Leadership in the arts sector

I was reading Sunny Widmann’s piece on leadership in the arts sector (Getting Unstuck: Developing Skills to Climb the Leadership Ladder)

Marc Vogl, who works with arts and culture organizations in his role as Principal of Vogl Consulting, aptly describes the problem as a clogged and leaky pipeline. Basically, there are a small number of leadership positions at the top, often held for many years by the same people (that’s the clogged part) and therefore more junior employees are stuck at their current level, growing increasingly tired of waiting around for these positions to come available. Eventually, financial realities of working at a nonprofit and the monotony of a static career path push workers to leave the cultural sector (that’s the leaky part).

This rang pretty true, even just looking at the 10 organisations who receive the most cash from ACE you can see a pattern (FYI, never do this research, it is very very tedious):

  • Royal Opera House
    • CEO: Alex Beard, in post less than a year but previously in senior roles at The Tate for over a two decades
  • Southbank Centre
    • CEO: Alan Bishop, in post since 2009, previously the Central Office of Information and Saatchi & Saatchi. Artistic Director: Jude Kelly, in post since 2005, previously artistic directo at the West Yorkshire Playhouse 1990-2002
  • Royal National Theatre
    • Artistic Director: Nick Hytner, in post since 2003, previously – The National Theatre
  • English National Opera
    • CEO: Loretta Tomasi, in post since 2005, previously senior role at ENO, previously to that a senior role at Really Useful Theatres for 12 years. Artistic Director: John Berry, in post since 2005, previously senior roles at ENO
  • Royal Shakespeare Company
    • Executive Director: Catherine Mallyon, in post since 2012, previously senior role at the Southbank Centre. Artistic Director: Greg Doran, in post since 2012, previously various roles at the RSC and in theatreland (hopefully he’ll never read that summary)
  • Opera North
    • General Director: Richard Mantle, in post since 1994, previously General Director of Scottish Opera
  • Birmingham Royal Ballet
    • Director: David Bintley, in post since…can’t quite work out but it’d seem to be at least since the late 1990s/early 2000s. CEO: Christopher Barron, in post since 2005, previously CEO at Scottish Opera.
  • English National Ballet
    • Executive Director: Caroline Thomson, in post since 2013, previously senior roles at the BBC. Artistic Director: Tamara Rojo, in post since 2013, previously – ENB/Royal Ballet
  • Welsh National Opera
    • Chief Executive and Artistic Director: David Pountney, in post since 2011, previously Intendant of the Bregenz Festival from 2003.
  • North Music Trust (essentially: Sage Gateshead)
    • General Director, Sage Gateshead: Anthony Sargent, in post since 2000, previously senior role at the BBC.

Now don’t get me wrong, these are huge organisations that require stable leadership from people who have experience leading similar-sized organisations, that’s perfectly sensible. HOWEVER in relation to my thoughts earlier this week about the lack of understanding and ambition in relation to ‘digital stuff’ in the sector I think this is potentially a big problem.

The reality is that digital simply did not feature in the world all of these people ‘grew up’ in, you could argue that good leaders would draw on the experience(s) of those around them to assist them on issues they didn’t have a view on. However I really think that such a fundamental shift in understanding is required that is just not going to be forthcoming from people whose experience for the last 15-20 years (or longer) is in running medium/large arts organisations, in an environment in which digital has never figured. Now of course there are exceptions to this, I’m not going to go into them here.

This lack of input from people whose whole lives haven’t been spent within the sector strikes me as a real problem. I’m sure it isn’t unique to the arts sector but of all the people I’ve listed above I can only see 2 who genuinely have experience at a senior level working outside the sector; The Southbank’s Alan Murphy and ENB’s Caroline Thomson (maybe 3 if you count Anthony Sargent but his BBC experience was…a long time ago). That’s 2 (maybe 3) out of 15 which is…not very many. I’m fairly confident that this is replicated across most arts organisations, now of course you could argue that the arts require a particular set of skills and experience that you can only get by…running arts organisations (although I guess this is far more true for the role of Artistic Director or whatever). Equally I am not, by any stretch, saying that this is the one reason for the lack of urgency around this issue in the sector, there are far more issues at play and nothing is that simple. However I am fairly sure that this lack of external expertise cannot be helping anyone tackle this particular problem and I think it is becoming clearer by the day that the arts sector probably can’t tackle it on its own.

Am I being completely naïve? Are there, in fact, lots and lots of organisations who have convinced fantastic people from outside the sector into senior, permanent positions (I’m not talking ‘associate whatever’ because that can mean…absolutely anything – including precisely nothing)?

You would maybe expect ACE to set the agenda, or at least try to help guide, on such an important issue. However given what I have seen, read and heard over past few years ACE have just as much problem understanding it as anyone else hence their eagerness to try and adopt things like live broadcast into cinema on a sector-wide basis – equally does this new-found love of broadcast (albeit in a mildly different form) come from the fact that ‘Baz‘ comes from a broadcast background so this is simply a solution that he can get his head around? Which, in a way, I think comes back around to making my point for me, people’s solutions to problems are invariable based on their own experiences, if you have no experience of digital solutions, interesting digital projects and all the rest of it, and all your peers come from precisely the same background then, really, are you going to be able to understand this threat/opportunity and react accordingly? I’d argue you probably aren’t. And that’s a real shame.

What’s the solution (I’ve been told, rightly, that I can’t just moan, I have to suggest solutions too)? I see the main problem at the moment being one of a lack of understanding, a lack of skills and as a result of this, a lack of ambition.

  • Clearly the money available in the arts sector is never (or very rarely) going to be able to attract the top, top digital talent, quite simply they are always going to end up at the big tech and media companies. So why not try and forge links with those companies? A ‘geeks in residence’ (Scotland, Australia, England) -type programme at a far more senior level than has already taken place would be an interesting avenue to explore.
  • I also see increasing the digital capacity of the sector as a whole as an important step that is needed, and quickly (this is something I’ve talked about before), this will ultimately ‘filter up’ and eventually result in leaders who at least have some knowledge in, and understanding of, digital.
    • And by this I DO NOT mean anything like the ‘digital capacity in the arts’ programme that has been run over the last 18 months
  • Alongside all this is the wider need for the arts sector to start to have some proper career development/progression opportunities for people, I know the AMA are trying to set the agenda in this area in relation to marketing and comms and there seem to be similar moves in fundraising, I see a need for this in relation to digital as well. But I am not just talking about courses for people to learn how to send emails, I’m interested in the artistic implications/possibilities that digital presents, we can’t just focus on upskilling the ‘support/admin’ side of the sector and leave the artists behind, that would almost be worse than doing nothing.
  • Unrelated to leadership but: there needs to be more digital ‘messing about’ as a matter of course, I’m not convinced that as a sector we’re particularly good at trying things out and being happy if it doesn’t quite pan out as expected, and then learning from that. This sort of low-level, iterative play would then help to at least build some momentum around digital thinking and start to provide a foundation for people to start to understand the possibilities and what might, or might not work.
  • Also digital needs to stop being talked about as just a distribution channel. Yes, that is one of the potential applications but it is by no means the only one and it’d be short-sighted and narrow-minded to only pursue this.

So, what do you think? Does the arts sector have a problem with a lack of diversity in its leaders? Is this lack of diversity then having an effect on things like digital ambition across the sector? I’d be really interested to hear people’s thoughts.

important p.s. although this doesn’t relate to my point about digital, only 5 of those leaders (out of 15) are women. 1/3? That’s pretty disgraceful.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>