Cultural Leadership

February 26, 2020



26 February 2020

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which Arts Centre Melbourne stands, the People of the Kulin Nations, and pay my respects to their elders, past, present and to come.

To start our conversation today, I’ve been asked to reflect on what sort of arts leadership we need going forward? And my first thought was is it any different from when I got my first leadership role, running a public broadcasting station in the 1980s?

Although you might expect me to say that there’s a big difference, I don’t think there is. Sure, in those days my portable computer was the size of a sewing machine but the challenge that I faced as a leader was the same as I faced as the locum CEO of Australian Dance Theatre at the end of last year  – the tension between art and money. How to find enough money to enable you to keep creating great art and tell important cultural stories as well as ensuring that the people who work for you can live a decent and healthy life.

There’s never been a lack of creativity in this country. What we lack is the financial resources to facilitate its creation. In under 2 months’ time, for example, 60 small to medium sized arts companies across Australia are going to lose their ongoing Australia Council funding.

So I think the real challenge in 2020 is to stand up and be cultural leaders, not just leaders of arts organisations.

What do I mean? I mean that we have to get out and argue the case for the value of what we do. Cultural leadership is about advocacy for as well as facilitation of cultural activity.

I’ll give you an example from those days of my first leadership role. The radio station was owned by two universities and one decided that the station’s existence wasn’t a priority so the Vice Chancellor decided to withdraw funding. This probably would have meant the closure of the station. But before he could do this, he needed approval from the University Senate and there was a window of 10 days between finding out about his decision and the Senate meeting. 10 days (prior to social media) of talking to the community and getting their support: signatures on petitions; postcards and letters to the Chancellor; phone calls to Senate members; editorials in other media forms. I spent 10 days telling the world how valuable we were and why we deserved to continue. And we won. The Senate refused to defund us. I tuned into that radio station when I was in Perth last week and it’s still providing entertainment and information to the Perth community.

The reason for telling this story is that as arts leaders we need to spend more time advocating to politicians, to public servants, to corporations, to philanthropist, to community groups, to get more money for artistic creation and distribution. We’ve got great artists who can create innovative art and great staff who can do all the operational work but as CEOs and Board members of arts organisations we need to look outwards and put the case for just how important the arts are for Australia.

Our voices can be lost in the media that’s more interested in entertainment or sport; in politics where the arguments can be about the instrumental rather than the intrinsic value of the arts; in the broader community where arts practice can be seen as an indulgence and arts attendance as a middle class or elite pursuit.

‘Leading’ in the arts is not only providing direction and inspiration for the people in our organisations but actually being out in the public domain expressing a belief in the value and benefits of culture. John Tusa, a great UK arts manager, makes the lovely point that being a leader in the arts and cultural world is all about caring without moderation or qualification. Whether its public speeches or private meetings, facebook posts or a compelling twitter feed, each public action we take is a demonstration of that care.

Of course the voice of artists will be heard more loudly than that of managers which is as it should be. Wesley Enoch, the first indigenous artistic director of a major Australian Festival argues that cultural leadership is about (and I quote)  “creating space for the opposing voices, about imagining a future, exploring the repercussions of our values and promulgating public debate through the work we make and the relationships we create.”

I’ve just come back from Perth where a non-indigenous Festival Director, Iain Grandage, gave voice to the local Noongar people and other First Nations artists by dedicating the first week of his Festival to their creativity. At the same time the WA Returned Services League released a statement saying that they were banning the flying of the Aboriginal flag, the use of indigenous languages and Welcome to Country ceremonies at ANZAC and Remembrance Day services. The community response was outrage and within days, they withdrew their decision. I’m sure that the part of that response was because people in Perth had been hearing about or immersing themselves in indigenous culture – hearing Shakespeare in an  indigenous language for the first time and/or having uproariously good times at Bran Nue Dae and Black Ties. And because artists and direstors and managers were talking about the importance of indigienous culture. Maybe, for the first time, people made a connection with an indigenous storyand recognised its value.

So we have to produce great art and show it in our theatres and galleries and arts centres but we also have to tell stories about why doing what we do is important in the media and the meeting rooms. And to be believed by our community, we have to reflect our community. The leaders of our arts organisations have to be black and white, gay and straight, male and female, artist and manager, and all have to be Cultural Leaders and advocate for increased investment in the arts in Australia.