Weekly rant

Thanks to what has become known as Black Friday there are suddenly a lot of think pieces about the arts and arts funding circulating.  This is a good thing. I wish I could get online on any given day and read constructive articles about creative culture and government policy.  I wish it didn’t take the wholesale slaughter of our industry for it to happen. (By the way I’m organising an event that with feature a speech on the future of craft writing in the age of free content in July, so it’s on my mind.)

After 6 years of working, lecturing and researching in this space I have some opinions about these issues. Though sometimes I’m not confident enough to put them out there.  It’s generally only when I feel so authoritative on a subject that I know I can answer any critique that I’ll push a button and send.  I’m wary of opening up myself to criticism. (This is why I am never going to be an academic.)

But two nuggets of information that popped up in my social media feeds recently got me thinking/raised my hackles a little. And I guess I’m taking the chicken approach of not responding on the articles or posts instead I’m just expressing my thoughts here (which is not really public as no one reads it.)

The first was a comment about the Australia Council’s new suite of leadership programs being launched at a time 62 organisations were defunded. (Technically the leadership programs were launched about a month ago, but that’s not the point.)  Now I’m willing to say I have some self-interest in this area.  Not only is leadership my bag, but I have shared my research with the team at OzCo in the past. But I still also think it is worth looking at the perceived idea that it is somehow shameful that the federal body that has a significantly reduced grants budget is wasting resources by launching a (partly) user pays leadership development specifically for the sector.

Could money spent on this be spent in different ways? Absolutely.  Should all government funding that goes into the arts go directly to organisations and artists? In my opinion no.  I believe that part of the remit of organisations like the Australia Council is capacity building and that means helping skill those in the sector. We see that through their marketing forums and conferences on learning. What I see in my research is that there is some serious gaps in organisational leadership.  If participants in leadership programs become better managers, reduce role turnover, develop more productive staff by reducing stress, making the work environment better how beneficial will this be for organisations that has faced with tighter and tighter income streams?  I want to make the creative industries a better place to be employed and deliver more for the community, and I want that not just through adequate government funding but also through skilled leaders managing the companies in which we work.

What I’d love to see is this leadership development being offered free. Because I don’t know many arts organisations that have $600 or $900 to spend on leadership development, even though it is a) significantly better value than what you’d get in other sectors and b) badly needed. Importantly, I also want to ensure (and I hope I can play a part) that the leadership information that is provided in these sessions is relevant to the sector, particularly in the sense that it should come from within.  No wholesale importation of leadership theory as it applies to finance and the assumption that what works there works in the arts.

But I don’t criticise the Australia Council for offering the product in the first place.

OK, my second rant involves this piece on ArtsHub.  As a start I do not support the corporatisation of the arts.  I think creative product needs to be valued for more than economic value.  But at the same time I acknowledge that the creative industries (and I do not see this as a dirty word) is adding significant value to the economy and does employ more people than mining and agriculture.  Those in the sector have a tendency to latch on to these labour market and economic statistics to prove the sector’s value to the economy (legitimately) but then can’t cry foul when it is judged as an economic sector. Pledger says:

The ‘creative industries ideology’ talks to the arts as an object for monetisation. 

I don’t agree.  If you read Creative State, Victoria’s new creative industries policy, then you will see in the very first introductory paragraph:

The creative industries are significant to Victoria’s culture, economy and society and central to its future. Creative sectors and occupations account for $23 billion in gross value added, and make up about eight per cent of the Victorian economy. They influence our quality of life and the strength of our communities, and provide a source of inspiration and entertainment. They have wide-ranging impacts that resonate across our culture, society and economy. 

This clearly states that the industry add value to culture, economy and society.  The document goes on to recognise the linkages between creative work and social justice, quality of life, health, tourism along with economics.

To me it is not an either or discussion.   Attempting to isolate the arts as a ‘special’ case in society that deserves funding for its own sake is a) not going to fly in the modern world and b) not doing justice to the true value the arts provides.   This shouldn’t be an either/or argument. Government support in the arts should be both an investment and a grant.

We in the sector do need to get angry and fight for more funding. But we also need to critique the fact that funding seems to exist in a void of no policy at a national level.  There is no cultural/creative or arts industry policy in place and with no framework there is no strategy. In addition the methodology of funding delivery between the Australia Council for the Arts and Catalyst is a complete mess. No transparency, no consistency and no just process.  I highly recommend this article also on ArtsHub posted on these issues.

I’ve put out the call for arts leaders to step up in the past, and in particular we need some arts leadership at a national, policy level.  Think about this as you vote on July 2.

Rant over.



(L)eadership and (l)eadership

I mentioned in a last post I’m thinking about gatekeepers and power. Lots of different thoughts are swirling about and I thought putting them down here might help them coalesce.

One of my interviews raised the idea of gatekeepers and the holders of legitimate power in the creative sector.  Those names we all know, the families that dominate giving and board seats.  But also the people that get into positions of power, in government bodies and arts organisations, and hold on to them for dear life, controlling money and access.

These are traditional leaders. The ones that get studied and written about.  I laughed when someone told me at STPA (post on this to come) that there’s a belief we don’t have enough C-level education for creative leaders.  Come on, when you get to C level you can travel the world, generally with your organisation paying for it, and access all sorts of executive leadership (cultural and not) at world famous universities and institutions. These types are not ‘my people.’  My people are outside these structures (mostly), in some sense they are the next in line (emerging) but in another they are saying ‘fuck it’ (sorry) to closed doors and just getting on with what they do.

They are creating a different type of leadership.

One reason why they are rejecting the role of leader is they are not Leaders (capital L).  They haven’t (yet or ever) been granted access to those positions of power. But they are leaders, small l, doing leadership.

On a Monday not so long ago we had a lecture from Cara Kirkwood in my UNSW class on cultural leadership . Cara is the Indigenous Programs coordinator at the NGA in Canberra and spoke about how she operates in two organisational worlds. The first is the traditional leadership and power structure of the NGA (and organisations.) Hierarchical and linear.  The second is the cultural leadership of her community, that runs parallel but has completely different structure. It’s collective and communal, that involves communication and consensus decision making. It’s networked and goes across departments and organisations.

Her real strength is that she navigates both worlds. She’s clearly highly intelligent and charismatic as all get out, so she does it with skill and panache. (If I didn’t already have way too much data I would have killed to include her in my study. She is textbook.)

It’s this second type of structure that is more akin to the leadership that I’m seeing in my data.  This traditional, indigenous cultural leadership is similar to what occurs in the networked world of the people emerging leaders in the arts. And it’s creeping into the mainstream.

This is the area I really want to explore in my thesis, this new relationship to leadership.  When I say my subjects reject leadership I really mean they reject the traditional notion of power and gatekeepers, but it doesn’t stop them from using leadership to achieve often significant things.

Leadership and creativity

Have I written about this yet? I’m not sure.

I’m a big fan of the work by Chris Bilton.  Bilton writes on management and creativity – or the management of creativity.  I can’t remember how I exactly fell across his ideas, but they resonated with me from the start.

In particular he writes extensively about how creativity is not an individual, but a collective, process.  The idea of inherent creative talent, or genius, is outmoded and creativity should be examined within a systems or ‘art worlds’ process.

I’ve used his work extensively in my Cultural Policy class, to critique the current funding mechanisms and the way they reward individual ‘talent’ over creating environments which help creativity flourish.  But now I’m looking at it from a leadership perspective and there’s a lot of cross over.

Like the examination of creativity, leadership was thought originally to be an inherent trait. There’s still debate even today over the born versus made leadership argument (it surprises me how many people still believe leadership is something you either have or have not.)  Scientists, according my Org Psych class in 2014, are close to locating the ‘leadership gene.’  Even though study of leadership has moved way beyond this born with it idea there has been a strong emphasis on individualism in leadership concepts and development – something I’ve definitely written about before. Bilton says about individuals within the creative process, and I like this: “Placing one’s gifts at the service of the project rather than using the project to showcase your talents.”  The same can easily be said about leadership. Too often we are about showcasing the leader rather than the outcomes.

Bilton’s sociological model of creativity requires diversity of people and interest in the environment or ecology that allows creativity to happen.  Increasing I think leadership is the same.  I’m more and more focussed on ‘new leadership’ one that is about influence and network capability over power and hierarchy, and my communities of practice approach is all about how groups of people come together to learn and develop leadership skills.  What I think (based on limited review of data) is also important is the ecology that Bilton mentions – some stimulate learning, some don’t. Which is why I see different levels of leadership identification depending on the creative sector.

My idea is that creating an environment to allow leadership to flourish is not unlike creating an environment for creativity to flourish (in fact maybe they are one and the same.)  Sometimes I think you could replace the word ‘creativity’ with ‘leadership’ in Bilton’s books and it would read equally as well. As an aside, one company that features heavily in discussions about both is Pixar.

I’m not sure where this is going yet.  I know I’m positioning my thesis as an extension of Jo Caust’s 2006 PhD on Leadership and Creativity in Adelaide, so it will beed to come in here somewhere, but I am wary of trying to introduce too many ‘big themes.’  I’m itching to get set up in my new place, which will have a whole study for me, and to get stuck into data analysis and post it not mapping ideas all over the walls.

Where’s the leadership?

Two weeks ago, thereabouts, Platform Papers published their 40th Issue. Entitled TAKE ME TO YOUR LEADER: The dilemma of cultural leadership it was a call out by Wesley Enoch, artistic director of the Queensland Theatre Company, to the supposed leaders of the Australian cultural industries.  “What the f..k are we doing? Where are our leaders?” it began.

The fact a paper such as this was written and published was unsurprising and needed. The fact there has been little to no response by the supposed cultural leaders? Disappointing. Where’s the rebuttal? Where’s the defence? Where’s the evidence that there is a thriving cultural leadership in our arts sector?

*hears crickets chirping*

When I started my PhD I went to a meeting of sessional teachers at the institution where I work.  “What are you writing on?” asked one colleague, a highly experienced and well regarded figure in the visual arts world. When I replied that I am researching on the development of cultural leaders she said “Oh there are any?”

Recently the program within which I teach has been renamed “Masters of Curating and Cultural Leadership.” Over the past semester there has been much discussion with staff and students. Most, including those current undertaking my course that is largely on cultural leadership, hate the name change.  It’s corporate speak, jargon, meaningless they say.

Wesley Enoch spoke to ABC Radio National just prior to the Platform Papers publication.  Presenter Michael Cathcart started the conversation by complaining about the title of the piece.  Cultural leadership, “it’s not an appealing term”  he says. As Enoch suggests in the interview, the term cultural leadership is associated with management. When googled it displays a plethora of articles about corporate culture.

But the problem with leadership in our creative context is broader than just one of vague nomenclature.

In my view there will not be a robust discussion ,or display, of leadership in our cultural industries until those within it start to embrace the term. Leadership is not the enemy of the arts.  And those working and studying within the industry need to start recognising the leadership role they are, and can, play.

Here’s a list of things leadership isn’t:

  1. Leadership isn’t hierarchical
  2. Leadership isn’t related to job title
  3. Leadership isn’t all about making money
  4. Leadership isn’t the domain of corporate consultants (or wankers)
  5. Leadership isn’t about characteristics or traits 

Leadership, to me, is about creating a place to which people want to belong. By establishing a potential future and encouraging others to work towards it.  Isn’t that sort of what artists do too?

This reluctance to embrace the role of leader has consequences. Not just the lack of debate or current stands on social issues that Enoch calls out, but it impacts of the development of those in the industry itself.

Leadership is about identity. Embracing the concept of leadership helps shape an individual’s identity through the stories they tell, to followers and potential followers, while also helping to shape self awareness and self efficacy. What happens when those who have the potential to be the great visionaries reject the concept of leadership? Well I guess we’re seeing that right now.