Chair, Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival / Head of Campaigns & Digital Solutions, Invest Northern Ireland / Board Member and Chair of the Audit & Risk Assurance Committee, Consumer Council of Northern Ireland.
(Adapted from a talk given at the A&B NI Cultural Governance Conference 2019 follow link here)
I am privileged to be part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival (CQAF), and for the role it plays in making the arts truly accessible, but also for the transformation it has brought to the Cathedral Quarter area of Belfast.
I moved to Belfast in 1998, the year the Good Friday Agreement was signed, and, since then, CQAF has epitomised how Belfast has moved away from its past and is embracing its potential. Led by Sean Kelly, the team’s unwavering determination has regenerated and re-energised an almost derelict part of the city centre through affordable access to arts and culture.
CQAF has consistently championed local, international and emerging artistic talent. This year, in our 20th anniversary, we delivered an incredible programme of events, despite punitive funding cuts, which meant that with weeks to go, we had to review our costs and ticketing policy, and scale back our programming just to make the numbers stack up. Despite this, due to the ingenuity, tenacity, resolve and resilience of the team and our Board, we delivered our strongest box office, surpassing all expectations.
However, it will be some time before CQAF has the financial reserves to cover six months of operating costs. Ironically, the very thing funders tell us to build to ensure financial sustainability, is the first thing they look at when assessing the scope and scale of any cuts to funding. So what can CQAF - or anyone in the arts - do? And what does this have to do with leading change?
On the first point; not much. On the second point; everything. We have to build a more resilient arts sector in Northern Ireland because the wider environment does not make for happy reading. The collapse of Stormont, reduced consumer spending, and competing public finance priorities across health, education and the economy, continues to have a negative impact on the sector.
At present the arts is not sustainable. It needs more public subsidy to redress the long-term impact of diminishing funding. This support must be directed at helping arts organisations build sustainability, grow to scale and contribute to wider economic development. And funding should always be awarded on merit; not on discretionary terms.
But in the coming years, the onus is equally on us, the arts, to become more agile to financial uncertainty. As leaders we need to be open to change, and respond to changes to our operating environment more effectively and efficiently. The checklist below is something I use, and I believe it can help us all manage change and build resilience.
Self-awareness is critical to leading change. What kind of leader are you? How do you build relationships? Do you embrace change? Are you inclusive and flexible? Are you happy to be held accountable? Are you collaborative in your approach? Do you engender trust? Once you know your strengths and weakness, you will know the gaps you need to fill. Then embrace the strength of diversity by bringing in different styles and approaches, through your team, Board and networks.
As a leader, do you encourage those around you to do the same? Leadership is not just the responsibility of those in charge. We may disproportionately have a greater share of responsibility, but we need to harness the entrepreneurial spirit of the arts and channel it innovatively to make a positive impact. And we must be realistic about the hard work and commitment required to deliver lasting change.
For me, it means three things. First, integrity. You need to “live what you say” and be true to your values. But you also have to be humble enough to admit when you make the wrong decision, and willing to learn and make better decisions the next time round. Second, commitment. Someone who has a clear vision and the personal charisma to inspire others to buy in to your plan. And thirdly, communication. Someone who is accessible, through the good and bad times, because people need to know what you’re doing, where you’re going, and why. You also need to be receptive to the views of others and take consideration of these.
Strong leaders are structured leaders. They adjust quickly to rapidly changing circumstances. To manage change, focus on where you want to get to, have control over how you intend to get there, understand what you need to make it happen, and have a plan with clear objectives, processes, targets and milestones. If you invest in this, and more importantly, make the time to review and scenario plan regularly, you will be much better prepared to handle both certainty and uncertainty.
We are the smallest region of the UK. We have the smallest arts sector in the country with a population of just 1.8 million. However, our relatively small size and diversity makes us more agile and more responsive. So build coalitions for mutual benefit, establish networks that work collaboratively to serve the whole sector, and mobilise and lobby constructively with a united voice - so you can clearly and consistently hold funders, government and elected representatives to account.
Good governance is critical to sustainability. It brings about transparent, accountable and consensus-orientated decision making, without disrupting day-to-day operations. It helps you understand risk appetite and gives you a 360 view of the resources required to deliver your plan. It connects your vision, mission and strategy, to the roles, responsibilities, checks and balances, and finances you have in place. And it ensures you leverage the value your Board brings, whilst holding them to account.
Finally, I have been fortunate to have had access to some very good leaders and mentors. They come from different walks of life, have different personalities and are at different stages of their career. I am always receptive to their advice and perspective, even when it is different to mine. This is particularly important during periods of change and uncertainty. Their input either helps me crystalise my thinking, or, see a different perspective that I can then apply to my situation.
So always reach out to your network, especially when the path can seem difficult to navigate. It is important to keep having frank, open and honest conversations, because when it comes to leading change, we must keep an open mind.
Arts & Business NI is generously supported by The Arts Council of Northern Ireland.