Canadian cultural organizations are experiencing a leadership deficit and the problem is worsening as more and more highly regarded chief executive officers announce their retirement. We are seeing a generational change in leadership. Coming retirements for 2018 include long-standing CEOs Peter Herrndorf of the National Arts Centre and Piers Handling of TIFF.The National Arts Centre in Ottawa is a facility for the performing arts with four different spaces ranging from 150 seats to over 2,000 seats. TIFF is the Toronto International Film Festival.
Here in Canada, we have plenty of arts training models and success stories to build on for leadership development: think back to the Centre of Expertise on Culture and Communities (2005-2008) at Simon Fraser University, or the groundbreaking work of the Canadian Museums Human Resources Action Strategy (1995), or the Toronto performing arts collaboration Creative Trust (1998-2012). These were innovative programs, bringing people together for challenging learning and development.
The point is acute because it's getting harder. CEOs in any sector today have to concern themselves with an increasingly complex array of issues from diversity to digital to reconciliation. All while ensuring safe and creative workplaces and strategically leading their organizations into the future.Are you starting to sense the blind spot here?
Rightly so, governments are investing more in culture. These new investments are upping the expectations for what the sector can achieve in society – and we are meeting the challenge. Canadian cultural organizations, together with their counterparts in other countries, are experiencing a transformation of engagement and empowerment – a transformation that will serve us all well. For our efforts and our examples, Canadian cultural leaders – past and present – are active and respected across the globe.Ok. Well then, let's just name some of these internationally respected Canadian cultural leaders. I'm sure some of my Canadian commentators could step up, but just because someone is known in Canada for running this or that arts organization, doesn't quite signal an international reputation. One final quote:
Throughout my professional career working with cultural and creative organizations, I have never been more proud of the potential of our sector to contribute to our humanity and our society, nor have I been more preoccupied about the future of our sector – to train the next generation, to develop our own body of knowledge, and over all, to nurture culture and creativity for the benefit of all Canadians.Do you see what is missing? Throughout both of these articles on arts leadership in Canada the missing element is, wait for it, the arts! Not one artist in any field was mentioned. Not one artwork of any kind was mentioned. The entire focus was on arts administration which is universally, in every culture I can think of, only haphazardly related to the actual arts. What is amazingly bizarre here is that all these people, all these cultural and arts leaders, seem to think that what they are doing has something to do with leading the arts somewhere. They see the arts as some sort of high-level education program or moral guide to "nurture culture and creativity for the benefit of all Canadians." I mean that is just totally obvious, right?
I hate to rain on their parade, but all of this "investing" in the arts does nothing for the arts. What it does is provide a wealth of middle and upper management jobs for the well-connected and credentialed. Yes, and they build some nice new buildings to present the arts. I guess it is so appealing to Canadians because it is so very terribly safe. The arts are tightly controlled through all of these well-managed arts organizations who are the gate-keepers. It all sounds very benevolent, though what I see is richly funded administration, not richly patronized artists. I have long noticed a pattern in Canada of well-padded administrative salaries together with the most pathetic crumbs given to the actual artists.
All of this is kind of a Potemkin village of the arts: instead of individual artists producing some artworks of some significance, what we have are arts institutions and organizations who attempt to administer the field from the top down. This is about as successful as petting a cat against the fur. The arts, now and always, flow from the individual efforts of individuals, not the collective efforts of institutions. Yes, arts institutions can be of immense value in nurturing and supporting artists, but what usually happens, and in Canada seems to regularly happen, is that these institutions end up serving the best interests of those people who run them and are employed by them instead of that vague and debatable goal of "the arts" or "aesthetics." Who the heck knows what they are?
And this is why almost no one outside Canada can name a single Canadian composer of any significance.