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Reflections from the Cultural Leadership Forum

By Simon Mallett, Rozsa Foundation Executive Director


In late March, I was honoured to be invited to Banff to participate in two critical dialogues about the future of arts and culture in Canada. The week kicked off with the Banff Centre’s Cultural Leadership Forum, and hot on its heels was the Canadian Arts Summit, presented by Business/Arts.

 

The week was incredibly fulfilling, full of rich conversations, challenging ideas, and opportunities to connect and reconnect with old friends and new colleagues, while trying to envision new pathways forward. I wanted to share a few of my takeaways from the week over the next two newsletters, starting with a couple of key thoughts stemming from the Cultural Leadership Forum. I will share some thoughts about the Canadian Arts Summit in the next newsletter.

 

I am still thinking about these points, and I welcome your input, feedback, questions, thoughts, and challenges, either by email or on social media, or if you really want to dig in, reach out and we’ll grab a coffee.

 

Takeaway #1: Who Are We Designing For?

 The Cultural Leadership Forum was a small gathering of folks engaged in training future arts leaders in one way or another from across the country, including arts service and support organizations, post-secondary institutions, funders, arts-producing organizations, and a few foundations. A big focus of our gathering was to provide feedback on the plans for the next iteration of the Banff Centre’s Cultural Leadership program, which gave me a chance to deepen my knowledge about what training is available elsewhere in the country. It also prompted me to reflect on the content of the Rozsa Foundation’s Training programs, which we plan to expand to meet the incredible demand of the past 5 years.

 

The conversations and exchange of ideas, with colleagues sharing their successes and challenges in this area, moved almost immediately into a context we knew would also be central to the subsequent Canadian Arts Summit; that many arts organizations are severely struggling, and the ways we have historically solved problems - easily teachable in a training program - may no longer be valid.

 

Sarah Garton Stanley (SGS), the incredible VP of Programming at Arts Commons, then raised the question of what we are ultimately teaching through such programs, asking, “Are we designing for the Titanic and training for how to survive, or are we designing for the boat that’s coming to save us?” The question tapped into the antithetical ‘sustain or transform’ question that so many arts leaders are struggling with right now, and SGS’s articulation of the question clearly resonated in the room and was repeated throughout much of the rest of the week.

 

“Are we designing for the Titanic and training for how to survive, or are we designing for the boat that’s coming to save us?”

 

As I reflect on the Rozsa Foundation's training work, we find ourselves traversing this question as well. Within our current offerings, we provide ‘survival’ skills, developing knowledge in current practices, but are also forward-looking, introducing concepts and ideas that will encourage the design of new pathways. But does it serve us well to serve both sides of that equation? The needed and desired transformation will not happen overnight, but if we do not spend considerable time developing new ways of working now, they will not be ready for when we need them most. As we imagine the future of our Training programs, questions around how we can work to design the ‘boats’ of the future will be front and centre, and much will have to be left behind. 

 

Takeaway #2: The Critical Duality of Leadership

 As the focus shifted to the critical skills needed by the next generation of arts leaders to undertake transformative change, many competencies were identified, from AI to Advocacy. However, in summing up the profile of future arts leaders, it was articulately distilled down to the skills required as an adaptive leader – the ability to lead change while also building and maintaining a culture of care. I wish I had captured who offered this succinct summary, as it resonated with me deeply. While these two skill sets can feel mutually exclusive, a leader’s ability to simultaneously meet both goals within their organization will greatly influence organizational capacity moving forward.

 

I believe that we’re starved for adaptive change in the arts sector right now, and while some new things are being tried, they can often feel like shots in the dark, rather than pathways developed through questioning assumptions and building new hypotheses. There’s no doubt that skill development and applied learning in the area of adaptive change will be key for the future growth of the sector.

 

We also know all too well that the combined conditions of work in the nonprofit sector with the context of global polycrisis have placed incredible strain on a workforce that continues to typically be underpaid and overworked. For organizations, that means that the need to centre wellbeing in their work is of paramount importance. Drawing direct connections between workplace culture and the aspirational outcomes of the organization is challenging work for a leader who, themselves, are already taxed for time and energy, and exist within the same broader context. This, however, is not work that can ignored by the emerging generation of arts leaders, lest sick days and significant turnover get in the way of an organization’s ability to reach their goals. Thus a two-pronged approach of change and care is required.


Your Thoughts?

 I am curious to hear how these ideas resonate with our arts community, and if any of you have been pondering similar questions, or have an entirely different assessment of how to do our work in this moment in time. As I mentioned above, I am happy to meet or exchange emails and messages around these topics, please reach out. Let's use this great community of accomplished thought leaders to plan our way into tomorrow.



Next week, Simon will share his takeaways from the Canadian Arts Summit he attended in Banff this past March, on the heels of this Cultural Leadership Forum.

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