The conversation

David Lockwood, Issue 116/01, p17, 01.01.2016
What are the challenges facing the leaders of arts organisations?

Kully Thiarai is the director of the Cast theatre in Doncaster
David Lockwood is the director of the Bike Shed Theatre, Exeter

Dear Kully:
My overarching challenge is how to move from an operational level to a strategic one. When I co-founded Bike Shed five years ago, I was called on to help out everywhere – even to sweep the steps. Now, my time is probably more valuably used elsewhere. Resisting the temptation to get stuck in is hard. On a more practical level, I’ve enjoyed a challenging conversation about how we best communicate our offer on a redesigned website. We’re keen to create the informal melting pot of our bar pre-performance on our website – a sort of mind dump, news page. It’s not clear yet.
Best wishes, David

Dear David: The challenge for me is one of trying to work out what, of all the urgent things I have to do, I should do. It seems the deluge of emails, the demands of running a building, managing people and trying to remain creative as an artist can sometimes leave you feeling inadequate and exhausted. I find myself flitting from one thing to another, trying to keep as many plates spinning as possible, for as long as possible. It’s virtually impossible to stop, take a breath and consider carefully – what next and why?
Best wishes, Kully

Dear Kully: There’s the flip side of doing lots of “grand-vision thinking” and missing the day-to-day. I’m aware of having big plans – the new building, a city-wide festival – and losing sight of our primary task of making theatre and inviting an audience to see it. I envy you still finding the time to be an artist. Beyond personal fulfilment, you get no better sense of your organisation’s purpose than being in a rehearsal room or auditorium, though this may not translate from theatres to museums.
Best wishes, David

Dear David: While there is perhaps a more direct relationship with the public in theatres than museums, the leadership challenge is similar. How do you make the venue relevant, inclusive, responsive and engaged with the people and place in which it is located? How do you make it matter? Real and meaningful connections with audiences require time; you have to be visible and open for conversation, which isn’t always easy, particularly given all the other demands on you as a leader. A direct face-to-face exchange with your audiences, even if it’s for only few minutes, is invaluable and can offer great insight.
Best wishes, Kully

Dear Kully: Which brings us back to time. And the balance of relationships. I was recently asked when a community becomes a clique. This feels especially relevant to the Bike Shed, due to its modest size, but any group has a tendency to create an echo chamber. So it’s important to get out, listen to other voices and develop new relationships, while simultaneously strengthening the connection with loyal supporters. Empowering others to also develop those relationships – both new and existing – seems the best way around the time pressures. At least, that’s what I think at the moment. I’m still learning. Best wishes, David

Dear David: Empowering others is a key leadership skill, and it requires humility and strategy. Doesn’t it come down to what we value, how open we remain to learning and how prepared we are to listen? The technological revolution is only just beginning and our ability as artists and curators to adapt and flex to new ideas and ways of working is critical. We must always remain alert to learning and understand that sometimes the best propositions come from the most unexpected places. We have to make space for the “random” thing that no one will expect but will change everything.
Best wishes, Kully