Feature | More with less

Four leaders discuss their approach to change and risk...

Since the financial crash of 2008 and the ensuing age of austerity, the reaction of most arts organisations to cuts has been to cut back, to do less. But over this same period Battersea Arts Centre has doubled its turnover, Sadler’s Wells and the Whitworth Art Gallery have doubled their audiences, and at Arc in Stockton audiences are up an impressive 87%. In each case their programmes of work have not only expanded but increased the proportion of newly commissioned or unfamiliar work, presenting imaginative even challenging pieces for their audiences.

I recently asked the leaders and teams of these four organisations what they attributed their success to, to gauge if there were any common factors behind such achievements. This was exploratory investigation rather than a rigorous study, involving leaders with five or more years’ experience in the role. Change does not come overnight.

A vision that sets direction and standards

Unsurprisingly, each leader had a compelling and easily communicable vision. However, there was often a lengthy and twin-track process to achieve this: a series of ‘shorter sprints’ or emblematic changes while preparing the organisation and team for a long-term, shared vision for the future, often crafted over one or two years.

These pithy and often patiently developed visions – for Battersea Arts Centre to invent the future of theatre, for Arc to be meaningful and relevant to its local communities, for Sadler’s Wells to be the dance house for London and for Whitworth Art Gallery to be world-class – are not merely clever or succinct sound-bites. They are living concepts that permeate everything the organisation is and does. More importantly they create the roadmap for change and a set of quality standards for what the organisation delivers. For Maria Balshaw at the Whitworth, as austerity has taken hold “the discipline of saying ‘is this helping with our journey, does it deliver against purpose?’ has got stronger”.

Of the four, no vision has been changed since its introduction. There may have been considerable changes to how those visions have been delivered but no deviation from the ambitious standards they collaboratively set at the outset.

Increasing activity, embracing 'risk'

The volume of activity for each has increased but also by degrees it has changed and evolved. The Whitworth, for example, has moved away from a reliance on wall hangings and 19th century watercolours to show more of its hidden collections alongside current international visual artists. Sadler’s Wells has developed co-commissioning with associate artists and Battersea Arts Centre has developed its Scratch programme of theatre into a model of organisational working, even applying it to capital redevelopment. At Arc, a typical industry reaction is often (patronisingly) one of surprise: “You’re programming that company in Stockton.”

Risk was not merely mitigated but reframed and welcomed. Annabel Turpin’s view at Arc is characteristic: “When I look at the population and the demographic of Stockton, what’s going to be riskier to sell: a production of Shakespeare that’s written in a language they are not familiar with, that they are going to feel daunted by, or a show that’s about people making mistakes or about people experiencing dementia?”

Internally a level of excitement was generated about the new, the unfamiliar and the unexpected that was infectious and became shared by audiences, often but not exclusively, by increasing its participatory nature. At Battersea Arts Centre, the Time Out Critics Season, a long-standing strand of successful and critically well-received plays, was dropped to enable these changes. David Jubb said: “People deal with risk by pushing it away from themselves... but by keeping the risk closer and managing it more closely, it can be a more creative space to be in...”

"The twin gods of artists and audiences"

“The twin gods of artists and audiences” is a phrase Alistair Spalding at Sadler’s Wells uses, but it has a strong resonance for how the other three leaders work too, albeit with differences in emphasis. The common and genuine mantra of ‘putting artists at the heart of everything we do’ was accompanied by a profound understanding of the interaction and co-dependency between those artists and audiences (the biggest stakeholder at Sadler’s Wells, with 70% of its income coming through ticket sales).

All the leaders I talked to demonstrated a huge commitment to, and detailed knowledge of, their local population; with a fervent desire to invite them in, to allow them to interact with artists and for both to grow out of this collaborative experience. Annabel Turpin at Arc said: “And then they [the local residents] start to feel the building is here for Stockton and not just for ‘art’.”

Recruiting or growing the right people to do the right job and giving them room to develop, especially because resources were stretched or diminishing, was another strong emphasis. Not just talent development but ‘talent liberation’ which enabled these leaders to focus on long-term direction and viability.

None of the periods of change for these organisations were without their difficulties: redundancies, periods of retrenchment, dealing with the unexpected. But these were approached with a steely-eyed focus on the future, underpinned by a brave discipline in dealing with the immediacy of the issue. Maria Balshaw at the Whitworth summarised this: “Times of adversity focus the mind more... to focus on the things that really matter, to boil it down to the essentials.” She then goes beyond this to say: “The scale of change we are seeing creates a mandate to be bolder.”

Facing the future

These are four very different personalities and leadership styles, but their boldness and unwavering focus on the future has not only enabled ambitious change to be delivered but sustained for the benefit of artists and audiences.

More with less but also better may appear to be a paradox but these organisations have demonstrated it can be achieved with long-term vision and commitment. We know that developing audiences is not often sustained without organisational and artistic development too. It is an area The Audience Agency is keen to investigate further and to ask whether, and crucially how, these ways of working might be transferable.