terms of critical ingredients for good arts leadership? Three factors stand out for me, all connecting back to vision and influence as the defining characteristics of leaders.

First, arts leaders need to ensure their organisations have clarity of goals and clarity of roles. We can never underestimate the capacity for people to interpret things in different ways unless roles and definitions are clearly spelled out. An arts organisation's vision must be clearly articulated, while the various governance structures of the organisation and how they interrelate also need to be clearly defined. This clarity is essential, so that everyone in the organisation can understand their role, as well as providing transparency and accountability to external stakeholders like funding bodies.

Second, good people management, whether of paid staff or volunteers, is a critical and integral part of leadership in the arts sector. Our staff are the creators, or facilitators, of the arts experiences that we provide for our visitors and patrons. Selecting the right people, developing them, giving them a clear sense of purpose, providing them with the resources to succeed, involving them in setting the organisation’s directions, inspiring them, providing feedback to them – in a word, leading them -  is perhaps the most important thing that we do as arts leaders. Indeed, the philosophy of staff leadership I try to follow is simple: my job is to make my staff successful. Only if they succeed can I, and the organisation itself, succeed.

Finally, as arts leaders, we need to have, and to convey, a passion for what we do. Of course, leaders in other fields may well be passionate about their chosen area. But for us, passion is a quality that we live and breathe every day because by working in the arts we have chosen to work with something that is inspirational and transformative. We need to articulate and convey this passion about the critical role of the arts in our society, if we are ever to succeed in convincing others that: yes, we merit attention, and yes, we deserve support.

When you go to the website of the Kennedy Center, the first thing you see is a quotation by John F Kennedy:

I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will be remembered not for victories or defeats in battle, or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.  

As arts leaders we have the privilege to contribute to the human spirit every day: the privilege to do this, but also the responsibility. Stepping up to that responsibility in our role as arts leaders is therefore a great and noble endeavour!

This is an edited version of a speech to the Arts Leadership Forum 2014, which was jointly presented by the Cultural Facilities Corporation and The Childers Group, an independent arts forum, on 1 September 2014 in Canberra.

About the author

Harriet Elvin isChief Executive Officer of the Cultural Facilities Corporation which includes the Canberra Theatre Centre, Canberra Museum and Gallery, Nolan Collection, Lanyon Homestead, Calthorpes' House and Mugga-Mugga Cottage.