OPINION: If you had to name Australia’s great cultural leaders, who would you nominate? The directors of flagship museums or festivals, big-name artists, the powerful philanthropists who sit on the boards of major arts organisations?
Recent funding and policy upheavals in the sector suggest we need radical new visions of what cultural leadership is, and how it should be nurtured. It’s time to pay attention to a new generation of practitioners who embrace a more collaborative and non-hierarchical approach.
Traditional models versus grassroots approaches
The model of artistic excellence espoused by former Arts Minister George Brandis emphasised traditional hierarchies and institutions. While this caused widespread outcryacross the sector, the fact is that many education and training programs in cultural leadership continue to focus on these same things.
The classic model of cultural leadership education aims to propel mid-career professionals towards directorships. University courses often focus on management, and prepare students for existing models of career progression within recognisable organisational formats.
But young practitioners are redefining the future of the arts and culture right now – often through independent spaces and self-initiated projects. The National Experimental Arts Forum held last week in Perth was a vibrant demonstration of the way in which young artists, performers, curators and organisers generate new kinds of infrastructure and new ways of defining and engaging with audiences.
This form of grassroots leading by example operates under the mainstream radar and is rarely recognised as leadership. That’s because we mistakenly tend to equate leadership solely with authoritative or hierarchical, rather than relational power. That mistake is bolstered by popular mythologies) of the cultural leader as either artistic genius or strategic businessperson – both of which rely on individual prominence, influence and experience as hallmarks of leadership.
Leadership as an action not a role
Recognising the way young, experimental practitioners create and model change challenges the view of cultural leaders as prominent individuals – it suggests that leadership is something many different people might do at different times and in different ways.
That fits with the increasingly influential notion of distributed leadership, in which leading is shared through the interactions between people and a situation.
This idea is clearly relevant in sectors that value collaboration and participation, such as culture, education and community work. But is also gaining traction in the business world where it is seen as a route to more agile and resilient organisations.
The influential UK Clore Leadership training programme has recently called for new thinking in the “landscape of leadership”, at the heart of which:
is the belief that leadership is an activity, an attitude and way of being, rather than a position, a job or title, couched in values and behaviours rather than status and power.
Seeing leadership as a form of action rather than a specific role suggests a need for broader and more inclusive alternatives to the “elite” model of cultural leadership training.
Nurturing leadership capacity
So what role can education and training programs play in nurturing the capacity to lead? How can we – as educators in universities and elsewhere – help young people to lead now, in whatever situation they are in, rather than become leaders at some deferred future point?
While it remains vital to give students strong grounding in good practice, an over-emphasis on industry standards and competencies can stymy the crucial qualities of questioning and innovation. Cultural leadership intersects with, but is not the same as, cultural management or administration.
The question is how can we support practitioners to develop the ability and confidence to change the cultural landscape into something we may not even recognise? The key to this may be in the model of distributed leadership itself.
There is huge potential in re-imagining the educational environment as a space of distributed leadership, where the responsibility for setting the agenda and even the curriculum is shared between staff and students.
A new generation of Australian cultural leadership post-graduate programs, including initiatives at University of Canberra and NIDA, as well as at UNSW Art and Design, have an opportunity to make a significant impact on the way leadership is understood and supported in this country.
We need to create flexible structures that can respond to students’ interests and activities in the world, and learn from what they can teach us about the future of culture.
Leadership and power
A greater understanding of the alternative views of leadership may begin to address the seemingly intractable problem that the most powerful and visible individuals within the sector continue to be drawn from a woefully narrow band of the population.
Whilst an individualistic, hierarchical and institutional view of leadership persists, young people (as well as women, Indigenous and disabled practitioners) will remain sidelined from broader sectorial channels of support and decision-making. By contrast researchers have linked distributed and shared leadership to Indigenous cultures and to feminist approaches.
Cara Kirkwood, Coordinator of the Indigenous Arts Leadership program at the National Gallery of Australia, points out that in an Aboriginal context, cultural leadership is not only about advocating for the arts.
It is about working with arts and culture to lead a community, and navigating between participatory and hierarchical leadership paradigms.
In his rousing Platform Paper Take Me to Your Leader (2014),Wesley Enoch called for cultural leaders to be more politically engaged and outspoken. Cultural leadership is not just about good governance and best practice within our arts organisations. It is about the power of art to transform, to challenge, to bring about change in society.
Those who are optimistic about the prospects for this post Abbott and Brandis should remember Malcolm Turnbull’s condemnation of the “vicious ingratitude” of the artists that boycotted the Sydney Biennale in 2014. If questioning and refusing funding sources is beyond the pail, it seems clear that Turnbull sees an extremely limited place for artists in political discussion.
To challenge this shackled vision we do not, perhaps, as Enoch argues, need more politically outspoken cultural leaders. We need a new understanding of the transformational power of shared and participatory leadership, and a new commitment to nurturing leadership capacity across the most diverse and inclusive cohorts possible.
Lizzie Muller is Director, Master of Curating and Cultural Leadership, UNSW.
Scott East is Director, Student Experience (Art & Design), UNSW.
This opinion piece was first published in The Conversation.