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“I am a foreword fraud”

FOREWORD – in Cultural Leadership Reader – published in UK

It is a pleasure to write a foreword for this cultural leadership reader. But I probably shouldn’t be writing it. I have not read widely on the subject, I have not been on a cultural leadership course and I am definitely not a cultural leadership expert. I am a foreword fraud.

In fact you might do well to skip this. Why not check out the contents page? You might see someone you have heard of who can make a more qualified contribution…

That’s better. Hopefully we have got rid of a hatful of experts who have gone off to seek a more expert opinion. Don’t misunderstand me: I love expertise. I will proudly wear an anorak in pursuit of knowledge. But I mistrust consultant culture or impenetrable language that creates walls around information. I love people who embrace the fact we can all understand, given the right words. I love people who are prepared to take risks and put their own necks on the line. Like the people who have made contributions to this reader: people who get stuck in.

Cultural leadership sounds oddly bureaucratic and even though I am charged to write a foreword about it, I cannot bring myself to define something that sets my jargon antenna jittering. So instead, I’d like to tell you a story. It is a story that’s intended to offer a provocation for leadership in the arts in the 21stcentury.

Imagine you are a thousand years old. Imagine that every year of your life you have climbed 430 feet to exactly the same spot on Shooter’s Hill in Greenwich and you have taken a picture of London. Imagine creating a one minute film of all your pictures. Now press play.

The transformation of London’s skyline from the early Middle Ages to 2010 says a lot about leadership and power in the second millennia. The skyline demonstrates how our resources have transferred from agriculturalists to the church, to royals, to governments, to industrialists and now to modern companies.

The story is similar across most urban and rural landscapes.

Rewind and watch the last 10 seconds of your film again: witness the revolution of our current oil age.

A population explosion has fuelled the creation of giant corporate temples, colossal shrines to capitalism that have sped past church spires, making it abundantly clear who is in charge.

Created by the leaders of today’s corporations they are manifestations of our progress and success. But it is sobering to think how many of these buildings are dysfunctional: architecturally and managerially.

They are hierarchical. They segregate their users, encouraging territorialism instead of enabling congregation and collaboration. They are modern day mirrored temples that make the outside world less important for those inside.

These glass boxes, intended as transparent paragons of incorruptibility, have turned out to be Pandora’s boxes containing all kinds of self-indulgence. It has become clear from what’s happened over the last couple of years that many of our leaders, especially in finance and politics, are in danger of losing touch with reality.

So what kind of leaders do we want in the cultural sector? What does success look like for culture in the 21st century?

What is our vision for the future?

I would like to offer three ideas based around a single provocation. We have enough buildings, enough empires and enough temples reaching for the sky.

Instead of isolated towers of Babel we could use culture to create swings, rope ladders, pathways, slides, tunnels and tightropes to connect our skyline. With this image in mind, my three thoughts are as follows.

First, great leaders could lean out of their windows and use artists and audiences to connect different sectors and spaces. We could embrace a wider definition of culture and understand that our future depends on every individual accessing and applying their own creativity.

Leaders of arts organisations could show the way by getting their collaborative act together. We could start by co-developing or co-presenting work, sharing infrastructure and connecting our ideas and audiences.

I’m not suggesting collaborative leadership is easy. After four years as Artistic Director of Battersea Arts Centre, I invited David Micklem to join me as Joint Artistic Director. Since then I have had the most exciting period of my working life. But it has not been without challenge for both of us: collaboration asks us difficult questions. But we think we are better at what we do because of our creative partnership. We shall now see how collaboration works in modern UK politics.

Second, our leaders could look to re-use, re-imagine, adapt and explore our current buildings rather than try to create new ones.

At the peak of our oil use, our world is changing more rapidly than we can probably control. Not just in terms of climate but also socially, fiscally and culturally. We could find new ways of being resilient with what we have.

Once again, artists are brilliantly positioned to lead us in this pursuit, helping us access our creativity to imagine new ways of living well together.

Third, as we develop our leadership skills as a sector, let’s avoid adopting a corporate language that can only be understood by people in the membership club.

Artists are great at ringing alarm bells when it comes to jargon, rhetoric and dogma. We could all learn that skill.

The actor Toby Jones said to me that the older people get, the less they want to find out about new stuff and the more they want to focus on the stuff they know. Particularly men.

When you realise that today’s leaders in many sectors tend to be older men, you start to understand why we are led in such linear ways. We need leaders who are interested in finding out about what they don’t know.

We would do well to look to young leaders who have grown up using the internet and who are adopting some of the internet’s self-organising, knowledge-hungry principles.

In conclusion, the greatest asset of the cultural sector is its artists.

As we seek to develop our leadership abilities for the 21st century, we must not do this at the cost of artists playing a leading role in every area of the cultural landscape. Great leaders will always ensure that artists are employed in leading roles, something which wider society could embrace to catalyse real change.

We need leaders for the cultural sector who are collaborative by nature, who speak a language that everyone can understand and who place artists and audiences at the heart of everything they do.

Complete reader

3 May 2010

Categories: Role of PRODUCER and/or artistic director

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