More than luck: why succession planning matters

Mentoring and internships are embraced in the arts, but succession planning can strengthen these initiatives for sector-wide impact.

With the recent number of new appointments and movements across the sector, the importance of succession planning is brought to mind. Yet this isn’t a topic that is often thought about, or implemented, in the arts.

Katie Russell, National Director of Australian Museums and Galleries Association (AMaGA), says: ’We’ve all heard it, people who say, ”I’ve had the privilege to be mentored by” – it’s like you got lucky. If the next decade yields a much more robust system of succession planning, I think it wouldn’t just be a matter of luck.’

Russell continues: ‘Within organisations, individual mindsets need to turn to thinking about the fact that the roles are ongoing… the incumbents will change. That shift in the way people think has to be supported with formal structural programs that actually demonstrate how succession planning may operate in a museum or gallery context.’

While the language used across the sector reflects this gap in formalised structures to support succession and development, for boards it is also an eye-opening realisation that poor succession planning can have real monetary impacts.

According to The Financial Review, a study by consulting business Strategy& examined the world’s 2500 largest public companies and revealed that poor CEO succession can lose over $2.5 billion in shareholder value.

The larger arts climate has also contributed to this oversight. ‘One of the things that the arts is not adequately funded for is human resource, and [people] may stay in the same roles for 10, 20 years. We hold on because positions are so scarce, certainly in First Nations arts,’ says Clothilde Bullen, Head of Indigenous Programs and Curator at Art Gallery WA (AGWA).

Bullen has been considering succession planning for First Nations arts workers since 2009.

She continues: ‘What we’re seeing now, because there hasn’t been succession planning, is there’s a middle tier of Aboriginal arts workers that are basically missing and that’s so critical because not having that means we don’t have a seat at the table.’

Read: Views on the future for emerging GLAM professionals

Half of Bullen’s time is spent on managing executive responsibilities and the other half in curatorial, a deliberate choice to make sure structural change can be implemented.

Currently Bullen works with two candidates – one emerging and one in the mid-tier – for succession. It’s about striking a balance between the responsibilities of their roles, but also leaving enough time for further development.

Bullen says: ‘Being an Aboriginal arts worker in a field of predominantly non-Indigenous people is hard yakka. It’s always up to us to educate other people but it’s a structural issue around the kind of support that needs to be in place to get young people to the next stage, so they remain in it and become part of that middle tier.’

Out of mentorship comes succession planning

Structural change is exactly what AMaGA wants to lead the sector towards, starting with a pilot program around cross-institutional mentorships launching next year.

‘Being in a sector role, you realise that there’s so much reproduction, or duplication, of processes and learning that happens because people operate in silos … I think now is the time, we’ve got a moment where people want to reinvest energy and want to share resources,’ says Russell.

Existing support such as Museums Galleries Queensland’s Mentorship and Internship programs are a great way to start, and ‘there’s that great feel-good factor in both sides of a mentor/mentee relationship.

‘How that progresses to formal succession planning, I think that’s the piece of the puzzle that our sector really needs to address and discuss more openly,’ Russell adds.

‘Mentorship needs to go beyond your own place of work or institution, and it has to be at every level. [The role] that an organisation like AMaGA could play is as an independent arbiter.’

Read: The Old Guard are indeed getting old

This approach also acknowledges that, unlike some other sectors, which present clear linear career pathways within an organisation, ‘people tend to jump from organisation to organisation, and I think that’s a positive thing,’ says Russell.

Bullen agrees: ’Succession planning should be open to everyone, because I think everyone’s skills can be applied in many different places and it’s not up to us to decide. [However,] I think it is up to us to make space for everyone.’

Russell adds that the goal is not for someone to say ‘here’s who’s next’ or build a hierarchy of mentor versus mentee, rather ’it is to have a very good idea around which candidate they think has promise,’ she explains.

‘The only way to do that is by having those relationships in the first place and being open to cross-fertilisation of ideas across different institutions.’

Succession planning matters for smaller organisations too

Succession planning doesn’t just apply to medium and large institutions with hundreds of staff. For Russell, paying attention to the urgent needs of smaller organisations is just as critical.

‘Small community museums and historical societies etc have a real issue at the moment, particularly as COVID brought it to the absolute [forefront of conversation], about succession and their viability in the long term,’ says Russell.

‘Yes, of course it’s about people, but it’s also about passing on the knowledge and what will continue to the future. It may be a bigger leap, but it’s about future-proofing as well.

‘Because people who work in those organisations are mostly volunteers, and draw on their personal passion, the future of the organisation is completely dependent upon finding new people to pick up the baton. Post-COVID they are seeing a decline in volunteerism … It’s such a scary prospect that all that knowledge can be lost,’ Russell says.

One program that is offering support in this area is Museum & Galleries of NSW’s museum advisers program. AMaGA also offers a micro-grant program called CHART (Cultural Heritage Arts and Regional Tourism).

Professional development and opportunities for First Nations arts workers in smaller organisations is also an issue.

’In recent times, particularly in the small to medium arts organisation sector, they have become acutely aware that they have no Aboriginal staff, no Aboriginal advisory groups, no Reconciliation Action Plans and [there is] the need to rectify that,’ says Bullen.

‘Boards are now looking at Aboriginal people, particularly in leadership positions, very differently and seeing how it could be a positive impact for a whole variety of reasons.’

Intergenerational knowledge transfer sits at the heart of the world’s oldest living culture, so what can we learn from First Nations people in succession planning?

Bullen says: ‘The First Nations mob, including those outside of Australia, understand that principle of intergenerational transfer of knowledge. I think it’s a natural thing because what it means to all of us is that cultural continuity is what’s critical.

‘It’s inherent in the way that our culture is structured. We need to make that more explicit, so [non-Indigenous] people can look at that framework and go, ”Oh OK, maybe we can do that too.” What it embodies is a set of community principles by which we engage. That’s what non-Indigenous organisations can stand to learn from us,’ Bullen concludes.

Celina Lei is an arts writer and editor at ArtsHub. She acquired her M.A in Art, Law and Business in New York with a B.A. in Art History and Philosophy from the University of Melbourne. She has previously worked across global art hubs in Beijing, Hong Kong and New York in both the commercial art sector and art criticism. Most recently she took part in drafting NAVA’s revised Code of Practice - Art Fairs. Celina is based in Naarm/Melbourne. Instagram: @lleizy_