When the fancy people don’t respond, turn to the young ones for inspiration

This post is the third in a series for my portfolio assignment for the Banff Centre Cultural Leadership assignment.

One of our final assignments was to interview a cultural leader. There was one person in particular that I had reached out to before with no response, and I emailed again and still didn’t get a response. Is this the type of leader I want to be? One who is so busy and cannot respond to a student looking for a phone interview? I decided to flip the assignment and instead issue a survey to emerging cultural leaders. I did not have the time to obtain the proper ethics review for using human subjects for research with both the Banff Centre and Queen’s University, so I disseminated the survey via my networks. The responses were anonymous, so the quantitative data is questionable based on the sample size and quality, but reading the comments from the respondents was so inspiring that it was worth the effort. A total of 28 respondents completed the survey.

The first question was to ask the respondent what their first memory was of a cultural experience.

  • More than half of the respondents had their first cultural experience at an institution such as a church, museum, art gallery or heritage venue
  • 25% of respondents had their first cultural experience at a festival or free event
  • Only 10% had their first cultural experience at home with friends and/or family

The second question explored qualities of the respondent that would make that person a leader.

  • The most common answer was empathy, followed closely by passion
  • The majority of the responses were soft skills such as being open minded, great listener, and creative and very few responses demonstrated hard skills such as project management or marketing.
  • Some of the most memorable responses included “An undying and unwavering passion for the arts” and “cultural work is truly the only thing that makes sense to me”.

The third question asked, in two years, what the respondent wished to be doing professionally.

  • 25% of respondents listed the word ‘managing’ or ‘management’ in their answer
  • Many of the respondents listed answers that were connected to the work and the inspiration behind the work, and not necessarily a specific role or position
  • Some of the answers that I found profound included “Something where I’m valued, making more money and not having to fend for myself, my culture and my work” as well as “In my experience, it can be very difficult to answer this question with something other than ‘I’d like to have a permanent, full-time position in a stable organization that offers a comprehensive benefits package and allows me to not only pay off debt but actually save for retirement’”.

Question 4 asked ‘According to Culture Track: Canada, the number one reason Canadians participate in cultural activities is to have fun. In your opinion, what implications does this have for arts organizations in the country?’

  • A small number of respondents outlined the challenges that this stat presents cultural organizations. One respondent shared, “If our cultural activities are still going to say something important, they need to do it in a way that is enjoyable to have any hope of getting people to attend and then make a connection”
  • 25% of respondents had an issue with the term ‘fun’ and doubted the accuracy and validity of this statistic. One respondent stated, “ I believe that theatre audiences are drawn to [a] glimpse of genius more than fun” and another asserted, “I think fun is too abstract a term to really draw a lot of meaning out of it. I would… say that people today are looking for experiences”.
  • 25% of respondents saw opportunities for the future of arts organizations to grow. One respondent shared, “If fun is at the root of people’s needs, then address that and organize, support and promote fun events that helps people learn about culture and growth their cultural minds and interest.” One museum professional stated, “We need to remember the visitor and make learning more accessible”.

Respondents were asked to list what they think  the top 5 priorities of arts organizations are presently and what they should be. The results were not surprising, but deflating nonetheless.

  • The top answer for the current priorities of arts organization was overwhelmingly funding / financial stability followed distantly by diversity. The rest of the answers were varied and included some nuts and bolts type of answers such as volunteer recruitment, audience development, and retaining current audiences as well as some more mission-driven type responses such as relevance, providing unique experiences and education.
  • The answers for what the priorities should be in 2019 for arts organizations were the highlight of this exercise for me. The bulk of the responses were both strategic and aspirational. Diversity and inclusion was the top answer followed by accessibility. Other answers included “placing a value on cultural and supporting that with resources”, “taking risks”, “supporting new artists”, “embracing failure”, “advocacy” and many others.

The next question was a specific question to highlight an organization or artist who is inspirational as a leaders. The answers were very personal, but I noticed the reasons behind the selection were carefully crafted and sometimes touching. One of the respondents named a fellow Banff Centre Cultural Leadership cohort colleagues, Lori Burke. The respondent described Lori as “…she goes out and just does it, makes positive changes. She doesn’t wait for a grant to come in, she just motivates her staff… and used her industry to enact positive changes”.  (I think Lori is pretty amazing too!)

When asked “how is your life better because of culture?”, I didn’t expect to get so many profound statements. The passion of these emerging leaders is evident in quotes such as “I wouldn’t be who I am, or have the people around me that I do, without culture”, or “… art and culture provide people with a  place to belong” and “it has given me purpose and allowed me to build relationships in my community”. My personal favourite was “Culture is my life. Everything else: eating, sleeping, cleaning, shopping – are all just to keep me alive so I can have cultural experiences”. Wow!

The last question was “how do you hope to make an impact as a cultural leader through your efforts now and /or in the future?” The content in these answers gave me hope for the future of our cultural organizations of every size. I have listed a few of the most reflective answers here.

  • “Culture bearers are worth so much, yet are paid the least.”
  • “The arts should not be for the elite, but with ticket prices the way they are and the culture around ‘being fancy for the fancy art’ it can feel that way, making others feel unwelcome.”
  • “Making an impact is a capitalist way of thinking. I want to contribute to my community, do my part alongside my neighbours for the well being of everyone.”
  • “I hope to make things easier and lower barriers for people now and in the future so that they are able to do the work that I was unable to do.”

I don’t have definitive, unbiased data to share with you, but there is one thing that I now for sure – the future is bright with leaders like these. Big thanks to all of you who took the time to take this survey and my one piece of advice for emerging leaders it to answer those emails and interview requests in the future – even from someone who seems insignificant – as you never know whose life you could change with just a short few words.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.