Holding the paradox

hands by Chris

photo: Chris Fremantle

How can art respond to complex social and ethical problems? When should the demand for solutions be resisted? And how might this affect our understanding of cultural leadership?

These were among the questions keenly debated in the first of our series of full day seminars on Cultural leadership and the place of the Artist which took place in Edinburgh on Friday 20th May.  Our thanks go to the artists, researchers and cultural organisers who attended and contributed so fully.  The day brought together participants from various phases of On The Edge research alongside new friends and colleagues from our project partners Creative Scotland and ENCATC.

Discussion ranged across different understandings of what is meant by leadership and how it relates to artistic production.  This led on to questions about the role of art in public life.  Some compelling suggestions were made about the distinctive capacity of art to embrace contradiction, to find potent material in the midst of uncertainty.  In a world of ‘wicked’, irresolvable problems, there is a value to being able to hold conflicting ideas in creative tension. Can art therefore help us to live with our difficulties?

Newling York

Still from 21st Century Eden (video documentary): courtesy of John Newling

We approached the issues through engagement with an artwork.  For this we chose John Newling’s 21st Century Eden, a performative piece with several layers of public involvement which took place on the streets of York in July 2014. We heard an interview with John  [below] outlining the process, intentions and outcomes of the work, which explored what people really want from the place where they live. Staged in a public square, it up-ended several conventions of civic life, putting words of ordinary members of the public into the mouths of politicians and questioning monetary values in the commercial heart of the city. It opened up various relationships: between the artist and the public; between the project team and the city authorities; between members of the public and their political representatives.

Whatever we each thought about its ethics, aesthetics or ultimate significance – and generating an ironic relation with its place in a summer events programme for shoppers and tourists – 21st Century Eden could be seen to work at many levels beyond decoration or entertainment.  So to what extent can the realisation of an artistic vision be an act of social leadership? In the interview, John expresses confidence that the process would have an effect on policy, but doesn’t say in what way.  It could be that the tensions which are set up but not resolved by the piece are the key to how it operates.

We held this artistic perspective in mind while moving on to broader issues of cultural leadership, rethinking them through networks of influence and dependence.  While cultural leadership first emerged as an agenda for training in terms of the business skills required to run big cultural institutions, changed economic and political circumstances suggest new challenges and definitions for the concept. Lea

wool by Chris

photo: Chris Fremantle

dership in business is often about making decisions and solving problems – but what of the role of the artist in articulating problems, allowing conflicting voices to be heard; its role in grappling with complexity and resisting reductive or simplified solutions?  In the last session of the day we talked about the capacity of art to hold onto paradox.  We were by no means agreed as to whether such a quality was a necessary feature of that elusive concept, ‘leadership’. Neither was it accepted that artists, as a rule, should be obliged to identify as ‘leaders’. But perhaps it is in creating spaces and circumstances where the unique, problematising role of art can be explored that cultural actors of all kinds respond to our most crucial contemporary challenges.

Further events in this AHRC funded project will follow in Brussels (12th July, co-hosted by ENCATC, the European network on cultural management and policy) and London (15th September, with our other partner The Clore Leadership Programme).  Additional thanks go to Creative Scotland for help with planning the Edinburgh seminar; to our Artist in Residence, Rosanna Irvine, for an inspiring intervention in the afternoon session; to John Newling, for permission to take liberties with 21st Century Eden; to Mark Hope for conducting the interview and Maja Zeco for blending the images with the recording; and to the City of Edinburgh Methodist Church for hosting our event in such splendid surroundings.

We invite thoughts and responses on any of these issues.


  1. Reblogged this on CHRIS FREMANTLE.


  1. […] attended our pilot event in Banchory (March) before contributing to the research seminars in Edinburgh (May), Brussels (July) and London (September). A dancer and choreographer, Rosanna responded to the […]

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