A force for good: arts leadership and the individual

There are more requirements in a leadership role than just acknowledged expertise in a particular art form.
A force for good: arts leadership and the individual

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Art as defined by artists can be from somewhere unknown, is a mysterious phenomenon, a way an artist expresses their feelings, a means of communicating with others or a process for observing and interpreting the world. Art is not one thing – it is both simple and complex, and it has multiple meanings for the artist as well as the observer. Similarly defining both the meaning and the practice of leadership is contestable and is influenced by factors such as philosophy, culture, gender, experience, values and environment, and even time. Leadership within the arts is seen here as particular and different, and requires certain knowledge and understandings.


The arts are famous for outstanding individual leaders. When you think of leadership in the arts you frequently think of such individuals; choreographers such as Pina Bausch, Martha Graham or Alvin Ailey, theatre directors such as Robert Lepage, Peter Brook or Ariane Mnouchkine, conductors such as Nevile Mariner, Leonard Bernstein and Herbert von Karajan and visual artists such as Ai Weiwei, Frida Kahlo and Pablo Picasso. The profile of these individuals has often gone beyond their art form so that they have achieved a popular notoriety. In some cases, they have influenced their art form so significantly that they have created a new form (think of Martha Graham in dance) or pioneered a completely different style of work (Bertolt Brecht in theatre). The term 'charismatic leader' is often applied to such people.

Arts leaders can be a force for great good through their arts practice and because of it. They can demonstrate simple truths that can influence people to change their views about the way they live or how they understand an aspect of society. But they can also access a side of leadership described as the ‘dark’ side. In this case the individual leader can demonstrate narcissism, intolerance for the weakness of others and an unstoppable ego that may achieve much but at a great cost to others. Individual arts leaders are often in a position of great influence and in this role can behave in a despotic and autocratic manner. Bad behavior by artistic leaders is often excused as artistic temperament when in fact it is just bad behavior. It is not acceptable to behave like a crazed adolescent or a tyrant because you are the leader. Justifying this in the context of arts practice is equally unacceptable.

Bad behavior by artistic leaders is often excused as artistic temperament when in fact it is just bad behavior.

However, arts leaders, and those aspiring to be arts leaders of organizations, do not necessarily value the development of leadership and management skills to do their job. They believe that innate leadership skills and superior expertise in their field is all that is required for the role. Hence individuals take on arts leadership roles without any prior leadership training, or expected skill development, that is usually taken for granted in other fields. While they may be an expert in say European Art, their capacity to run an art museum and the complexities that that involves, may not have been considered or seen as relevant. Similarly, a good director of plays may go into the role of artistic director of a theatre company without recognising that playing the overall leadership role requires a completely different set of skills. This can result in many difficulties both for the individual involved and for the organisation.

There are more requirements in a leadership role than just acknowledged knowledge or expertise in an art form. There is a need too for the capacity to be a good communicator, be respectful of your peers and have a capacity to demonstrate ethical standards in your behavior. Hence a leader working with peers, who are also all knowledgeable, skilled and creative, cannot just rely on the ‘positional role’ they are in, to carry or communicate their leadership. They need to engender the trust and respect of their peers to persuade them to follow/engage and be part of achieving a vision.

On the other hand, there is also a recognition by some artists that they don’t want to take on a leadership role in an organisation. While they may see themselves as a ‘leader’ in their artistic field, they don’t want to have the additional responsibility of being an organisational leader. Further, they may believe that if they do take that step under peer pressure, they may sacrifice their own arts practice in the process. The demands of leading an organisation are different, say, to directing a performance. If the needs of the organization take over, then there may be little energy left to do what may be seen as the more important work by the individual artist; that of making art.

Artists project themselves as leaders or innovators relying on the uniqueness of their ‘story’ as the basis of their credibility. This notion of embodiment is another crucial theme when discussing arts leadership. It centres on the notion that the leadership is embodied within the actions of the leader. So there is little separation between the leader and their actions. Frequently, when talking about art, there is a sense that the individual artist sees their art work as part of themselves – there is no physical separation. This lack of separation means that the artist and their art are one; if you criticise their art they may feel that you are also criticising the person who made it. Hence the notion of ‘embodied’ leadership is particularly relevant when talking about arts leadership.

Artists and arts leaders are often leaders in more than their arts practice. Artists and arts leaders are continually faced with the need/expectation to do more. They may be directly engaged with their arts practice, but in addition they may be expected to engage with an audience, an art form, a state and a society. Hence the demands on individual arts leaders are challenging, complex and extensive. As leaders, artists can play an influential role in many directions. Artists are often pioneers in their work and, by their example, provide leadership for everyone. The arts represent the best of us, which is why they need nurturing, protecting and encouraging. Everyone in the arts needs to take responsibility for this – we all play a leadership role and we all must set an example.

This is a short, edited excerpt from Josephine Caust’s new book Arts Leadership in Contemporary Contexts, Routledge Advances in Art and Visual Studies, Routledge New York 2018, IBSN 978-1-138-67731-9.

Jo Caust

Monday 2 July, 2018

About the author

Associate Professor Jo Caust is Principal Fellow (Hon) in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne and formerly Associate Professor in Arts and Cultural Management in the School of Management at the University of South Australia. She is Founder Editor of the Asia Pacific Journal of Arts and Cultural Management. She has published four books; Arts Leadership in Contemporary Contexts (Routledge 2018), Arts and Cultural Leadership in Asia (Routledge 2015), Arts Leadership: International Case Studies (Tilde University Press 2012) and Leadership and Creativity; understandings of this relationship in arts organisations (VDM Verlag 2009). She is the author of many articles, book chapters, research reports and conference papers and has worked in the arts sector as an arts practitioner, manager, bureaucrat and consultant.