This article is adapted from a keynote given at Tessitura Learning & Community Conference, Sydney, 16/11/2022

Think carefully about the term Cultural Leadership and ask yourself these questions: what does cultural leadership mean to you — as an individual? What does cultural leadership mean to an organisation — your organisation?

And think about the powerful issues of social change that have been at the forefront of our collective consciousness in recent times. Issues like Black Lives Matter, the Me Too Movement, Climate Change and environmental sustainability. More recently in Australia, the Uluru Statement from the Heart and Voice to Parliament. Ask yourselves the question: where are cultural institutions in these conversations?

The working title of my PhD is Where to from here? Framing a new model of cultural leadership for Australian professional orchestras. In undertaking this research I’m aiming to make 2 original contributions to the field. Firstly, I want to understand how Australian orchestras determine cultural leadership. Secondly, I plan to develop a leadership model for cultural organisations — not just orchestras — that is highly relevant, contemporary, contextual and deeply connected to the organisations’ operating environments. This is really the essence of my research — using the lens of leadership to examine how to best connect cultural organisations meaningfully into their environments.

But, why cultural leadership? And, why focus on orchestras?

Firstly, what piqued my interest was the pivotal moment in 2017 when Australia held its Marriage Equality Plebiscite. There was a clear divide between those organisations who came out in support of the ‘YES’ vote, and those who abstained from expressing a clear choice, remained neutral, or worse, silent.

The reaction of the community to this silence showed me that it is no longer acceptable for cultural organisations to opt out of commenting on social issues. This leads me to the question, are organisations just expected to perform and educate in their communities, or are we expecting them to lead within them? In a time of social change, and urgent shifting social expectations, how will cultural organisations respond? What do we really expect from our cultural organisations? Is this what we mean by cultural leadership?

So, going back to the original questions, what do we know about cultural leadership? It is an increasingly popular term in arts management, but it was clear to me it is also a contested term. We understand the concept of culture from an artistic perspective. We also understand the idea of organisational culture, but, similar to terms like ‘strategy’ and ‘engagement’ — which we use and hear a lot — I suspected that the term cultural leadership is often used but not always fully understood, or accurately defined.

Yet, more and more, we see cultural leadership referenced as an obligatory prerequisite by funding bodies and other stakeholders. Where once cultural organisations were just expected to make art, now they are required to perform a range of other functions which aspire to contribute to and impact the lives of their stakeholders. This is particularly relevant in the context of a neo-liberal subsidy framework — where demonstrating instrumental value is a core expectation. So it’s clear that cultural leadership is expected, but how important is it to organisations?

Cultural leadership and Australian professional orchestras

Let’s think about the term leadership for a moment. As we know, leadership has been looked at length with studies throughout the world of business, and masses of popular literature acknowledging its importance; various leadership styles have been identified, which may be familiar to us in the arts, and include: Guru Leadership, Charismatic Leadership, Transformational Leadership, Transactional Leadership, Authentic Leadership, Servant Leadership and many more styles or types of leadership. But this discussion has almost always looked at leadership from an individual perspective — i.e. what qualities make individuals great leaders? Not what makes the organisation a great leader. Of course, organisations are made up of individuals, but how those individuals, plus other internal and external factors, shape the role and influence of the organisation is what really fascinated me.

And why Australian orchestras? Since the 1930s, orchestras have been incredibly important cultural institutions in Australia. Every Australian state has its own symphony orchestra, plus there are orchestras in Darwin and Canberra and highly active and successful hybrid models with national and metropolitan audiences.

But the orchestras’ role in Australian society has changed over the years. The six state orchestras were originally divisions of the ABC and were central to Australian cultural life as providers of content in the early days of radio broadcasting, Nearly every house had a transistor radio in the living room, and orchestral music was the dominant form of popular culture- echoing through the house each evening, as well as celebrating momentous occasions. Orchestras were extremely important to wartime and to post-war Australia, providing entertainment and building morale, They also provided- an early form of soft, cultural diplomacy.

In fact, a 1945 tour of Australia by Chief Conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy was hugely popular, playing to packed houses across the country. For postwar Australia, firmly in the grips of cultural cringe, orchestras were seen as a way of ‘civilising’ us through touring programs of ‘important’ work of the western canon. Of course, we think of this canon very differently today. In this way, orchestras provided Australia with a sense of international cultural legitimacy.

But the golden age of Australian orchestras didn’t last. Following a series of government reviews and a move away from state-controlled cultural enterprises in the 1970s and 1980s, the orchestras were ultimately divested from the ABC, beginning in the late 1990s. They each spun out to become individual entities, responsible for their own management, which included designing programming, marketing strategy and financial accountability. To this day, they still receive government funding — between 30 and 80% of their annual operating budgets — but they are expected to generate a portion of their own revenue through ticket sales, corporate partnerships and, increasingly, philanthropy.

Recently, orchestras have faced a series of other challenges. Audiences are waning and ageing. On average, Australian state orchestras connect with about 3–5% of the population in their metropolitan bases. Consider those numbers for a moment, which are arguably very low, considering the amount of funding the orchestras receive

In fact in 2021, even the then Australian Federal Minister for the Arts, Paul Fletcher, actually questioned the funding and relevance of the major performing arts companies in general, saying:

It is not good enough to have a cosy club of arts companies that receive effectively guaranteed funding each year through the Australia Council…., it is a matter of simple fairness to ask where this money goes and who gets the benefit of it….

It is important also to remember that orchestras and classical music, are exponents of a heritage performing art form, with a long history and a rich legacy of tradition. But this carries a set of expectations around conventions in art form presentation, excellence in technical and performance standards, and even conventions around audience behaviour, such as when to clap.

Those working in marketing for symphony orchestras, or other heritage art forms or across the culture sector more broadly understand the concept of threshold anxiety; negotiating a combination of factors and perceptual barriers that prevent people from just crossing the line, and having — what might be — a transformational cultural experience.

Statements such as “classical music is boring”, “classical music is for old people”,” It’s probably too expensive”, “‘I don’t know what to wear”, and “I don’t think this is for me” are commonly heard. This kind of imposter syndrome is an embedded issue in heritage cultural experiences. There are still deeply embedded barriers to entry — ones that we consistently need to address,

Of course, Covid-19 has further complicated the work of orchestras; considering Covid from a leadership perspective, the crisis was, in a sense, another very public litmus test for how orchestras saw their social role. The ways in which they responded to the crisis and served their communities in a time of need was a source of extensive commentary and really reiterated my earlier, overarching question: “what do we expect of our cultural institutions?”. The fact that we, as a society, and the institutions themselves were not completely clear on the answer to this question during — like the marriage equality plebiscite of 2017 — further inspired me to look more closely at the idea of cultural leadership.

Returning to the question of social change — which I really believe is fundamental to this discussion. The major social movements, like the ones mentioned earlier, Black Lives Matter, Me Too and Climate Change, have set momentum. This momentum demands that all institutions take and articulate an authentic position on these questions. Expectations more associated with the world of business, such as social licence and corporate social responsibility, are increasingly becoming expectations of publicly funded organisations. It is clear that arts organisations can no longer sit on the sidelines of these debates and not engage. All these factors made Australian orchestras fascinating research subjects.

It led me to frame a series of questions in my research: How connected are orchestras to their communities? Do they intersect with issues of local relevance? Do they support their communities in times of crisis? As providers of cultural labour, are they strategically building capacity and pipelines that will create a diverse and connected new generation of cultural workers? Do they create work and experiences that reflect the priorities, aspirations and values of their unique communities? So, that was why I wanted to undertake this study, and the current findings have been fascinating, so far.

Looking internationally

I also thought it was important to look outside Australia at what I believe are examples of outstanding cultural leadership. I will be looking at The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, founded by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said, which has taken cultural diplomacy to new levels, bringing together musicians from Israel, Palestine and other regions in the Middle East. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which is unflinchingly addressing the issue of gun-related deaths in their suburbs, commissioning original works set to lyrics written by mothers who have lost children to gun crime as part of their ‘Notes for Peace’ project. The London Symphony Orchestra about its innovative initiatives to distribute instruments and provide music lessons to children in socio-economically challenged suburbs of London. I’ll also look at — arguably — the most renowned example of an orchestral movement that has contributed to huge social change and best represents what true cultural leadership really looks like: The Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra de Venezuela and its world-famous El Sistema method which has inspired and uplifted whole communities of children growing up in the favelas of Latin America.

In researching these icons, I hope to learn more about the principles of cultural leadership and see what lessons can be applied in the development of a new leadership model. I’ll consider what similar programs would look like in an Australian context. How ready are our organisations to undertake leadership of this kind? What else do they need to get them there?

Early findings

To summarise key findings to date, I’ll discuss 10 key points, consisting of 6 observations and 4 overarching themes. Whilst these key points have come out of my research with orchestras, I believe there are resonances across all cultural institutions.

  1. There is currently a major turnover in ​​key leadership roles in Australian cultural institutions.

Leaders are tired — fatigued from the challenges of Covid and the massive efforts that have been exerted to sustain their organisations and rebuild audiences (which is proving to be challenging). There will be some major generational shifts in leadership throughout the cultural sector, not just in orchestras.

2. There is a distinct lack of interconnectedness between the orchestras

I noted a reluctance to discuss challenges, failure, and crises amongst the senior leadership of state orchestras. There is a lot of replication but limited collaboration. Marketing strategies, accounting, philanthropic approaches, programming, education and community work are all areas where there could be greater knowledge and resource sharing — in the way that orchestras currently support each other with library and visa services.

3. When I spoke to the small orchestras in Australia, I found that they are doing amazing cultural leadership work:

It was refreshing to speak to a number of dynamic, smaller ensembles which are leveraging their flexibility to perform innovative programs and tour widely. The smaller groups are taking their leadership roles in their communities very seriously, building deep, lasting and meaningful connections

4. We need to keep, ambitiously creating opportunities for access to the orchestral art form.

The barriers to entry, that I mentioned before, are still there. There is a generation of concert attendees waiting to be engaged with the transformational power of orchestral music, but they have to be developed and nurtured; all the traditional factors that contribute to threshold anxiety need to be consistently broken down.

5. Orchestras need industrial reform

The current industrial structure of state orchestras is connected to the earlier ABC model and places major constraints on orchestras’ capacities to fulfil their offstage obligations. This is where a lot of the vital leadership work takes place: school performances, aged care facility visits and the development of new, collaborative work. Of course, the entitlements and rights of musicians need to be prioritised and protected. Some major negotiations and rethinking of the industrial model need to take place.

6. On the same topic — musicians want more agency:

Musicians are vital stakeholders in orchestras and an incredibly important part of the cultural leadership agenda. The concepts of the ‘portfolio career’ and the gig economy are becoming more relevant to holistic career strategies for orchestral musicians, who often combine formal roles with personal projects, teaching and curating independent practice through other ensembles.

Musicians bring rich skill sets which could add real value to their organisation. The work of the Australian National Academy of Musicians (ANAM) is providing a strong grounding in entrepreneurship skills for early-career musicians. The orchestras have an opportunity to bring this energy into their organisations. At the same time, there is a view that older and retiring musicians are cut loose from the orchestras too abruptly, and their skills and knowledge could be better utilised in other parts of the organisation. Moreover, many musicians want to contribute comprehensively to their orchestras — not just as performers onstage.

Overarching Themes

  1. Artistic direction

Orchestras are considering the need to change their artistic direction and programming strategy. There is a clear indication that the current model, where a chief conductor is based primarily overseas and comes in for — on average — 12 weeks across the year, isn’t creating the conditions for orchestras to really connect their programming to their environments. How can highly localised programs be built with this kind of satellite leadership model?

Alternatively, some musicians emphasised that the idea of employing the “best person for the job” was more important than some kind of artificial mechanism like a quota for Australian conductors (like there is with Australian works). Musicians were keen to be exposed to an international market of talent, both conductors and soloists, but also international touring opportunities.

However, there is a growing appetite, amongst the orchestra leaders, for more Australian Chief Conductors, following the example of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, and currently the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. This is particularly timely, given the several conductor training programs that orchestras are supporting. Currently, the alumni of those programs have limited opportunities to conduct major orchestras in mainstage or core programming.

2. Diversity

Undoubtedly, diversity is firmly on the cultural leadership agenda. Orchestras will need to be increasingly aware of overlaying diversity priorities into their activities, both onstage and off. Diversity is on the immediate agenda of all of the leaders with whom I spoke.

3. Covid

Significantly, orchestras are still redefining themselves and negotiating ways to connect with audiences in the post-Covid era. Possibly a whole cohort of attendees has been lost in the 2 ½ years of the pandemic. Australian cultural institutions may see the same fate as New York’s Metropolitan Opera which never regained full audience capacity following the tragedy of 9/11. Research has shown that when a habit is broken, it is challenging to remake it.

In 2020 Digitisation provided an effective contingency. But 2021 saw challenges bringing audiences back to the concert hall, and also the challenge of monetising digital consumption. Now, the lines between attending concerts online and in person are becoming less clear. It may be that orchestras need to think of audiences, not as one or the other — digital or live. Instead, they may need to consider a new way of audience engagement that factors in multiple ways of consuming concerts, content and experiences.

Also, like the rest of the world, the factors closely associated with Covid: uncertainty, financial strain and a deep sense of fatigue have all made it harder for orchestras, and other performing arts organisations, to rebuild audiences,

The current post-Covid (or ‘living with Covid’) world has set up a series of tensions between conventions that we used to take for granted. We think differently about global versus local, live versus, mobility versus stasis; particularly when this is overlaid with a climate emergency that tells us that international travel needs to be carefully considered and limited, wherever possible. Essentially, post-pandemic thinking is still being worked out and negotiated by orchestras and, indeed by wider society.

4. Social Issues

On the question of social issues — orchestras want to engage. Returning to one of my original observations, where the marriage equality debate of 2017 created a dilemma for some orchestras, now there is a clear understanding and enthusiasm amongst orchestra leaders to actively engage with questions of social change. This is happening, both at a granular, internal level, as well as in their public-facing statements.

What is affecting this? We have a generation of audiences who are upfront and bold about their beliefs on matters of social importance. There is a shift in marketing approaches to be hyper-conscious of Corporate Social Responsibility, and ethical behaviour (performative or genuine) and the ‘authenticity’ movement is a notable characteristic of Gen Z.

The flip side of this is that organisations are feeling pressure to manufacture sets of values, which may or may not have genuine resonance with them. These values may not recognise the diversity and complexity of the organisations and their communities, and risk de-legitimising their capacity to tolerate debate and multiple viewpoints. This could lead to a missed opportunity; an opportunity to intersect with issues and engage with them, seeking to learn, grow and be prepared to change.

A vision of cultural leadership

This leads me to a vision of cultural leadership I hope to realise through my research. A vision where cultural institutions actively become sites of discourse, debate and social progress around issues that affect not just the industry and art form directly, but issues that contribute to the progress and evolution of our society. In this vision, arts organisations embrace their role as facilitators of thought leadership and take a sense of agency in the discussions, rather than being passive, reactive actors whose actions — well-meaning as they may be — could be characterised as knee jerk, or appeasement.

Why is this important? Because if the organisations themselves don’t create the fora for discussion they lose control and agency in the debate — they become passive vessels where decisions are made for them by others- and, almost worse still, they operate mainly in a reactive mode. By embracing cultural leadership they claim a share of social power: they build and maintain a degree of influence in society, rather than relinquish all power to other institutions like the media, or the cacophony of partially informed public commentary; or act at the behest of funding stakeholders, public and private.

The chilling reality is that if organisations don’t step up to embrace cultural leadership there is a real risk that social change is determined by people like Elon Musk, who recently said:

“Twitter can form an incredibly valuable service to the world and be the public town square,”… noting it should be a “battleground of ideas” where debate could “take the place of violence in a lot of cases.”

Words like ‘battleground’ and ‘violence’ are not the domain of culture. In my view, cultural exchange is about enrichment, learning, processing, and making meaning of complex worlds and concepts. What is happening at Twitter right now is the antithesis of the kind of cultural leadership being proposed in this research. Musk’s Twitter is a fragmented, divisive media platform, projecting creates a false impression of unachievable democracy (fast becoming autocracy), when in fact it is driven by toxic power structures, legitimising extreme and binary viewpoints.

Think about that in comparison with the world of culture. Cultural leadership can provide a space of co-creation, discourse, genuine learning, and debate — not necessarily consensus — but, at the very least, a chance for a shared understanding of alternative viewpoints.

And what better time than now for a new vision of ​​cultural leadership? Applying this paradigm to the idea of embracing social change in our organisations, we have an opportunity to engage deeply, respectfully, meaningfully and proactively. Not rushed, out of fear, shame and lack of proper understanding. This only results in responses that are gestural, overcompensatory and lack any kind of genuine cultural significance.

Why not look at how we bring diversity into our organisations by acknowledging the deficiencies and gaps, inviting all communities into discussion and using these discussions to activate our innate creativity and collaborativeness to find solutions? I know this is happening in many organisations. But, to me, it needs to be the foundation of the engagement approach.

Genuine cultural leadership can be an incredible force for good in the context of the challenges of today’s complex world. It can bring communities together, enabling acceptance, and understanding — transcending ill-informed bigotry, hatred, and narrow thinking; the kind of views that have been enabled to run rampant on Twitter since the Musk takeover.

If cultural leadership can scaffold metaphoric arenas throughout society where diverse communities, opinions and sub-cultures can genuinely interact, learn from, and enrich each other, we are inherently making the world a better place. Similarly, if we can continue to find great lessons by both creating bold, collaborative new work as well as reinterpreting and reimagining the cultural texts and artefacts which have formed our canons — rather than misguidedly discarding or cancelling them — the capacity for acceptance and learning is infinite.

That, to me, is what cultural leadership is about.

Changing the purpose narrative

And what does this mean for orchestras? In the words of the CEO of one of the major orchestras, we need to change our purpose narrative.

It is my belief that this moment in our history provides a relevant and timely opportunity for orchestras to embrace this concept of cultural leadership in a new, bold and proactive way. To ambitiously leverage the power of their art form to deepen engagement with their environments, to become powerful civic actors — enhancing the fabric of their environments. I believe orchestras have an opportunity to drive meaningful social change. They can become essential to their societies — not a cultural luxury that only entertains a small, exclusive and elite percentage of their populations.

To conclude, I’ll return to the original questions that I posed earlier. What does cultural leadership mean to you — as an individual? What does cultural leadership mean to an organisation — your organisation?

Samuel Cairnduff is completing a PhD at Deakin University and teaches at Melbourne University in the School of Culture and Communication and Monash University in the School of Creative and Cultural Industries.