The regeneration factor: how cultural leadership is changing

There’s a wave of change approaching over the cultural horizon, and for ISPA’s CEO David Baile, it signals an enterprising shift for the performing arts and its leadership. Maria Roberts reports

At ISPA’s 67th New York Congress (taking place 13-15 January 2015 at The Times Center), the theme ‘Dynamic Leadership: Creating the Future’ is being put up for discussion. It’s not quite as straightforward an issue as you might think – the baseline philosophy here is not so much that leaders should lead better, but that everyone should work smarter.

It’s a fascinating concept: gone are the days of didactic and autonomous organisations steeped in bureaucratic rigmarole, and instead we’re seeing a new wave of democratic management structures. The congress will posture insights on what arts companies look like today and might look like in 10 to 20 years time, both in terms of the work they present and who they employ to do that work. In order to succeed, you need to be adaptive, flexible and versatile with your staff, artists and beliefs.

According to Baile, there’s a paucity of candidates-in-waiting for the top jobs in the sector, yet this does not necessarily spell disaster as there’s a wealth of knowledge to be mined from the new arts management professionals taking their first steps on the career ladder. What these newcomers lack in experience, they make up for in valuable skills; this is a powerful prospect for the industry, because figuring out how to maximise the potential of intergenerational workforces, and matching that to how they relate to intergenerational audiences, puts arts managers in a very strong position indeed.

David Baile
David Baile

Baile feels that top-down management models are beginning to give way to a more horizontal approach, in which early and mid-career professionals, artists and managers work together to capitalise on individual expertise.

‘Leadership is a vital and potentially enlightening theme, because it’s a universal concept that crosses all cultures and regions,’ he says. ‘Whereas ‘technology’ or ‘innovation’ mean very different things in different parts of the world, the relatively straightforward and universal notion of ‘leadership’ cuts across barriers.’

There’s a particular emphasis at the congress on working with artists, many of whom are becoming ever more business-minded and entrepreneurial. Says Baile: ‘At the session on independent artists, Bridging the Gap, we consider how independent artists are, in a way, even less dependent on institutions now than in the past, and more able than ever to distribute work without the benefit of their once-traditional relationships with presenting organisations.

‘This session’s going to be moderated by Philip Bither from Minnesota’s Walker Art Center, with input from London-based composer, DJ and musician Gabriel Prokofiev [Sergei Prokofiev’s grandson], who’ll be talking about his work both as an independent artist and with organisations. We want to hear from institutional voices like the Walker, because that’s one of the places really flipping around how it works with artists. Philip’s done some very interesting work there in that regard. Many artists and their managers are now self-producing as well, so this session is likely to be really inspiring.’

Likewise, the parameters of what have long been seen as the traditional performing arts are also shifting. Circus arts are coming back into the limelight, as will be discussed during (Re)Emerging Disciplines: Leading the Way, moderated by Monique Martin of City Parks Foundation. This session aims to explore how the historic forms of circus and puppetry, and their modern experiential counterparts, are resulting in progressive works combining design with technology to create show-stopping experiences.

‘Circus, puppetry and experiential theatre have reemerged as prominent forms, and they’re really hitting the mainstream circuits now in terms of presenting organisations,’ Baile notes. ‘Part of the reason those disciplines have emerged so strongly in recent years is that they’ve been field-leaders when it comes to embracing new technologies – probably more so than most other forms.’

‘Our speakers will be discussing why, in the past, circus hasn’t really functioned as part of the core performing arts scene,’ he continues, ‘and why some areas are exporters of it while others are importers. Australia, Canada, Sweden, the Czech Republic and France, for example, are all huge circus creators, whereas the US isn’t particularly at the forefront of the genre: there are circus companies here, of course, but it’s not one of the key art forms for which we’re better known.’

Themes of creativity and consumption develop further in a discussion led by Arthur Cohen, who has been tracking arts organisations and their audiences for the past 15 years. At his talk, entitled CultureTrack: A New View of Cultural Consumption, Cohen will present findings from a study published in 2014 on cultural consumption and audience expectations.

‘What’s fascinating about his research is that he segments it by generation: he’s studied pre-war ‘baby boomers’, ‘gen-Xers’ and ‘millennials’, and the findings are all segmented,’ Baile explains. ‘Interestingly, the people who have the most in common appear to be the millennial and pre-war generations; the oldest and youngest. This is something we’ll delve into deeper, but I suspect it’s largely because of free time allowances and about who is available to consume culture.’

A new strand this year is The Great Debate: The Artists’ Voice. ‘As it plays out, either way it is going to be controversial,’ says Baile. ‘These debate-style presentations will be very formal and structured by a moderator – they’ll take the form of a three- minute opening statement, followed by questions from the moderator, and then a two-minute closing summary followed by questions from the judges and the audience.

‘The first debate will be ‘Should artistic expression ever be censored?’, coming very much out of what happened in Edinburgh with the cancellation of Incubator Theatre’s show, and a similar situation with the Barbican’s recent Exhibit B exhibition in London.

'Dr Fischer's Cabinet of Curiosities' - EXHIBIT B - photo by Ada Nieuwendijk
Exhibit B © Ada Nieuwendijk

‘The second mini-debate we’ll be having using the same format is about cultural appropriation, and more specifically whether or not it’s a major concern in a global society. We’ve got James Early from Smithsonian speaking on one side, and Rachael Maza of the Aboriginal theatre company ILBIJERRI in Australia; both are defending artistic voices, but obviously from very different viewpoints. Our hope is that these debates might spark little secondary discussions around the tables at the awards dinner, and provoke a few new conversations.’

Thankfully, it’s not all work and no play: this year, instead of the traditional opening and closing night receptions, delegates can make the most of ISPA Out in New York, for which the team behind the main event have partnered with venues around the city, offering free and discounted tickets to ISPA members for a number of showcase platforms and specially programmed after-hours performances. For any delegates still going strong after a full day of impassioned debates, informative presentations and multi-show jaunts around town, there are drinks to be had at the Globalfest party down at late-night local, Joe’s Pub.

Online registration ends 31 December 2014. Check out updated delegate lists and a full presentation schedule on the official ISPA website.

Main image: ISPA congress in Bogotá, 2014