Beyond Leadership in the Arts

By Kenn Taylor

My first regular job in the arts was as a zero-hours gallery attendant. Now I have the fancy job title of Creative Director, having done quite a few roles in between, including being a volunteer and a freelancer. Starting off around the peak of the ‘boom’ in the 2000s when money flowed into the sector, through the worst of austerity and to today’s mixed but still uncertain times. In my career, I’ve also seen many different types and styles of leadership and management. This mixture of experience, along with having had opportunities for various forms of training and development in my career, I think has made me better equipped for my current role.

During the same period, I’ve also witnessed a seemingly ever growing focus on leadership in the arts. This is something which I do think has been necessary. As the sector expanded and diversified and the operating environment became more complex, cultural leaders having training and skills beyond academic art form knowledge has become increasingly important. Especially given the challenges that many organisations have faced, high profile and otherwise. Speaking to older colleagues about their experiences in the 1970s and 80s in cultural organisations, challenges with management in the sector seems to have been an issue going back a long way and this new focus does seem to have improved things. In addition, programmes which seek to increase the diversity of leadership in the sector continue to be vital. As the first in my family to attend higher education and having spent my youth living on my father’s disability benefits, active work to ensure a diversity of voices is heard in the arts is something I am passionate about.

However I have also become concerned that the sector may now be placing too much faith in leaders and the chimerical concept of leadership as being able to solve all the challenges cultural organisations face. This is something I considered when researching whilst on the Arts Fundraising and Leadership programme. Good leadership is important and can help organisations through changes and challenges, but it isn’t a panacea. In a sector struggling to simultaneously deal with big funding cuts, education system changes, huge regional disparities, increasing societal deprivation, major cultural shifts and growing political turmoil, leadership alone will not solve all problems we face.

Individuals can only do so much, even with progressive styles of management, and this focus on leadership can create unrealistic expectations and encourage constant churn in the sector. Suitable financial support from different sources, actively working to increase diversity, collaborative working inside and outside the sector and, crucially, ensuring personal development opportunities are available at all levels are just as important. These things may need to be led, but we need to think beyond leadership if we want to create a vibrant and resilient artistic ecosystem that can deal with inevitable shocks and changes.

We need to continue to develop leadership and management in the arts, especially different styles and methods that suit different types of organisations. Yet this has to be part of much wider and long term support and development for the arts sector if it is to be sustainable and better reflect the diversity and talent of creative voices in this country.

This piece was published by the Arts Fundraising and Leadership Programme in December 2017.

Learning from the Grassroots

By Kenn Taylor

Having worked with both public arts institutions and artist-led independent outfits, I see that there is much that public venues can learn from their grassroots counterparts.

There are inevitable differences between the two types of organisation. The size, degree of external funding and constitutions of public galleries usually mean that they have more responsibilities than grassroots organisations, especially in these austere times when everything must be justified. However, they are both still in the same business – producing and exhibiting art.

There are some things that artist-led organisations could learn from public institutions, such as trying harder to attract audiences from a wider demographic beyond ‘the art world’, but by and large it seems like the learning should be in the other direction.

Many public arts organisations are far too hidebound by hierarchy and bureaucracy, dominated by endless meetings and managers only interested in delegating all of the ‘practical’ work. Artist-led organisations seem to be much better at flexibility and pulling together. Without legions of assistants and contractors or large budgets to play with, whoever is responsible for, say, the installation or marketing of an exhibition, usually just gets it done with whatever is available. Such circumstances can often make people very creative and I have seen brilliant results produced with very little resources.

Artist-led organisations also tend to be better at sharing responsibilities for the grim and boring work – paying the gas bill, taking out the rubbish, serving refreshments at events. Aside from saving money by not having ‘operational’ staff separate from the programme side, getting involved in such work tends to give people a much clearer perspective on the reality of things beyond the world of creative ideas. Because of this, such organisations are also often better at being on the ‘ground floor’ with their audience, seeing how projects are received, what works and what doesn’t. This lack of separation of day-to-day operations from the creative programme might not be possible in very large institutions, but it certainly is in the small to medium ones.

Grassroots organisations are usually also better at allowing everyone within a team some form of input into the direction of an organisation and its creative output. This not only helps make everyone feel valued, but it can aid in generating new and interesting ideas for programming and subjecting them to the required scrutiny. Artist-led outfits also often have more rotation of those at the top, which helps keeps things fresh and organisations fluid, organic and adaptable. Public institutions meanwhile have a habit of becoming self-perpetuating and repetitious; dominated by the ideas of a few central leaders, often far too focused on what others are doing in similar institutions elsewhere.

The teams within grassroots organisations are also often more successful at working with the wider ecosystem of the arts in any given location, which can help build audiences and provide effective networks for successful operation. Developing links with local designers, businesses, artists and collaborators, means they avoid relying on handing out contracts to remote and often overpriced operators, who may frequently fail to deliver.

Adopting practices such as the above are especially important for smaller public arts institutions which, by their nature, must be more dynamic and efficient. In these times, such institutions have little room for people who don’t pull their weight towards the wider goals of an organisation, or who wish to only exist in some ‘creative’ space disengaged from day-to-day reality. The best small arts organisations already do this, but many more could learn.

This is not to pretend that all grassroots organisations are without dysfunction, hierarchy and ego. Nor is it to imagine that institutions of any kind don’t need direction, or that leaders can’t inspire and drive an organisation to great results. Yet, being a more collectivised organisation does tend to create an interdependent reliance which is usually both more efficient and more effective in delivering goals. A model that could help create more sustainable public arts institutions which can survive and thrive in this new, more pragmatic era.

This piece appeared on Arts Professional in May 2012.