I was awarded a Cultural Leadership fellowship (precursor to current Clore Artist leadership programme) in 2009 – below you can read some thoughts on my and two other Artist Fellows Kate Fox and Nina Edge experiences which I was commissioned to write by CLP.
CLP has now closed but our fellowships were the precursor of the Clore Artist Fellowship programme. Through part of the programme I was trained as a relational dynamics coach.
Artist Practitioner Placements: Into the unknown…
Take a large piece of paper, cut concentric circles, almost round but still joined
together, and pull the centre of the circle up. What happens?
The Cultural Leadership Programme (CLP) has done much work in determining how
leadership in the arts can develop. The Artist Leadership development placements and
the Method and Independents development programmes were set up in the words of
CLP ‘as action research to better understand how we support artists to lead in the
current climate’. Piloting models that are more specifically about artist – practitioner
leadership, offering bespoke leadership development such as mentoring, coaching and
action learning sets, placements or other models of leadership delivery. The outcomes
are used reflectively to develop more provision.
The artist leadership development placements were set up with the aim of ‘supporting
the leadership development of artists/ practitioners who have aspirations to lead
through practice, and wish to gain experience through working within organisations on
creative projects’ and where ‘artists can proceed from a shadowing to leadership
Three artists were chosen through an application and interview process to take on
these six month opportunities: Helen Carnac, Nina Edge and Kate Fox were placed with
three organisations: Craftspace; FACT and New Writing North respectively. Although
the placements were originally advertised as six months in length, each artist
negotiated a longer period of a year. In reality the placements may have lasted even
longer than this and reflection on the whole process may take considerably longer.
This essay is a short reflection on the placements, which began in March 2009, written
by Helen Carnac, it draws on conversations between the three artists and a panel
discussion that they took part in July 2010 with David Jubb, Artistic Director of
Battersea Arts Centre and Nicola Turner, Assistant Director of CLP.
Artist as leader in the cultural context
Information and research that comes from independent sites of practice is a necessary
and relevant addition to institutional and organisational models that currently exist in
developing leadership in today’s changing economy and working landscape.
Good research has taken place previously on this subject, for example by the Artists
Information Company, in the research paper Leading Through Practice, edited by Anne
Douglas and Chris Fremantle in 2007 ii. It was this research that helped me to formulate my initial thinking about my placement and action research models such as those developed by CLP offer a tangible way to test and develop new models.
It has been evident from the placements and from reading around the subject, that
many who think about leadership from the position of artist, have a discomfort and
seeming ambivalence with the words that have been used to construct and form today’s
leadership models. In particular, terms such as ‘leader’ can imply position or power,
which can feel alien. Is this because these words do not or cannot fully describe what
an artist does or are they just wrong, having too many already fixed meanings?
Can leading through practice be more transient, can it offer the ability to ask open
questions from different sites, which in turn open up more questions, whilst not trying to
fix or make things immovable? Not necessarily assuming a front position and not one
where the positioning comes before the action.
‘Artists are great at ringing alarm bells when it comes to jargon, rhetoric and
dogma. We could all learn that skill’ iii
It is often this questioning and enquiry that is so important. How many times have I
been in a room where there seem to be important questions missing? And when they
are not raised, are they left unanswered? Perhaps then, these difficult questions may
offer insight into why I find this a challenging subject to write on, and although I have
thought about it thoroughly, back and forward in my mind trying to understand what this
leadership thing looks like, I still have many more questions to ask.
One important aspect that I have recognised through this experience and by talking to
Nina and Kate about the placements is that we all took them on in some shape or form
of our current practice. I am a visual artist and my practice is principally concerned with
process, and understanding the traces of making and material in a back and forward
process of exploration. Nina examines power values and through direct action or by
making interventions or commentary about situations, both big and small, elicits
change. Whilst Kate’s practice is about writing and finding a way to speak up and out
through her comedy and poetry. So the way we approach our day-to-day practices
formulated our individual approaches to the challenge of taking on the placement.
With their support we can lead?
As professional artists we have our own working methodologies and experiences of
working in ‘non organisational’ ways and yet in ‘shadowing’ leaders of organisations
perhaps the idea was that we the artists would learn from the leaders. Were we to learn
about leading as an artist or as an organisation and how would they learn about leading
from us and how could that be beneficial in the longer term?
Our initial experiences seemed to elicit fear and we ranged from being alarmed that we
may have to ‘join the world of arts administration’, to disliking the notion of ‘host and
placement’ which could be seen to be ‘setting up a power duality’.
‘Being connected to the organisation but not entirely of it’ iv seemed to be a clearer way forward and certainly one that Kate, Nina and I seemed to adopt.
However whether we worked from the organisations’ offices or away, shared a desk or worked alone at our own desks the placements provided an intriguing way to learn something unknown and to react to territory that we were clearly uncomfortable in. In conversations between Nina, Kate and myself some of the words and phrases we discussed may directly acknowledge this discomfort: equity and control; differencing; status and power; in and out; them and us; professionalising and monetising; style and content; value and trust.
It is this discomfort that I think is important to acknowledge. In places the discomfort led
to more discomfort and in my case it was sometimes difficult to address. At times I felt I
was kept out, as if I may cause trouble if I was let in to really have a look around, but I
was also reticent and did not want to get drawn in. I did not necessarily want to follow
organisational models, but I was curious and whilst not wanting to act as though I was
the ‘leader’ of something, I was discovering something about leading through this
process. It is here that CLP were able to help me and through coaching I was able to
reappraise, have a look at things from a slightly different direction and think about what
this might look like from an organisation’s point of view.
How can we work in relationships where the objective or methodologies are so different
and not lose the essence or importance of what we all have to offer in a more
conversational, two-way process?
‘Artists who accept the relevance of leading through practice seem to have an
ambivalent relationship with power’ v
Not wanting to lead or to be led
‘It’s opened up a lot of questions for me about how things could be done
Whilst thinking about these issues over the last year or so the political landscape has
changed radically and we are more aware than ever of the huge impact that the UK’s
budget deficit will have on all public funding, including the Arts. At recent meetings I
have attended about the future of arts funding there has been a real fear of the
unknown emanating from arts organisations, but is there a way to develop with these
‘unknowns’ as a positive driving factor?
As an artist working with a process driven practice, I begin somewhere, but I do not
necessarily know where I am going, in fact I do not want to know where I am going. It is
the process of going into the unknown that actually elicits learning and future projects.
Within this I may not know how I am going to fund the work that I do and I have to find a
way through by negotiating, making alliances and thinking on my feet. I am actually
unlikely to think ‘ah I’ll apply for some Arts Council funding’ but I do have to find the
resources to work and mostly I do. Some of the reticence in applying for funding is that
it can assume a position of reliance and it is often linked to discernible outputs, which
can be difficult to acknowledge at the beginning of a process that you are working
through and certainly in the case where the work’s importance is primarily qualitative
and not necessarily quantitative.
‘If you’re applying for funding – sometimes you have to tick the boxes before
you’ve done the job and sometimes this strips out the creativity from the
Open and closed
In hindsight I do question whether the idea of shadowing small arts organisations could
achieve a progressive understanding of artist leadership. Did we learn more about how
we didn’t want to do things in the process? Was this too much about managing and
making strategic alliances and not about thinking creatively? Would the learning have
been greater if the placements had been in contiguous fields, in the private sector or if
the organisations had been placed with the artists? If we had started on an open
playing field and discussed what we all brought to the process, could it have been more
interesting and therefore would the learning have been greater?
Engaging in the placement, which has been refreshingly open in places and
disappointingly closed in others, the learning for me has come from questioning
perceptions and experiences in projects that I have been involved in over the last year
through a leadership lens. The opportunity to have this period of focus and being able
to assess, relate and be reflective in my experiences through this time, may have
developed and changed the way that I think, which I acknowledge as being something
really exceptional. Although I don’t have the answers, there have been tangible benefits
and developments to my thinking by being part of a longitudinal research project.
Finally I would like to come to a question that I keep asking. Although we often talk
about how ‘creative’ the Arts are, are they always so?
‘Lots of cultural organisations are run in a very industrial, top down way…too
many layers of management for example and we need to address that’ viii
There may be a perception that flat management structures and systems exist in the
Arts and in particular in smaller organisations, I would like to question this and ask
others to do so too. The reality of this can be that a small, creative organisation can
also construct inner hierarchies and can pass these working relationships to others that
work with them, indeed sometimes assuming that their way of doing is better than any
other way or perhaps putting a need to position themselves ahead of more collaborative
‘Arguably, the cultural sector has pioneered the leadership practices needed in
the wider knowledge economy. Practices like creativity, collaboration, reflection
and sharing ideas underpin the work of the cultural sector. The best leaders in
the cultural sector know that people cannot create inspiring work in silo
So how do we test whether we really are creative, collaborative, reflective and sharing
and do independent artists do this better?
‘One of the compelling things about artists working together is the joy of being
equal but different, the working situation never seems to assume that a power
structure or level of command needs constructing beyond the practicalities of
ascribing tasks that need to be done. It is about an exchange – giving and taking
and learning from others’ x
CLP programmes in artist development such as The Independents led by Battersea
Arts Centre have started to explore new territory, creating bespoke programmes for
groups of artists who want to test out their leadership through their artistic practice.
Using peer support, building on networks, connecting groups and exchanging ideas,
they utilise flat systems of exchange where subjects can be explored in a cross disciplinary context.
It is this ‘hybridity – trying to find areas of work for artists that are completely unfamiliar to their practices, maybe where they feel uncomfortable…seeing your world from a completely different perspective’ xi that has so much to offer for the future.
Recent thinking on leadership has talked at considerable length about hierarchical
systems needing to change, that a top down approach does not work and that flat
systems of thinking from the centre may be more appropriate – but what happens
when you pull the centre upwards? Are you back in a hierarchy, at the centre but
now at the top, centre or bottom of the heap?
Imagining another kind of leadership may be useful: at the outer edge, with a long view,
contiguous, embracing the unknown, the unimaginable or the seemingly unachievable.
Perhaps asking difficult questions and acknowledging them also, listening and not
shouting, not jostling for position, but actually going through the process in a thoughtful,
concise and reflective way, trying to reach into other areas and thinking about the
barriers that have been installed melting away. Giving space for things to happen and
real time for thinking.
Being able to visualise these thoughts may be something that an artist can bring to a
process with another or alternate view and curiosity, making unknown links and
certainly opening wider contexts for this type of thinking and doing. Kicking out old
habits and assumptions and trying to see things in another way is something that we all
need to do. After all ‘what do you get more leadership out of: cultural leadership or cultural
Though I am not asserting that we should all work in the same way, understanding each
others’ working processes and differences may go some way to bringing much needed
change, whilst giving the time and space to think this through and put things into action.
Then perhaps instead of ticking boxes we might begin to unpack them.
i Turner, N. 2010. Artist Practitioner panel discussion at CLP re:freshers, Wellcome Trust, London.
ii Douglas, A and Fremantle, C. 2007. Leading Through Practice, an publications.
iii Jubb, D. 2010. Artist Practitioner panel discussion at CLP re:freshers, Wellcome Trust, London.
iv Fox, K. 2010. Artist Practitioner panel discussion at CLP re:freshers, Wellcome Trust, London.
v Douglas, A and Fremantle, C. 2007. Leading Through Practice, an publications, p.4.
vi Carnac, H. 2010. Artist Practitioner panel discussion at CLP re:freshers, Wellcome Trust, London.
vii Carnac, H. 2010. Artist Practitioner panel discussion at CLP re:freshers, Wellcome Trust, London.
viii Jubb, D. 2010. Artist Practitioner panel discussion at CLP re:freshers, Wellcome Trust, London.
ix Pyke, L. 2010. New models for emotionally intelligent leadership. A cultural leadership reader @ Creative Choices
x Gates, D. 2010. Intelligent Trouble in conversation, London.
xi Jubb, D. 2010. Artist Practitioner panel discussion at CLP re:freshers, Wellcome Trust, London.
xii Edge, N. 2010. Artist Practitioner panel discussion at CLP re:freshers, Wellcome Trust, London.
Talk at CLP Re:freshers at Wellcome Trust, London, 2010 with Nina Edge, Helen Carnac, Kate Fox, Nicola Turner and David Jubb.