Opinion: Cultural leadership in the theatre

Opinion piece by Lyn Wallis, Director of the Theatre Board for the Australia Council for the Arts

The topic of leadership - what makes a good leader, how to find, grow, and keep good leaders - is on the minds and lips of communities and businesses, both small and large.

It’s also a hot topic for the arts. If you Google the word 'leadership' - no, on second thought, don't do that.  It would take weeks to plough through the ads for high-octane leadership courses, all promising fast money and enhanced performance.  

Perhaps this commercialised image is what makes 'leadership' such a dirty word to many artists. Arts managers and board members are mostly comfortable with it, but to many artists, being named in public as a leader is like being forced to wear a T shirt that says - ‘Trust me, I Know Better’.

Or maybe it is artists' innate suspicion of homogenisation.  The Australia Council’s Theatre Board team had to consider this when we traipsed across the country spruiking our new Cultural Leadership Skills grant categories. We were grilled to a crisp about our definition of ‘leader’; asked 'How is that different from regular skills development?', and 'Why do we have to be labelled anyway?'  The thing that really bowled me over though, was that some outstanding artists felt so uncomfortable about identifying themselves as leaders that we had to beseech them to apply for the new $20K grants for leadership development.  I raised this with Nicola Turner of the UK’s prestigious Cultural Leadership Programme which has distributed over 12 million pounds to the UK arts sector, and she reported the same experience - but only in the beginning. Now that their program is well established, the UK arts industry has seen the power of a more active and structured approach to developing leaders. Yet the egalitarian Australian artist might ask, ‘why do we need it here?’

We need it because Australia’s arts community is like Australia itself: fuelled by an extraordinary diversity of race, age, gender, sexuality, ability, and geography. Every profession should reflect that diversity and, to the extent that art is a mirror of society, the arts community is doubly obliged. Yet it does not always happen. The vitality of our streets and neighbourhoods is often missing from our stages. If you are an artist from a culturally diverse background, the road to success will be decidedly more uphill. If you are doing it in isolation, it is steeper again. Some unbreakable spirits get there, but not enough, and that is a loss to everyone. To turn this around requires robust cultural leadership, but not the homogenised kind. 

Sure, we need definitions, and the official definition of 'leadership' attached to the Theatre Board’s Cultural Leadership grant opportunities uses all the correct words. There is ‘vision’ and ‘motivation’, ’inspiration’ and ‘fortitude’.  There is 'sustainability'. But, when out in the field talking to artists, we have learned to be more personal.   Often we point out the leader-like traits of the very artist sitting in front of us, so that their own achievements and future potential are reflected clearly back to them.

At the Australia Council, we know what our artistic leaders, our cultural leaders, look like. They are the ‘go to’ people, the first names that pop into your head when you need to get communities informed, wrestling with issues, or engaging in serious debate. They bring cool ideas to the big table, and have the strategies to make those ideas play out. Other artists are drawn to them for advice or help, because they know that even if this person can’t solve their problem, they’ll know someone who can. They hang in there when the going gets tough and know how to take their colleagues with them. Yes, their actions encapsulate all the buzz words. They have incredible vision, they motivate others and demonstrate fortitude in the face of adversity. Most importantly, they possess that intangible gift: the ability to inspire change.

I recently heard Jude Kelly, Director of London’s Southbank Centre, speak at the World Theatre Festival in Brisbane. Rather than talk of arts venue bricks and mortar, she spoke of the need, within our professional practice, to embrace community and the artistic potential of all people. She spoke not only of every child as a potential artist, but of giving every child the opportunity to be an artist. Of course, not every young person will become one, but this guiding principle has led to some astonishing, life-changing outcomes for gifted children in developing countries. Now imagine if we saw every artist as a leader - gave every artist the opportunity to be a cultural leader. Imagine the capacity this would create, not only to inspire positive change within the walls of our tiny theatre sector, but out there, to be a cultural leader in our wider communities, including many that are disadvantaged. Imagine the diversity of leadership that would be encouraged to blossom.

It’s often easy to identify the leaders of the present. What is more difficult is unearthing and nurturing the new champions of diversity. Our theatre sector is full of tolerant, inclusive individuals, but the closer you get to the big end of town, and our major stages, the more diversity has been leached from artistic programming. Recent media debate about the low representation of women directors and playwrights in major theatre programming has yet again exposed our failure to deal with one injustice that has haunted us for decades. As the cultural identity of Australian society continues to change, we see growth in the number of talented culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) artists, yet very few opportunities for them within the current theatre landscape.
Napoleon Bonaparte said, ‘The only way to lead people is to show them a future: a leader is a dealer in hope’. I’d like to think that the Australia Council’s timely promotion of leadership as a key strategic priority will strengthen leadership in all art forms, especially areas that are fragile or under-represented. Senior arts leaders must have opportunities to mature and stop them from burning out. More critically, we need greater diversity amongst our emerging leaders; a multiplicity of leadership that can speak for the full scope of the sector. We need it within our regional, CALD and Indigenous theatre communities. We need it for our young artists. We need it for our women creatives and our artists with disability. And we need it for our audiences. One size will not fit all, and we need more dealers in hope, to inspire positive change amongst us all.

Lyn Wallis  

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