Post budget, we need strong cultural leaders more than ever

Cultural leadership may not be the same as leadership in the other arenas. Elliot Margolies

Cultural leadership has been under the spotlight in recent times. Or maybe “under the microscope” is a better turn of phrase – as you’d be forgiven for not seeing it clearly from a distance.

Most of the action is coming from the performing arts sector, with theatre historian Katharine Brisbane arguing we need cultural leaders as much as we need obsessive artists in the recently released Platform Paper The Arts and the Common Good.

This followed calls from directors Ralph Myers and Wesley Enoch for renewed exuberance in the realm of arts leadership.

Both expressed concern that our artistic leaders are being subsumed by those with a business approach. Cultural leaders need to be risk takers, they all argue – and maybe those in the sector are just a little too comfortable.

Comfort is likely not widely felt in the arts sector so soon after the release of the 2015 Budget.

While ABC and SBS employees may be relieved, the rest of the sector is coming to terms with further cuts to Screen Australia and the Australia Council – and the creation of the new A$104.8 million National Centre for Excellence in the Arts.

While operational details are still to come, it looks like this new player on the cultural landscape will bring the role of the federal Arts ministry front and centre into decisions of funding allocation, a direct challenge to the “arms length” model that has operated for nearly half a century.

Writing on ArtsHub on budget night, Ben Eltham suggested the impact will likely be felt mostly in the small to medium sector, the place we grow most of our future leaders. For potential leaders who consider speaking out and challenging the status quo, such as those who threatened to boycott the Sydney Biennale in 2014, the economic consequences may be dire.

Understanding cultural leadership

The reluctance to discuss leadership, or indeed stand up and be counted as a leader, in the Australian cultural industries is a common theme encountered in my research.

To understand how cultural leaders develop their skills, knowledge and attributes I have set out to ask them, and those around who support their development.

What I hadn’t predicted was unwillingness by those who have significant industry experience and who are recognised as emerging leaders in their field to have the label “leader” ascribed to them.

Across disciplines, ages, genders and practice types the view has been the same. They didn’t have enough experience they said, they weren’t bosses of people, they work collaboratively or, in classic Australian form, they didn’t want to be seen as “up themselves”.

The problem with leadership is it’s a construction that comes into being from a variety of different sources. Despite masses of research over decades there is no one singular definition of leadership. For many the term is a managerial buzzword, over-used and without value.

This is compounded by the media representations of leadership where the figure of the older, white, male authoritarian leader still dominates the worlds of business and sport.

In the cultural arena, when I tell people I’m studying leadership in the sector, many say “good luck finding them”.

Two types of cultural leaders

But those we do see often fall into two highly-visible groups. There is the creatively-talented artistic director/symphony conductor/head curator who we often laud upon retirement or passing – and the benevolent philanthropists/board chairs who bestow their considerable business acumen to the arts.

The first instance harks back to the “great man” theories of early leadership studies, the idea that leadership, like creative genius, was supposedly born not made. In the latter case there is a paternalistic view that the cultural sector needs to bring in expertise from elsewhere, more robust leadership to bring order and sustainability to the challenging arts environment.

These are undoubtedly generalisations. There are many great leaders of differing genders, ethnicities and ages operating across the Australian cultural sector, but their names do not necessarily appear on many of the arts “power lists” that are published.

Often, true cultural leaders are not highly visible – and that may be because they are more focused on “doing” leadership than being seen as a leader.

Such innovative cultural leaders are quietly redefining leadership as a collaborative, relational, entrepreneurial, process, leading from behind, below, beside. Writing in The Australian last month, Matthew Westwood painted the following picture of cultural leadership:

Business and politics also produce admirable leaders, but cultural leaders are different. They have particular qualities. They do not wait to be elected, or follow a trend, or conduct market research or opinion polls. Instead, they produce plays, symphonies and exhibitions, build museums or organise community choirs because their inner creative impetus drives them to do it.

The leaders we need

In her Platform Paper, Katharine Brisbane outlines the “risky, uncomfortable business” of being an arts practitioner in Australia – which in this post-budget world may have become just a bit riskier. She argues we must give trust and latitude to those who develop creative content if we are to produce the next great playwrights, composers or choreographers.

The same can be said of arts leaders, for we need to trust in their ability to craft a new, creative notion of leadership.

Two distinct audiences are now focused on the idea of cultural leadership.

Corporate leaders increasingly look toward those in creative roles for inspiration. As business leaders seek out innovation and creativity as the “silver bullet” to keep organisations competitive in the knowledge economy, the lessons learned from those in creative positions are seen as an important learning opportunity.

Universities too are now recognising the value of cultural leadership as a potential market and are launching programs, such as NIDA’s new in 2016 Master in Fine Arts in Cultural Leadership, Melbourne University’s Master of Arts and Cultural Management or the Master in Curating and Cultural Leadership at UNSW Art & Design.

For these programs to be truly innovative and provide benefit for those both within and outside the cultural sector they must recognise that cultural leadership may not be the same as leadership in the other arenas. The development of cultural leaders is not simply a matter as teaching them business skills.

We need cultural leadership programs, both within formal education and provided from organisations such as the Australia Council for the Arts, to cultivate and share leadership knowledge from within the sector, creating case studies and role models of real leaders operating today - even if they are reluctant to wear the tag.

Maybe then we won’t need to look so hard for our cultural leaders – because we need them more than ever.