Leadership Crisis Or Dawn Of New Era? TBI Investigates
Change is inevitable.
Resistance to that is futile - especially since the early months of 2020.
But the creative sector is going through a level of movement among top tier decision-makers, administrators and creative directors which is beyond any usual metric of change.
Even in these unusual times.
Since we brought up this changing of the guard in The Lowdown a few weeks ago, there have been more and more influential names either announcing their departures from key organisations or trying to slink away in the background.
Courtney Sina Meredith is standing down as Director of Tautai, Elyssia Wilson-Heti’s vacating her role as Auckland Pride’s Creative Director and James O’Hara has left his post as Co-Artistic Director of New Zealand Dance Company to head to Perth’s Strut Dance company.
They join a lengthy list of well tenured leaders who have stepped away from their positions in just the last few months; Red Leap Theatre’s Artistic Director and co-founder Julie Nolan, CLNZ’s Chief Executive Paula Browning, WORD Christchurch Executive Director Marianne Hargreaves, Auckland Arts Festival Chief Executive David Inns, Auckland Writers’ Festival Director Anne O’Brien, Creative New Zealand (CNZ) veteran administrator Cath Cardiff among them.
The exodus hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Ministry of Culture and Heritage (MCH).
Emily Fabling, Deputy Chief Executive Policy and Sector Performance told The Big Idea “Leadership of organisations in the arts, culture and heritage sectors can be immensely rewarding, as well as challenging.
“I recognise and appreciate the incredible efforts from these leaders over the most challenging times for the cultural sector in living memory. They deserve our thanks and I wish them well for their future endeavours.
“Manatū Taonga has strong relationships with these organisations and I’m confident this will continue regardless of whoever takes up the reins. They will have our continued support and I’m looking forward to working with them in future.”
Add to that a number of board vacancies in the arts and creativity around the country, and it’s clear to see this is a restless and potentially unsettling time.
The question is - why?
One or two resignations are understandable - but this type of mass departure is more than a coincidence. Some are moving into similar roles but decades of invaluable experience is departing the sector - several have even handed in their notice without having another gig to go to, which is highly unusual.
The Big Idea spoke to a number of respected figures in arts leadership positions - including some who have recently moved on from their roles to find out what is driving this change.
Several agreed to speak to us anonymously - opening the doorway to an honest conversation that the sector needs to have.
If there are issues that could lead to an arts leadership crisis, there’s no point hiding behind pleasantries and press releases.
One highly placed leader stated “everyone acknowledges the last two years as being tough. For arts leaders in particular, they have had to dig deep in order to keep businesses afloat, step up and take more action around advocacy as well as feed into CNZ and MCH’s great plans - all on top of, and without recognition of this contribution individually, and maintain and look after the wellness of teams.
“I have never felt so tired, and know it is the effect of the last two years - but there is not much I can do - as the work continues, and there is no slowing down of the workload.
“The changes of guards in certain organisations can be a good thing or can be a devastating thing - it is hard to find really good, authentic leaders who have the tenacity, humility, knowledge and aroha required to lead in the arts.
“I recall Tanemahuta Gray talk about who is looking after the arts leaders? I don’t think anyone is specifically, because I don’t think people know what that looks like. The work has to be done, the company still has to be driven forward, teams still need direction and leadership - and that’s the arts leader job to do that.
“I love my job, I love the people I work with, and I love the industry, and have been passionate about the arts my whole life - but even I imagine some days what it might be like if I stepped down. Everyone I talk to is feeling the same.
“Arts leaders are dropping like flies, we are still to see further losses to our industry.”
Another well-placed source speaks of the exasperation facing the cultural decision makers.
They told The Big Idea “despite the ongoing rhetoric around sustainability, the actual sector itself doesn’t feel particularly sustainable right now.
“People are burning out. COVID recovery funding is about to end although we’re nowhere near recovered - we’re only just surviving - and we’re being propped up by a system that continues to fall short on offering any prosperous future vision.
“Why would you want to enter the sector right now when you’re guaranteed to earn significantly less than almost any other sector; and continuous, progressive, well remunerated employment is not much more than a pipe dream.
“I think people are genuinely questioning whether they can afford to be part of the sector, both financially and in terms of their mental health and well-being.
“But what is the answer? I think that is the big unknown, and who is responsible for finding it. These circumstances aren’t new, they’ve just been exacerbated by the pandemic.”
A source who has pulled back from their leadership duties concedes the age of some departures can be a factor but told The Big Idea “the relentless pursuit of money to make something happen did not allow me to work with the team to look at ways of building on the existing community.”
They note that since the pandemic “planning and changing and rewriting outcomes to meet the needs of the funders, then doing it all again because the landscape changed again and again - is exhausting.
“It was good to have the agencies (CNZ and MCH) offer new grants during this time, but to have to come up with 'innovative' ideas rather than strengthening and expanding business for existing organisations who wanted to service their own audiences seemed hollow and was deflating for many of the established organisations who were struggling to maintain audiences in this time.
“I wrote more funding applications in the last two years than I would have under normal circumstances, and these were done with a 'wish list' rather than a reality. Save me from more and more paperwork and compliance!”
Service over self
For many of those departing - doing so is a big deal. In what can often be a thankless job, with pressure coming from all directions, it’s passion that drives so many of the sectors leaders.
Courtney Sina Meredith (below) is in that category. One of the country’s most admired poets and creative minds, it would come as no surprise that she threw herself wholeheartedly, with deep emotional investment into her role as Director of Tautai, delivering such an important vā (space) for Moana creatives to flourish.
Meredith told The Big Idea “putting myself forward for the role in 2018 was more about tautua, service, than following my creative heart. In truth, I waited until the last day to apply. I was in Byron Bay as a guest at the Writer’s Festival, and right up to the last moment of pressing send - I knew that if I got the job, it would consume me.
“I know it sounds dramatic but looking back it really did feel like a life-or-death situation at the time. I knew people were hurting, artists and administrators and board members alike – through all the noise I just couldn't bear the thought of losing the precious ground we had collectively pioneered. I’d been to enough residencies and festivals and symposiums overseas to understand the cultural institutions powering these opportunities were weathered beaten ships, forever in the high seas of change.
"The trick was to keep afloat no matter what.
“When I was appointed as director and the responsibility transferred to me, I will never forget the feeling that washed over my bones. It was like opening my arms to this tired warrior, who nestled in the crook of my arm, barely breathing.
“Today, almost four years later, Tautai is not some frail metaphor existing on the broth of the past, the organisation is thriving - the strongest she has ever been.
I write these words with the entire space abuzz with life. Kendrick is on the speaker, Moana artists are finishing installing in the gallery for an opening (tonight Thursday 23 June). I’m living out the final days of a dream I burned to experience.
And not just over the past few years, but ever since my first teacher smacked me and the other brown girls in my class, at lunch time, for drawing on the nice computer paper - as though we owned the place!. Even then, as a child, I dreamed often about what it would feel like to be surrounded by people I didn’t have to explain myself to.
From the brink of oblivion to being a top ten investment client with our incredible Creative New Zealand aiga, I’ve learned my way forward, and thanks to an outstanding team and family I have not walked a single step of this journey alone. We got here as a village.
“Tautai is the home of contemporary Pacific arts in Aotearoa, it is also the workplace of the most caring, excellent, fastidious, meticulous, and hard-working group of people I’ve ever worked with.
“I leave having secured the financial future of Tautai to 2026, with a doubled team, in a thrice expanded premises that includes a brand-new gallery. Through this role, I found the love of my life and became a parent to the most beautiful and clever boys on earth.
“I’ve got new books to write, an upcoming exhibition to finish, a business to co-manage with my partner, and I’m going to enjoy spending more time with our sons. My commitment to Tautai is unwavering, I will continue to mentor, advocate for, and love into this brilliant vaka of Moana creativity – always and forever. And yes, finally, we own the place!”
The burden of asking for money
As Meredith eluded to, funding has never been more important - and more competitive. Arts leaders are more than a little concerned.
One source told The Big Idea “costs are going up everywhere and funding is not doing the same, audiences are hit and miss - so box office is riskier than ever. CNZ signalled they are going back to pre-COVID levels of funding; what happens this next financial year will be a higher demand on funding than ever before. This is going to add to stress levels as the industry starts to feel the effects of that in the coming year.
“I am worried, we have to plan so far in advance to put in plans and budgets for a world that doesn't exist the same way when we come to do the delivery.”
One example provided was a show planning to be part of the Aronui Festival in Rotorua, in partnership with the local council. But when Festival Director Cian Elyse White left - so with it went the deal and the end of the Aronui Festival. It left a huge impact on the show’s tour, forcing them to try to find another venue within the same budget.
Among the larger organisations, there’s also the concern of their hard-earned standing in the funding system becoming less stable.
“CNZ invited 6 other organisations this year to apply for Kahikatea funding - if it is true that there is no more funding in the pot, then will this inevitably mean that some will be de-funded. If so, then again I suspect we will see leaders from de-funded organisations leave.”
It must be acknowledged, natural attrition didn’t take place in the same way as it otherwise might have during the height of the pandemic.
One well-informed source pontificated to The Big Idea “I suspect there have been a number of tenures extended over the past few years as experienced leaders stayed on for longer than they had maybe initially planned, in order to help weather the storm.
“I also think that the ‘reverse brain drain’ and post-COVID proliferation of opportunities has factored into it. Both here and abroad, there are opportunities for Aotearoa artists and creatives to spread their wings and move onto new opportunities that we just haven’t had in the past few years.
“So now that the theatres and borders are open again, it’s a chance to advance the plot and then the inevitable domino effect of reshuffling roles follows.”
Take the much admired Lana Lopesi as an example. She was making a clear impact as Metro Arts Editor and half a year later, she’s leaving for an opportunity that was too good for her to pass up - a teaching role at an American University.
New blood to step up?
So how do these roles get filled?
There is a fear from inside the sector that just as talent is heading overseas, that their replacements come from the other direction.
One source states “I would be unhappy to see the spaces that arts leaders leave filled by internationals - we need our leadership positions filled by New Zealanders, who understand the NZ context and understand matauranga Māori.
“We also need a mechanism of which to raise solid arts leaders.”
An example of this is present at Red Leap Theatre. The departure of Nolan (above) after 14 years always came with a succession plan and a desire to see more women in arts leadership positions, leading to Ella Becroft taking her place - she’s been with the organisation since 2007.
So the glass half-full approach to this situation is that it provides an opening for someone else to step up - the same opening the current flagbearers of creative decision making relied on for their start as well.
A respected source shared their hopes.
“I think it’s really exciting to see so many opportunities for new roles and for new people to fill these shoes. A lot of mid-career artists and practitioners are desperate to break into that next strata of their career and move into more senior leadership and managerial roles.
“Often the opportunities for this kind of career move are few and far between, so the rate of upward career trajectories screeches to an effective halt, with mid-career artists feeling trapped and like they can’t break into that next level because the opportunities simply do not exist.
“I know of many people who have left, not because they don’t love the arts, but that they’re so incredibly frustrated at being trapped in a mid-career role with no realistic prospect for professional development and growth on the horizon. So they just throw in the towel and pivot to other career paths where they can continue to grow - and often be much more failry remunerated for their work.”
There is no question that those who have been there, done that, and have the scars to prove it are of monumental value in the creative sector. Experience matters, especially with making the big calls - but also with helping the next wave through to have the same opportunities.
And while they are stepping into an ever-evolving and often volatile terrain, there should also be little doubt that those aspiring to claim the vacancies at the top of the creative decision making tree have the potential to bring fresh eyes, fresh blood and passion that has not been assaulted by the slings and arrows of the past (and present).
As Courtney Sina Meredith states “The horizon is vast.”