Wed | Jun 29, 2022

The challenges of cultural leadership

Published:Sunday | June 12, 2022 | 12:07 AMAndrea Dempster-Chung - Contributor
Kingston Creative Hub at the old Swiss Stores building at 107 Harbour Street in downtown Kingston.
Kingston Creative Hub at the old Swiss Stores building at 107 Harbour Street in downtown Kingston.

Shanique Stewart works on a mural on East Street in Kingston
Shanique Stewart works on a mural on East Street in Kingston
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Dancer Oliver Morris of the Binghistra Orchestra performs in Water Lane, Kingston as part of the monthly Kingston Creative Artwalk and Market Street.
File Dancer Oliver Morris of the Binghistra Orchestra performs in Water Lane, Kingston as part of the monthly Kingston Creative Artwalk and Market Street.
Andrea Dempster-Chung,  co-founder and executive director of Kingston Creative.
Andrea Dempster-Chung, co-founder and executive director of Kingston Creative.
A mural at the corner of Water Lane in downtown Kingston.
A mural at the corner of Water Lane in downtown Kingston.
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Recently at the Global Cultural Districts Network (GCDN) convening, I had the pleasure of moderating a discussion on moral and ethical dilemmas facing cultural leaders today. The panellists were Adrian Ellis, director of AEA Consulting London and chair of the Global Cultural Districts, Linda Harrison, director and CEO of The Newark Museum of Art, and Sumantra Ghose, artistic programming director for the Royal Commission for Al-Ula in Saudi Arabia.

The convening brought together experts from around the world to network, learn and problem-solve together. At this closing session, over 100 cultural leaders gathered for an open dialogue about the challenges of leadership. We explored our role as leaders, both within our respective cultural institutions and within the wider society.

NEW DILEMMAS FACING ARTS LEADERS

In recent years, we have witnessed a sea change of attitudes towards cultural institutions, some of which previously would have been viewed as above reproach and criticism. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, sparked by the killing of Freddie Gray in Minneapolis, called into question not only the issues of race-based exclusion in cultural institutions, on their boards, on their staff and within their audiences, but also brought up the issues of return and restitution and the display of culturally sensitive artefacts which had long been simmering under the surface at ‘Universal Museums’ around the world.

We saw the images of statues toppled in public cultural spaces. Works of art that represented our history, but which, to some, were potent symbols of morally reprehensible eras of colonial greed. Some were toppled and others were hastily relocated to less prominent locations away from public view. The politics of collecting and displaying looted art, culturally sensitive objects or stolen goods, whether from World War II, the Middle East or even slavery memorabilia, has presented a number of new moral and ethical issues that demand a response from us as leaders.

There are also the moral issues embedded in the art itself. Issues of sexuality, politics, spirituality, appropriation, censorship and freedom of expression come to the fore when considering the work. Beyond the artwork, even the source of materials and carbon footprint of our cultural activities matter. These are all relatively new issues that now have to be considered in this era.

It is worth stating that these moral dilemmas are not just ‘Global North’ issues. It’s not just a reductive question of getting those ‘BAME’ or ‘BIPOC’ numbers up. If so, it would be very easy for cultural leaders in the Global South to completely ignore this trend. But issues of diversity and inclusion also exist in the Global South and even majority non-white countries like Jamaica – it just presents differently.

Perhaps its inclusion of artists from different social classes or economic brackets, sometimes its religion, sometimes its rural-urban or bridging the digital divide, and for independent countries still wrestling with the insidious legacy of colonialism, I can tell you, this can be a real blind spot as art has an inherent thread of elitism that runs along these historical lines. This is a conversation for all of us and one which speaks to our adaptability as arts leaders, and to the survival of our institutions and organisations in a rapidly changing world.

JUST ARTS LEADERS?

As cultural practitioners, it is sometimes easier to frame our responsibilities as existing within a limited sphere of decisions that only pertain to the arts. However, as we have heard from almost every single speaker at the GCDN, no matter the topic that they were discussing, the wider issues in the society, from pandemics to politics to homelessness, do impinge on our arts work and this is what keeps us awake at night.

At a conceptual level, the arts are seen as integral to the development of healthy and confident societies. Our districts and arts institutions don’t exist in isolation. We exist within the context of our societies and, as leaders of cultural districts, we are often situated physically within our respective cities, urban spaces and in proximity to communities. Do we have a clearly defined purpose in these communities? Are we speaking with the people that we don’t know? How close are we really to the people that we serve? Are we merely arts leaders, or are we ‘leader leaders’, and should our actions have an impact at a national level?

Effective leadership – individual or collective – often involves removing threats to our legitimacy and safeguarding the reputation and existence of our organisations, but it should go beyond just the avoidance of liability or public criticism. At the heart of it, there are questions about what we are doing to actively foster a healthy society. What should we as cultural leaders do? Are we doing it - or are we huddled, just waiting for all the fuss to blow over?

MORAL AND ETHICAL CHALLENGE

The panellists shared about the single biggest moral and ethical challenge facing them personally as cultural leaders, discussed the social issues in their communities and how they as global arts leaders were engaging with, listening to and responding to these local concerns. The concerns around governance and funding, as it pertains to the composition of their board members and the source of funds of their donors, were shared widely. They shared how they have started vetting board members, private donors and the policies that they have put in place to guide them.

For cultural institutions, we all saw the flashy jpegs floating around social media during the height of the BLM movement - but, two years on, how much of that translated into action? Too often, there is a gap between rhetoric and action in terms of social reach, climate action, investment strategies and even treatment of arts staff and freelancers. Both the audience and panel shared what works – some of the positive steps that they were taking to close these gaps.

I’ve moderated a few panels in my time but, as a black, Caribbean, British woman leading an arts NGO located in a highly marginalised community in Kingston, Jamaica, this one was a challenge, as a lot of these issues hit very close to home. “Hey ... is anyone else feeling uncomfortable?” I asked mid-way through and several hands went up with some shy smiles.

The discomfort in the audience was palpable at times, as structural racism, homelessness, and colonial legacies aren’t just light chatter. These are heavy issues that affect people at an emotional level. We often avoid discussing ethical dilemmas for fear of not saying the right thing or just being misunderstood. But, at the Global Cultural Districts Network convening in Lugano Switzerland, I am proud to say that we managed to hold space for uncomfortable conversations - the type of dialogue that can lead to real growth for leaders and positive outcomes for our communities.

Andrea Dempster-Chung is the co-founder and executive director of Kingston Creative. Send feedback to andrea@kingstoncreative.org