Christine Long | ArtsHub | Tuesday 9th June 2015

Running your own arts company is a dream job for many but it’s not all champagne openings and calling the shots. Four of those who have made it to the top share the challenges of actually doing the job.

Training as an actor or designer does little to prepare artistic directors for the non-stop challenge of leading a creative team, setting a strategic vision; answering to board members and managing budgets.

As Stephen Page, Artistic Director, Bangarra Dance Theatre, told a packed audience at the Sydney Opera House, this week: ‘You don’t go to university for this sort of job.’

A panel of four artistic directors unpacked the role at this week’s SAMAG seminar held at the Sydney Opera House as part of Vivid Ideas. Ralph Myers, artistic director, Belvoir; Rosie Dennis, artistic director, Urban Theatre Projects; Johanna Featherstone, artistic director and creator, The Red Room Company; and Stephen Page, artistic director, Bangarra Dance Theatre all came to the role from a practitioner background.

It was a transition that Myers, a former designer, admitted he found hard when he took on the Belvoir role. ‘There is absolutely no training to be an artistic director so it is a kind of surprise,’ he said.

‘As someone who spent a lot of their time cutting up little pieces of cardboard and building little models I found it initially very exhausting how much personal interaction you have to have.’

‘You have to learn on the job as well as trying as hard as you can to look like you know what you’re doing. I found it extremely interesting boards and people, bureaucrats and sponsors, it’s interesting but it’s like nothing I’d ever done before.’

Coming from freelancing, Dennis noticed she had to manage her time differently. ‘I was working as an independent, solo artist so coming in and working with a team of people it was really different. Again, the amount of time that you spend just in meetings with the team you’ve got to factor that into your day and if you’re not used to that it’s something that you’ve got to learn.’

She learned not to be afraid to make mistakes publicly. ‘You’re learning all the time and you absolutely make mistakes and you just hope that you can inspire the team of people that you work with in a way where they’re forgiving of when you make those mistakes.

‘So you’ve got to really put your ego aside…you’re very public and you’ve just got to embrace that and go that’s okay.’

Taking on an artistic director role can also mean being involved in setting the organisation’s strategic direction.Page said within Bangarra change is driven by a ‘myriad of things’. ‘Strategic is really just about how much you listen and share with executive directors and chairpersons and really making the time to communicate your ideas and what you’re doing.’

For Featherstone, that direction comes from ‘listening and working with different people all the time’. She gave the example of performance poetry, which has experienced a shift in direction.

‘The vision of what I had in the last year or two years is irrelevant now because the types of poets that we’re working with are changing the direction of the Red Room Company,’ she said.

As the organisation matured, Featherstone  found its direction was increasingly shaped by financial considerations. ‘Now there’s a sense of shackles,’ she said. ‘Philanthropic foundations require a certain type of evaluation for the work that we do now so even when I’m thinking of a project that we’re doing there’s always part of me that thinks: how can we evaluate this sort of program?’

The panel was asked to reflect on how they would measure their success in their role and whether they got involved in succession planning. Myers said he believed short tenures for artistic directors were not a bad thing ‘There’s very few jobs and the more diversity of voices we have the better,’ he said. Although he acknowledged there’s a place for people, such as Page, remaining in their role for long periods so they can effect cultural change and impact.

On succession planning Myers saw a role for the major performing arts organisations to nurture future artistic director talent: ‘We have resident directors at our company and I think those people who have occupied those positions when they leave those jobs could well be the artistic director of any number of companies.’

‘So I think it’s beholden on us – certainly as major performing arts companies – to have people within our companies seeing how they work; understanding the ways that you can make them seen; but also the pitfalls of them from the inside and being paid to do that. But as for actually appointing a successor I think that’s extremely dangerous.’

Featherstone’s success yard-stick would be if the Red Room Company continued to run without her at the helm although not necessarily with one person leading the organisation. ‘And it would flourish, doing things differently to how I did them before and at the same time the poem would continue to be the most important thing…’

Dennis said succession planning was definitely an issue at Urban Theatre Projects and has been discussed in relation to company structure. She wants to leave the company in a financially stable position. ‘I hope that I can leave it in a place where the person who comes and sits in the seat that I’ve been sitting in feels like they can dream big and that they can do anything because they’ve got a really supportive board…who embrace big ideas…and encouraged me always to dream.’

Page said he is asked all the time when he was ‘jumping off’. He said there are people within Bangarra who were ‘quite capable to continue the cultural creative philosophy that is the legacy of Bangarra’. ‘We’re constantly aware of succession planning and my ego has got to step aside and that’s fine. It’s just weighing up all the initiatives and how they’re playing out..but yes there is a succession plan and…we sort of know between the board and myself how that’s going to play out.’

In question time the panel was asked how the boards of arts organisations can best support their artistic directors. Myers advice: Don’t panic. ‘It’s not happened with our board but I’ve seen many instances where boards panic and act rashly. Some things don’t work. Be as patient and as supportive as you can.’

To Dennis the answer came from making time for strategic conversations. ‘We’ve shifted how our board meetings are run and we make sure we’ve got a chunk of time for strategic conversation which is really great: to have that check-in every month or so.’

But it was also about keeping their hands off the day-to-day running of the company. ‘Trust that the artistic program is fitting in with the strategic vision and if the board’s been part of that strategic vision then the artistic director or the director will work to that as well.’

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