Cultural leadership and the place of the artist (2015-16)

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Gathering the threads

This project set out to develop an urgent debate about artistic practice, cultural policy and the role of the artist in public life. It built on a longstanding trajectory of leadership research at On The Edge, from the Artist as Leader work of a decade ago to Jon Price’s recent PhD project The Discourse of Cultural Leadership (Price 2016).  Beginning in October 2015, Cultural leadership and the place of the Artist was funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council as part of their Impact and Engagement programme. It sought to develop new dialogue with and within the cultural sector, both in terms of practitioners and policy makers. Our partners included The Clore Leadership Programme, Creative Scotland and ENCATC (the European network on cultural policy and management).  We also had valuable support given by three key host venues: Banchory’s Woodend Barn for our pilot event in March 2016, BOZAR for our Brussels event in July, and the Wellcome Trust for our London event in September. We were accompanied throughout the year by our Artist-in-Residence, Rosanna Irvine, who brought creative interventions to each seminar event. The funded project concluded in November 2016, but we are continuing to publish related blog posts from guest writers, while other publications are forthcoming.

New contexts for cultural leadershipstar

Cultural leadership has been a significant topic in policy and training in the UK since 2002 when Robert Hewison and John Holden were commissioned to develop a report responding to a perceived crisis of leadership in the cultural sector for the Clore Duffield Foundation. Subsequent to this the Clore Leadership Programme was established and in the succeeding years a number of other cultural leadership training programmes have developed at national and international levels. At the same time, the environment in which the cultural sector operates was undergoing dramatic shifts, moving from an expansive period of financial investment in ‘creativity’ during the 2000s in many countries, which coincided with the post-2004 accessions to the EU, to the political and economic retrenchments which followed the global crash of 2008. More recently we have seen the populist wave of political change rising across Europe and globally: we were rapidly forced to take stock of this and other global events as our conversations around this project unfolded during the spring and summer of 2016. On 22nd March, an ENCATC masterclass on cultural leadership was assembling in Brussels just as the terrorist bombs went off at the airport and Maelbeek metro station; three months later, again in Brussels, a policy debate on the same topic took place on the eve of the UK’s Brexit vote. In July our project was presented at the ICCPR conference in Seoul amid rising regional tension as North Korea conducted its latest missile tests. By the time of our London seminar in the autumn and subsequent discussions on cultural leadership at the IFACCA World Summit in Malta, the US election was looming and the world order was about to change further. The meanings of leadership and the political dimensions of culture have been continually thrown into relief.

Cultural leadership was certainly a major theme of 2016 not only in terms of international policy debate but also in terms of new initiatives. Alongside the IFACCA summit a Global Cultural Leadership Programme was inaugurated in Valletta. Parallel to the ENCATC debates, a new cultural leadership programme for Europe, The Fika Project, was in development, and On The Edge shared platforms, ideas and research with the organisers throughout the year. Project co-ordinator Jon Price visited Fika Project partners Natverkstan in December to lecture on their established national leadership programme in Gothenburg. Meanwhile, King’s College London invited input on their new international executive programme, Leading Culture in the 21st Century.

This background suggested that the discourse surrounding cultural leadership was entering a new phase, being now increasingly internationalised as a concern in policy and training while facing new challenges as an area of professional practice. More than ever it seemed important not to take this discourse at face value but to examine its inclusions, exclusions and priorities and highlight key questions to artists, policy makers, course providers, cultural managers and training participants about the values they represent and the interests they serve as actors and influencers within the sector. Who gets to be considered as a leader and what powers do they have to effect change? On The Edge research has, over the course of a decade, addressed the apparent exclusion of artists from the founding narrative of ‘cultural leadership’, and its frequent limitation to the organisational and economic concerns of established institutions. So we have debated the necessity for cultural actors to question how art is made, whose values it represents, what definitions of culture we should adopt, and how public resources should be used. If you are not raising these questions, can you really be considered a leader? And if this changes our definition of leadership for the sector, what should be taught at the multitude of training courses now on offer? We also questioned the tendency for artists themselves not to identify as ‘leaders’ due to frequent suspicion of the terminology. Is this one of the ways in which key voices become excluded from the debate?

Other features of the discussions throughout the year included the balance between trust and control in cultural policy; the internationalisation of creative practice; the significance of participatory and social agendas in the arts. Our research suggests that artists should be more critically engaged with the social and political processes which circumscribe their work; that policy makers should be more open to the uncertainties of practitioner input into their processes; that  both have much to gain from engaging more directly with a wider public. We believe that these questions need to be addressed through open dialogue between artists, policy makers, researchers and other stakeholders as the context of our work continues to evolve. This project has sought to forge dialogue and links between UK institutions and European networks with the inclusion of artist voices a priority at each event. We invite you to stay in touch and continue the debate.


Photo: Graeme MacDonald

Our events and activities


14th March, Woodend Barn, Banchory: pilot research event

22nd March, CIVA, Brussels: keynote talk by Dr Jon Price (On The Edge) at ENCATC seminar ‘Leadership development in the cultural sector: paradigms, pedagogies and practices

20 May, Edinburgh: first full partnership event

22 June, ENCATC Policy Debate on Cultural Leadership, Brussels

12 July, Brussels: second full partnership event

15 September, London, final full partnership event.

We thank all of our partners and the many participants who contributed time, ideas and valuable debate to these events. Thanks also to our guest bloggers, Matt Hulse, Rosanna Irvine and Kathleen Coessens.

A final project report is forthcoming which will gather materials from our research, the seminar events and input from our guest bloggers.  Please subscribe to this site to stay fully up to date.

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