Leading through practice
Leading through practice: Artists donít change bloody lightbulbs
They sit in the dark and mope
[or artists take the lead]
If someone does something that inspires another person to do or think something differently could that person be regarded as a leader? Could it be an act of leadership? Of course it could, even if only relying on the definition of leadership provided by a Collins desk dictionary: “to rule, guide or inspire”. How about if the person who has done the ‘something’ wasn’t seeking to influence or inspire but it happened anyway? Is it still leadership? I would say yes. In fact I would go as far as to say that this is sometimes the best sort of leadership you can find; influenced less by ego or individual gain than a good deal of assertive or professional leadership.
So, leadership sometimes occurs when art is made. Not always, because that would be a bag of identical marbles, and would inevitably lead to another box on an application form for public subsidy: ‘In what way is your work exhibiting leadership and who will be the beneficiary’. But there is a fair amount of art out there that does inspire, influence and, even guide its recipients, and we should not be scared of accepting the leadership provided by the art and during the act of its creation. It may be an artist has been personally motivated to work in the natural environment and that the consequent art has stirred an appreciation of the complexity of nature and motivated protection of the environment. Or a composer has instinctively incorporated elements of folk music into a contemporary composition that has provoked a challenge to the value of tradition. Or a poet has made someone laugh when describing a sexual act and made that person realise something about her or his inhibitions. One way or another this art exhibits a form of leadership that in other walks of life would be celebrated and it is happening when the artist is doing what he or she does best – not necessarily by design.
Some artists include the objective of social change in their practice. The London-based collective Platform believes in “the transformatory power of art’ for the pursuit of ‘social and ecological justice”. The core team of artists work with artist and campaigning collaborators (and I’ve been one of them in the past) to “promote alternative futures”. Platform is happy to accept the campaigning objective as much as the artistic objective as criteria for the evaluation of its work. By setting the agenda and initiating patterns of work for their extended network, Platform, I would suggest, have established themselves as leaders. The success of their work gives me no doubt about their skill as leaders for a wide international community. Artists placing themselves in this position may also adopt other forms of leadership, through organisational or charismatic skills. This might be crucial to their work but is a tangent to the leadership through artistic practice being discussed here.
Over the last three years I have been writing and producing a drama production that includes the treatment of artists by the German Third Reich. This is a horrific but useful set of circumstances to consider when examining the idea of artistic leadership. The Nazis persecuted many artists, labelling them as ‘degenerate’. The ethnic or religious origin of the artist was sometimes sufficient reason for their persecution in the very earliest stages of what was to become The Holocaust. Other, ‘ethnically clean’, artists were persecuted solely because of their art; because of the ‘modern’ nature of their work. Hitler regarded artists as a real and tangible threat but instead of just making them and their art disappear, and he would have had the ability to simply erase both, he attempted to devalue them. In an attempt to show his strength over the art he organised a series of exhibitions of ‘degenerate’ art that instead of undermining confirmed its power. He knew that the art was not just symbolic of change; it was instigating and causing change.
The pursuit of artistic practice or a fresh platform for work can result in artists substantially impacting on a community. When Sir Peter Maxwell Davis established the St Magnus Festival in Orkney he also created enormous benefit to the community, economically and culturally. Every year thousands of people travel many hundreds of miles to a small Scottish island with an expectation of a great musical experience that will include the new and challenging. Those visitors, and many others who don’t even make the journey, now have a real association between the rich culture of Orkney and contemporary performance. I don’t know whether Maxwell Davis set out to cause any other benefit to his community when he started the festival but it is clear that it was his love of music that was his primary motivation.
Some artists become good managers or promoters of art, including through education, by acquiring other skills and experience. In its best examples this is an extension of, and intimately informed by, the practice of the artist. These managers, promoters or educators could also benefit from a greater understanding of artistic leadership. For example, by identifying the abilities derived from their practice they may have a stronger argument to their employer for keeping their artistic practice alive.
There is work to be done on understanding leadership through artistic practice. Artists and the recipients of their work can benefit from that understanding. This is particularly true for those artists whose work is done in the public environment, involves social engagement in the creative process or who are in collaboration with the business or government sectors. The potential benefit to artists is informed confidence of what their practice can achieve and what recipients or collaborators can expect from them. The benefit to other sectors is an enhanced understanding of the value of the artist, for example an informed respect for the artist as leader should protect the process and working needs of the artist. Insight into the quality and nature of artistic leadership could also help communication between collaborators, as expectations are refined. Whether they achieve it by accident or design artists can benefit by understanding the leadership their practice can provide.
Tim Nunn is the Joint Director of the ‘Artist as Leader’ Lab programme, Joint Artistic Director of Reeling & Writhing and the Specialist Advisor for Performance at the Cultural Enterprise Office. He is a playwright and theatre producer mainly with the Reeling & Writhing Theatre Company he cofounded. He is currently writing On The Men which will tour in Autumn 2007. Tim has spent a good part of his working life as a professional campaigner for human rights including eight years as Director of the Free Tibet campaign. As an artist, curator, and photographer, he has completed exhibition commissions for the Royal Academy of the Arts and National Portrait Gallery in London, and the Centre for Contemporary Art in Glasgow, the NHS, the Prison Service, and Friends of the Earth. His photography has been published internationally including in Time, Geo, and regularly in The Guardian.
For more information:
St Magnus Festival
First published: Research papers March 2007
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