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“Cultural leaders are made, not born” – a manifesto for arts education

Published 15 November 2018

The director of the RA’s new Master in Cultural Leadership programme argues for a new approach in postgraduate education.

  • From the Winter 2018 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Through its Charter, the Royal Academy is tasked with supporting and promoting the visual arts, artists and their place in society. It does so by training those who will be part of the next generation, by providing a platform for discussion and debate and by exhibiting world-class art. Part of this work includes a new Masters programme with the core mission to foster leaders who can have a profound and positive impact on society and culture in a way that is sustainable, ethical and far-sighted.

    If we think of the art world as a value chain, then first we need to understand it from the place where art begins – where the kernels of ideas are generated and explored, where we can make mistakes, play, experiment and grow. This might take place at home, at school and, later, in the studio, but art starts here long before people buy, trade and sell; it starts with our first experience of looking and seeing.

    The journey artists and their artworks then take involves many links – of organisations and institutions – in a complex chain of interlocking activities. As American sociologist Howard Becker argued 35 years ago in his seminal study Art Worlds, we have to move away from the romantic notion of the artist as a lone genius, towards a more sophisticated understanding of the collective action that is required to shape artistic activity. We need to extend our view of the world to include individuals and institutions that enable creation; that facilitate interaction and debate; that disseminate ideas and preserve our shared cultural heritage. These schools, organisations and institutions need leaders to inspire them. But who are they and what should they be like?

    Earlier this year, at the Art Leaders Network Conference organised by The New York Times, I was the discussion leader at a roundtable on “What is cultural leadership and why does it matter?” Participants, all key players in the art world, were asked to consider the qualities of a cultural leader. Interestingly, the picture that emerged was a far cry from the stereotypical leader concerned with dominance, power and profit. The key words the participants came up with were: “inspirational”, “compelling”, “open”, “trustworthy” and “intellectually curious”. They described someone who is informed by an understanding of diverse people and perspectives, who is inherently diplomatic and who can navigate the uncertainty of our fragile times.

    The goal of the Executive Master in Cultural Leadership programme at the Royal Academy is to foster such individuals. At its heart is the belief that these leaders are made – not born – through education, inspiration, practice and opportunity. It asks people to reflect on their place in the world and positively shape their landscape to create sustainable and supportive environments for artists and cultural producers – organisations that don’t exploit art for profit, but instead understand value-creation in a more multi-faceted way that empowers artists and is sympathetic to their way of working.

    This will inevitably require a new way of thinking that doesn’t perpetuate established paradigms but, in the greatest traditions of the arts, challenges and questions them. Such a programme sits comfortably alongside the avant-garde traditions of the arts as disruptors, while recognising its duty to reflect the times. Grounded in expertise and scholarship but also immediate and relevant, it should offer a shared and exciting experience which requires dedication and collaboration, improvisation and a sense of fun. I hope this approach to education will inspire a new generation of exceptional leaders.

  • Anna M Dempster is Head of Academic programmes and Director of the Executive Masters in Cultural Leadership at the Royal Academy. She is also College Research Associate at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge.

    The Executive Master in Cultural Leadership welcomes applicants for January 2019.