What does ‘less is necessary’ look like?

Arts organisations and Boards need to move from a ‘less is more’ to ‘less is necessary’ mindset. Kate Larsen outlines tips for getting started.

It’s been a difficult few years for everybody. With the pandemic joining floods, bushfires and nearly a decade of arts funding cuts, Australia’s arts sector has never been more vulnerable.

As a result, we now find ourselves in the midst of a new crisis: one characterised by sector-wide burnout, staff shortages, ‘post’-pandemic exhaustion, and breaking (or already broken) teams. Which puts a whole generation of artists and arts leaders at risk.

‘I’m quite worried about the mental health of several colleagues,’ arts advocate and strategist Esther Anatolitis says. ‘And also, the impacts on their own colleagues, as well as the future of their organisations.’

This sector-wide problem needs a sector-wide response, lawyer and non-profit consultant Sunili Govinnage says. ‘It’s easy enough to point to who (or what) is responsible for a crisis but much harder to step up and take responsibility to address it.

‘The defensiveness and denialism that comes from fear of failure all but guarantees setting off a vicious cycle of harm, blame and retribution,’ Govinnage continued.

Read: Post-COVID or post-burnout: less is necessary

It can be awkward to discuss salaried arts worker problems when most are in (comparatively) better positions than the freelance artists on which our programs rely. But if we don’t look after ourselves, we can’t look after them either – let alone make the improvements needed to recognise artists and cultural workers as essential workers with the same rights as those in other industries.

We need arts Boards, funders, leaders and policy drivers to take up the ‘less is necessary’ cry – for the sake of the sector, as well as their own teams.

If we do not, as a sector, begin to say ‘enough is enough’ and bring some reality to the situation, investors will continue to expect more for less.

Kim Jameson, Executive Director of Chamber of Arts and Culture WA.

What Boards can do

  • Ask CEOs what they need from their Boards and respond accordingly. (If that sounds like it should go without saying, it doesn’t. According to my recent arts governance survey, 58% of arts boards don’t understand what their organisations need from them at all).
  • Pro-actively reduce expectations of staff and the (usually too high) workload Boards require to service their (usually too frequent) meetings.
  • Review and update their HR policies and procedures, including time and templates for regular (and recorded) workload and wellbeing checks at all levels (including between the Board and CEO).
  • Support CEOs to take time off and provide the back-fill to make that possible (and encourage them to do the same with their team).
  • Reject the idea that too-much-work for too-little-pay is a problem we can’t solve. ‘A large organisation I have been working with are about to implement a four-day working week for all staff (at the same salary levels),’ arts consultant and advisor Jade Lillie says. ‘It has taken considerable negotiation. However, this really is the perfect time to have this conversation and realign expectations. Let’s be brave and do what we do best – creative solutions to complex problems.’
  • Know where the Board’s responsibilities lie and where they don’t. Resist the urge to cross that line, micromanage, or steer organisations towards specific ambitions.
  • Review and improve the Board’s diversity, skills and performance (a simple but hugely underused strategy currently implemented by only 20% of arts and cultural organisations). Use policy drivers to walk the talk about representation, equity and cultural safety (and centering First Nations peoples and culture in particular).
  • Reduce financial stress by actively contributing to organisations’ sustainability, an issue my survey identified as the single biggest area organisations need most help and the area Board members have least interest in or willingness to provide. Get Board members involved in fundraising, soliciting donations, sharing personal contacts or becoming donors themselves.
  • Consider a policy that pays those Board members who are independent and unwaged artists and practitioners, or who might otherwise be unable to afford to take part in governance (including First Nations people with access to other sectors’ paid opportunities, people with caring responsibilities, those from under-represented or marginalised backgrounds, or with direct experience of the communities the Board represents).
  • Chairs who aren’t artists or arts managers, or who lack direct lived experience of their constituencies, can also make a personal commitment to community-led best practice by replacing themselves with leaders that do.

What CEOs and arts leaders can do:

  • Listen
    • Provide strategic opportunities for team members to vent (either to their managers or third parties contracted to summarise key themes without adding to leaders’ own stress and workload).
    • Remember everyone has different ways of receiving, understanding and passing on information. Provide different ways for people to listen and be heard.
    • Avoid defaulting to ‘no’ or negative responses where possible. Sometimes being listened to is all that people need.
    • Share your feelings and experiences to increase personal connection, without overburdening your team or forgetting the direction of your duty of care.
  • Anticipate
    • Rescope next year’s workload to only include non-negotiable KPIs. Decreasing expectations won’t preclude you exceeding those targets, but may ease the task of achieving them while reducing the risk of overwhelming teams.
    • Start planning an extended summer shutdown (flexible enough for those without accrued leave or who need to use their leave at other times).
  • Act
    • Continue to offer flexible working times and locations, and focus on individual’s outcomes, not hours.
    • Book 1:1s with each team member to distinguish between what’s needed and what’s nice, what can be cut or postponed, and when to say ‘no’ or ‘not yet’.
    • Remind team members of your EAP or alternative support programs or initiatives. Encourage them to take mental-health days, connect with each other, and be mindful of respectful and professional behaviour in the meantime.
    • Make forward plans informed by this ongoing consultation, but also be prepared to make non-consensus decisions at a time when consensus is unlikely – change has to start somewhere, and solutions can always be improved with time.

Our sector is at a critical point, but nobody’s saying that. Even when we do say it, no one is listening – or assumes ‘critical’ means ‘negative’ rather than a juncture in our arts and culture journey where change is required.

Kim Jameson.

Together, we need to push back against the pressure to be bigger-better-faster-more – particularly if those decisions are based on fear of lack of competitiveness, rather than what’s best for our organisations.

‘We truly need to use this crisis as an opportunity,’ Lillie says. ‘For Portable Long Service leave, for a Universal Basic Income, for new models of leadership – to put artists, creatives and communities at the centre of the conversation whilst ensuring there is, in fact, an industry for people to enter.’

‘As an ostensibly non-profit sector, it’s vital for Boards as well as funders and donors to value investment in people and creative processes as an outcome in and of itself,’ Govinnage agrees.

In doing so, we also need to understand our steps to address these issues won’t be as effective in the current context, and use deep empathy and clear communication to deliver non-negotiables while making that delivery easier for all.

Hear more from Kate about arts Boards, duty of care and rethinking arts governance at AICSA’s Bad, Better and Beyond Best Practice in Adelaide next month.

Kate Larsen (she/her) is a writer, arts and cultural consultant with more than 20 years’ experience in the non-profit, government and cultural sectors in Australia, Asia and the UK. @katelarsenkeys.