Archive for November, 2009

Risky Business

November 29, 2009

My thinking about my Clore research paper has been developing over the last few weeks and I’m delighted that the wonderfully imaginative and clear-thinking John Holden has agreed to supervise my research.

Having settled on a draft wording for a stimulus question, I thought I would share my somewhat chaotic thoughts on the topic so far.

What is the leadership role in optimising risk taking in the UK’s subsidised performing arts sector?

I would like to investigate some of the complexities bubbling beneath the received narrative surrounding risk taking in the UK’s subsidised performing arts sector, as I’m not convinced we often talk about them entirely honestly. I’m interested in the complexity of the relationship between artistic risk taking and financial obligation. I’m interested in how the many areas of the sector that have an impact on this issue are intricately interconnected, how practice and process at an individual, organisational and strategic level influence our approach to risk. I’m interested in what scope there is in the sector for failure: it strikes me that if we’re really taking risks, some of the time they’ll fail, they won’t come off, and I’m interested in how much scope there really is for that failure to be seen as fuel to the creative process at large. I think we need failure, I think it feeds us artistically, so I think our attitude to risk taking is wrapped up in our attitude to failure too. I’m interested in the role of leadership in all of this – in where we need the leadership and what the role of the sector at large can or should be in enabling, encouraging and optimising risk taking.

My own experience of the touring theatre sector would suggest that it is becoming increasingly risk-averse as opposed to risk-taking and my interest in exploring the complexities at the heart of this topic stem from a concern that the iteration of a risk-averse approach may lead to a more stagnant sector in the future.

Some of the questions I am keen to explore include:

What potential is there for risk and failure within cultural leadership in the current climate? What is the leadership role in this? At what level? How can leadership allow for, encourage, and embrace failure brought about by risk? How much is leadership actually about being the one who takes the risk, who decides which risks to take and which ones not to take, about being the one who leads the failure? Can failing be leading? In fact, if an arts scene without failure is a stultified and stagnant one that only replicates former ‘success’, does the true and vitalising success of our arts sector depend upon its failures? Failure breeds success; it defines excellence through being a foil, through being a motivation to do better, to tell the truth more truthfully, to speak more powerfully, more honestly. Failure is our drinking water – what if there weren’t any?

How does the subsidised sector negotiate the dichotomous relationship of artistic risk and financial responsibility? How does it remain accountable to its taxpayer-provided income whilst continuing to push the boundaries, to play and experiment freely and with most potential for creativity? Does its sense of public accountability overwhelm its greater responsibility to take risks because of – not in spite of – its receipt of subsidy? Does it self-censor under the perceived weight of financial obligation?

What is the role of development in stimulating and encouraging artistic risk? What do we mean by artistic risk? Can we define it at all adequately? Is risk taking about the heart and risk management about the head? Can any risk assessment process be more than a procedural formality? Is risk taking about individuals, not about organisations or sector-wide approaches? Is it about brave and passionate champions of art, not about sector-wide facilitation? Is it easier or more difficult for long established, well regarded organisations?

How does the approach typical of, necessitated by or aspired to within the subsidised arts sector compare with the approach of the commercial arts sector? And, by extension, how does the approach of the arts sector at large compare to the approach of other sectors, for example the commercial and corporate sectors? Is there anything to learn from the financial sector’s attitude to risk? To its empire-building based upon risk? To successful companies built out of the ashes of failed companies? To insolvency practices and investment strategies based on concepts of varying and assessed risk?

I should add that for me there is also an individual interest at the heart of this research: as someone who has found themselves cast more often than they would wish in the risk averse role as the ‘nay-sayer’ who reigns in, controls, anticipates and problem solves, I want to take a sideways look through the process of this research at my own attitude to risk.

So, having arrived at this punishing and somewhat daunting series of questions, I am beginning at this point by simply reading, thinking, talking, and interviewing, so all contributions and thoughts are most welcome.