guest post: the future of arts leadership / natalie ibu

Our Artistic Director — Natalie Ibu — was invited to be on The Future of Arts Leadership panel discussion with Kwame Kwei-Armah and Jenny Sealey chaired by Matt Trueman at Derby Theatre, as part of their Departure Lounge Festival 2018. She delivered this provocation:

“I feel like I spend a lot of time thinking and talking about leadership.

Partly because I’m almost four years into my very first Artistic Director role — the first role where the buck stops at me — and feeling humbled almost daily by the things I didn’t know I didn’t know or where the role of leader changes shape and texture and seems to grow and grow and grow — all caught under the line “carry out such responsibilities as the Board of Management may reasonably require within the remit of the Artistic Director” in my job description.

And, partly because I’ve been leading the Sustain Theatre funded Artistic Director Leadership Programme and have the privilege of leading a consortium in delivering leadership training (that’s a lot of leading) for 28 emerging — that word, shudder — leaders of colour. That programme is all about changing the face of leadership whilst trying to disconnect the subconscious — or is it unconscious — connotation between people of colour and risk and inexperience.

And partly because I knew I wanted to be artistic director at 17 — I know, it’s weird, because who knows what that even means at 17? But that’s why I went to De Montfort University to study — very specifically — theatre with arts management. That’s why when I went to clear out my childhood bedroom last year and found all my university books, I thought — wow, if that isn’t a library representation of the job I do today then I don’t know what is. So clearly I knew. And the 13 years it took me to achieve the title, was 13 years trying to prove I could do it by doing a whole variety of other theatre jobs that didn’t share the job title — Trainee Director, Marketing and Press Assistant, Assistant Director, Director, Dramaturg, Associate Director, Programme Manager, Producer, Creative Producer — here, in fact.

So, I think a lot about why artistic directorship feels like the senior rung of the director career ladder. Of course, directing and artistic leadership share some qualities but being a good director doesn’t automatically make you a good leader. What might it look like if the journey to artistic directorship was something you could train / develop separate to the directing discipline? What might those steps be — what’s the equivalent of trainee director, assistant director or associate director for the leadership track?

That was a lot, huh. So, what is it I’m thinking about:

  • I’m thinking about — what does leadership look like?
  • I’m thinking about — new models of theatre leadership, what would the sector look like if buildings were run by stage managers, led by lighting designers, chaired by choreographers?
  • I’m thinking about the difference between leadership and management?
  • I’m thinking about what would happen if we simply started again — if we recruited for the most senior role of every theatre NPO again — and what the sector might look and feel like as a result?

So you set me a provocation and I’ve given you some back. This feels like a really great opportunity, a gift, to be able think about some of those ideas and others about leadership — about the who, the what, the why, the how — with you all here and now.”


natalie ibu is the Artistic Director & CEO of tiata fahodzi.

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