Interview – professor Ruth Rentschler

Peter Hanke har mødt den australske professor Ruth Rentschler, der var på besøg i Danmark i marts 2018, inviteret af Danske Kulturbestyrelser. Rentschler underviser på University of South Australia i Adelaide og er globalt anerkendt som en førende forsker indenfor arts management og cultural governance.

En samtale om kulturlivets aktuelle udfordringer og sammenhængen mellem lederskabet og kulturinstitutionernes behov, nødvendigheden af lederskab som teamwork, og hvordan forskning i kulturledelse øver indflydelse på management generelt.

PH: What do you see as the biggest challenge for the arts and the arts’ organisations of today?

RR: – Arts leaders will say their biggest challenge is money. Lack of money, of course. But the problem is that it is not always money – it’s about the way of thinking.
This connects with what you say about leadership. It is not a wise strategy going bleating to the government to get funding. If you bleat you’re not going to change anything, or indeed excite people to give.
No, arts leaders need to offer people something. They need to look at leadership in a new way, in a way that means people will come and join them on their journey. That is the main problem for arts leaders today – they need to change their thinking. But they are still in the process of shifting their thinking on this key issue. After all, governments are not increasing their funding for the arts but reducing it.

– This is especially true after the global financial crisis. If they shift their thinking they are going to obtain what they want, which is money. But the other big challenge they are facing – need of money – is that they need to create a set of values that those who give can lock into, so that the givers feel like they are part of the journey of discovery and creativity that is jointly being created. But it must come in that order. And it must be sincere.

Searching for what creates value rather than focus on spending money wisely?

– That’s right. How you create value for the community you serve, the organisation you are responsible for; the work of the artists. How you are contributing to society. Some are making this connection very well, but not everybody.

You have been talking about the governance of the arts at the conference in Aarhus.
– How do you see the relationship between the manager and the board. Is there a need for formal hierarchy? – and a practical one between hands on and strategy?

– There should be a symbiotic relationship between the Executive duo (CEO and Artistic Director in the performing arts) and the board, especially the Chair of the Board. The Board as the legal body, providing insight, oversight and foresight for the organisation. Board directors are in charge collectively as well as individually. But effectively if you are not going to work well with the Executive duo, you are not going to achieve what you want overall. It has to be a partnership model, of course. There has been a large shift over the last 15 years where boards themselves have been professionalised – they used to be much more of a Kaffee Klatsch (coffee club), where people sat down and chatted among friends like fans of the organisational founder. We need to move beyond the point of the founder aesthetic and look at that bigger vision. Be strategic but guide in operations if asked to do so by the Executive duo.

– The shift that is going on is bringing in complimentary skills rather than boards that were dominated by social skills. Now you are looking for people diversity in skills, capabilities and networks. You might want one person with experience as a lawyer, one with accounting skills, marketing, financial skills etc. You may want another person who opens doors to government. This diverse skills set has even been codified in the Australia Council for the Arts, the federal government’s arts funding and advisory body. Being a national agency, their guidelines state that you need diversity in gender, geographically and ethnicity, but also in skills set, ensuring that you have the oversight needed for a complex arts organisation.

– And getting that into the overall leadership vision is important. The funders don’t look at the single project or individual in the institution but are aiming for long term sustainability. In fact, the latest thinking on funding is that funders are not looking to fund projects but organisations whose governance, leadership and values demonstrate that the are sustainable.- I’ve observed Circus Oz over the last few years. They have blossomed under the leadership of Chair Wendy McCarthy, who has built the organisation, taking it from an old building to a new, purpose-built redevelopment of an old warehouse in inner, urban Melbourne. She earned the trust of the government of the day to provide millions for the redevelopment; oversaw the successful build and relocation without overspending or going broke. This is a significant achievement as moving to new premises is a pressure point for an arts organisation that can lead to organisational collapse. This can be due to lack of planning for the move with its unexpectedly high overheads, construction costs, and disruption to standard operating. McCarthy was careful to take advice from expert whom she seconded to the board to help with the transition. With executive agreement, the board undertook to support them by handling some management functions in areas where the organisation could not afford to appoint a paid staff member.

In Scandinavia we have a tendency to build a public institution around any art form to survive and last. But in the last decade the bureaucracy and control mechanisms have grown a lot.
– How institutionalised must the arts be to work well? Is the entrepreneurial spirit going up or down today?

– On the one hand there is an increased institutionalisation, partly that’s been necessary because art institutions are getting bigger, more complex and thus need more formalised leadership, management and governance. And when you become bigger and more complex, you have to have strategy and structure, and in that order, to drive the organisation forward. But of course, too much structure and order can kill creativity and destroy the entrepreneurial spirit that you are looking for. Reaching a balance is very important.

– Many of the Australian art organisations are a part of the bureaucracy in the public sector. Like job positions that are for life – or at least as long as the institution exists. Yes, they can be quite bureaucratic and managing them takes a particular skill in an executive leader or board director, and not all of them have these skills.

– I have seen this being done really well in the National Gallery of Victoria with a really creative director, Tony Ellwood. The building is full of people. Usually galleries are fairly elite and predominantly dominated by white upper middle class people. But not this gallery. Ellwood really has got the spark and the sparkle as well as the balance between the elite needs of arts lovers and the open, accessible, fun entertainment side of his ‘business’. Surrounded by the right curators, stage directors, digital developers and others from both inside and outside the museum profession, he has built a diverse team in all senses: skills; networks; and team work. And people are coming with him on that journey for an exceptional experience.

– Of course, there is the difference in types of institutions. For example, festivals like the Adelaide Festival  illustrates that there are loads of short term employment opportunities when the festival is presented, but only a small group have permanent on-going positions. And even they might only be there for, say, three years, as they are likely to be on a contract. It represents a challenge for the organisation. This is a challenge that art galleries and museums do not face. So different arts organisations have different leadership needs due to their differing employment conditions.

There are normally two strategies for an institution to cope with this; the most common is having a charismatic, not necessarily financially skilled person side by side with some more dry administrator.
– Is it a good idea to give a creative artistic director an “overcoat”?

– This one is a good model. The last leader of the Art Gallery of New South Wales was a flamboyant impresario type, even wearing different coloured socks, one being pink and the other green, for example, which became such a brand that they sold them in the gallery shop! His leadership style was closely linked with the gallery. While he professed to be an impresario (not using that word; that is my word), he ran a tight ship – very successful gallery.

– Back to the National Gallery of Victoria – a director from the 1980s admitted privately that he couldn’t read a balance sheet. He was also a flamboyant director, articulate, with a strong aesthetic but also a strong change agent. He was smart enough to get a very, very astute, detail minded financial deputy gallery manager to do all that. This insight enabled him to work around his strengths and weaknesses. The problem occurs when the leaders don’t know their limitations.

But what happens if the board or funding bodies don’t trust the “impresario” enough?

– My personal view, if you had a sensible impresario, probably the person with the ideas should be in charge and have the 2nd in charge running the financial operations, because leadership is about ideas, I would argue. But this can only work if the impresario has insight – if they don’t it’s a disaster. And we have all seen that.

OK – here’s a tricky question then. Looking at this effect from an overall perspective: Is it worth that an arts community taking the risk of having a few impresarios too many rather than playing safe and getting an accountant’s leadership culture? And accepting a few “disasters”…?

– Well, there are a lot of complaints in Australia about the arts becoming corporatised and managerialist, and we have seen boards being taken over by lawyers and accountants, and there is quiet a lot disquiet about that. But, I see the boards operate much, much better than they did in the past. I see it as a general rule that you don’t want more than one artist on the board, and generally what I see is when artists are on the board they are unhappy.

– Because governance is not really about the arts. The artistic director should be doing the creative and artistic stuff. They should certainly bring their suggestions and programs to the board to make sure they fit with the mission and also can be afforded. It is a myth that the non-artists on the board should be dry and dull as ditchwater, but they have a different role. Insight and foresight, empowering the executives to do what they are supposed to do!

– I’ve just joined the board of Australian Dance Theatre in Adelaide, an international touring contemporary dance company. Here, there is a combination of an impresario and a general manager. It is a very dynamic organisation and we are very fortunate to have an excellent board, a good and skilful mix, as we also have some people on it with a strong understanding of performing arts and dance in particular.

– But, at our executive level we have a very able general manager and one of the best artistic directors in the world. And fortunately, neither of them has a big ego…! They have got insight into themselves, insight into what the organisation needs and each recognises they need the other. They work symbiotically in a very good partnership, boosting the organisation as it seeks to achieve its creative and social mission.

– The organisation is growing and even creating a new dance festival and hiring out their new premises in an inner-urban theatre to other groups. Thus, they have found a means of bringing in additional income, even while paying the overheads of the theatre (which is rented). The theatre promotes the brand; is hired out to traditional theatres; is used for dance classes. It is a good example of the overall symbiotic relationship between board, directors and organisation where no individual alone can take the credit or create the success. Nor do they. Led by a great chair on the board, and an outstanding executive duo, ADT works as a cohesive team.

So, no heroic leader character has struggled this fight on his own…?

– Yes, I think the leader as hero is a bygone phenomenon. It is all about teams.
This is what the museums and galleries have learned, as it is no longer the “lone curator” as a working leadership model. The power used to be with that lone curator, true, but now the curator is working with the management, set designers, stage producers, multi media producers an so on. It is now how to accomplish tasks as a team, doing things that they couldn’t do independently.

Should organisations now advertise for leadership teams when they have vacant positions – like the Executive Duo you mentioned earlier?

– In one sense, I think they should. You do need a team – I’m thinking of my own university’s School of Management, with a hundred staff. I need a team, as I couldn’t do it on my own. Everyone needs people who have different skills, different strengths and diverse backgrounds. It is not unique to the arts. Diversity brings new ideas. It can also be harder to manage but it is worth it for the added richness it brings to the table.

– In the research I have undertaken on arts leaders, there are different types who lead in different ways. I position them on a two-by-two matrix with the axes of funding diversity and creative programming, each of which can be high or low, depending on whether the arts leaders bring in funding from different sources or not; and whether they program creative activities or not.

– There are thus four different roles based on the different vectors in the matrix: entrepreneurial arts leader who brings lots of money from diverse sources and programs lots of creative exhibitions, performing arts, multimedia or whatever it might be; caretaker leader who is at the other extreme and neither brings in money nor programs creatively; impresario who has many creative ideas but cannot raise the funds to support them; and managerialist who is brings in lots of money but is more conservative on programming.

– The entrepreneurial arts leader and the managerialist lead viable arts organisations, with the entrepreneurial arts leader having a more vital and vibrant organisation than the managerialist, due to the creativity of the programming as well as the diversity of funding that they bring it. The impresario has their head full of ideas but can’t realise them unless they partner with a managerialist or entrepreneurial arts leader who can fund their ideas. The custodian is in a lot of trouble, simply waiting for doomsday to arrive as they are not committed to being a contemporary arts leader but rather prefer the old-fashioned, internally-focused custodian role that traditional arts administrators (rather than leaders) undertook. Here the role is focused on preservation and collection to the exclusion of exhibition and access, to use a museum example. The matrix is illustrated here:

In the arts management course in University of Copenhagen and we have been quite inspired by your analysis of the role variance – viability vs. vitality and the matrix of roles among art managers.
– How have your theories unfolded after 14 years?

– Luckily, they are still alive, and I have seen the terms showing up in arts newsletters and other arts management programs. The concepts have also enriched the academic literature. The ideas have diffused into practise and policy and not only among scholars, that is quite nice.


Why is this special for the arts, and not just for leadership in general?

– Look, I don’t think the arts are special! That’s an argument I have with my students a lot. I also asked them, how many artists should be on the board when we did the section on boards, and they all think that the boards should be dominated by artists. It’s more about creating critical thinking in leadership in general and arts management in particular.

– And I see many of the arts management programs around the world now taking these steps forward to understand the needs much better.

In what way are the Arts having impact on other fields of business research and teaching?

– The arts have impacted on other fields of business research and teaching in a number of ways, but it is probably patchy.
Some of the great writers like Henry Mintzberg – his then wife was a potter – used the potter’s craft as a means of describing strategy in an interesting paper comparing the work at the potter’s wheel with how you craft strategy. Crafting strategy was seen to be moulded like clay, taking shape under the hands of a craftsperson. Peter Drucker, another great management thinker said that a manager is like a conductor of an orchestra. But the manager doesn’t have a score and therefore has a more difficult task than a conductor. These are just some of many metaphors existing in the management and leadership writings on how the arts have impacted management, but strong enough to describe something complex that is occurring in business.

– We can see also that business is influencing the arts in a practical sense. Bell Shakespeare is a good example. John Bell, the founder, set up a theatre company in Sydney, Australia, but faced the fact that no government wanted to support it, and he had to be very entrepreneurial in his way of funding the company. Of course, there is ticketing that raises revenue, but he had to look for something else to fill the ‘income gap’. The ‘something else’ he came up with was to use Shakespearean characters as good or bad leaders as a means of teaching corporate managers and leaders about leadership. Here, he is using the metaphor of leadership as performance art.
Further than this, there are some tracks in general academic business journals, where special issues have an emphasis on art and artistic methods or settings. This is new; it has only been happening for the last few years. The arts actually have a voice in academic research and in a more general business scholarly audience.

Where is this new trend going in business strategy and research?

– The Journal of Business Research had a call for a special issue on value creation and the arts. I was fortunate enough to publish an article with my co-authors ( We used the Islamic Museum of Australia as a case study to examine how they co-created value through their artistic activities and events.

– I am now working with another project team on how men and women on arts boards demonstrate gender and ethnic diversity on one level but not at another level (see ). It sounds like a paradox and it is in one sense of how we read it. On the surface they are much more diverse than corporate boards but when you look underneath the surface their values are similar to those of other board directors. This is not really surprising as this is how they came to be accepted as part of the governance team in the first place.