Tarek Iskander begins as artistic director of Battersea Arts Centre in May

Sector wises up to benefits of hiring all-round leaders

Geraldine Kendall Adams, Issue 119/02, 01.02.2019
The wave of people being appointed to the top jobs at museums, galleries and heritage institutions has a broader range of skills than their predecessors – and some were late arrivals to the sector. But lack of diversity is still an issue. By Geraldine Kendall Adams  
A changing of the guard has been taking place in the museum and heritage sector over the past few years. Ever since Neil MacGregor stepped down as director of the British Museum in 2015, there has been a flood of new names and faces moving to the top of the UK’s national and regional museums and galleries. 

This month, Luke Syson is due to start as director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, after previous roles at the Met Museum in New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London. Meanwhile, Rhian Harris is about to step into the role of director of the Lakeland Arts in Cumbria – a big change of scene to her previous role as director of the V&A Museum of Childhood in east London. 

After spending several years as the chief executive at the Cheltenham Trust, Julie Finch is due to begin soon as the director of Compton Verney Art Gallery in Warwickshire, while her husband Jon Finch recently started out as head of culture at Bristol City Council, a similar role to one that Julie herself held a few years ago, when she was head of Bristol’s museums.

And in May, Tarek Iskander – a theatre director who worked in the NHS before changing career in his thirties – will become the artistic director of Battersea Arts Centre in south London, which runs the Moving Museum. 

Other recent appointments include Laura Pye, who was Finch’s predecessor at Bristol City Council until she became director of National Museums Liverpool (NML) last year; Judith McNicol, who became the first female director of York’s National Railway Museum (NRM) last year; and Alistair Hudson, who took over from Maria Balshaw as director of Manchester Art Gallery and the Whitworth in 2017.  
New faces

Several regional art galleries have welcomed new faces at a senior level in recent years, including Joe Hill at Eastbourne’s Towner Art Gallery, Sharna Jackson at Sheffield’s Site Gallery, Sam Thorne at Nottingham Contemporary, and Laura Sillars, who replaced Hudson at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art last year. 

There have also been changes at museum and heritage stakeholder organisations: Hilary McGrady took over as the National Trust’s director-general last year, while Lucy Casot became the chief executive of Museums Galleries Scotland last month, after 14 years at the Heritage Lottery Fund. 

So what distinguishes this new generation of leaders from their predecessors? “We’re the first generation to focus on the user,” says Rhian Harris. “That’s been a real shift. We place the user at the centre of the experience, rather than the object being king. It’s about being with audiences, rather than for them.” 

She believes the seeds of this transformation in audience engagement were sown during the Thatcher years, just as her generation was entering the sector, when museums started being more accountable to their audiences as a somewhat unintended consequence of being asked to prove their economic worth. 

“Another important shift is that museums are becoming more experience-led,” adds Harris. “Museum visitors want to be much more engaged with cultural experiences – there’s a fatigue with the virtual world.”

Museums have also had to become more commercial and financially sustainable over the past decade as a result of austerity, meaning leadership is being drawn from a broader pool. 

“We’ve moved from specialisms to more general people who are expected to have other skills,” says Harris. “We’re more entrepreneurial, we’re skilled fundraisers – it’s about being a jack of all trades. We’re not just from a curatorial background any more.”

Harris herself entered the sector through a traditional route, studying history of art at university before becoming a research assistant at the Wellcome Trust. But she received a crash course in the diverse range of skills required of today’s leaders when she joined the Thomas Coram Foundation at the age of 28. 

“I had the rare opportunity of creating a museum from scratch,” she says, after being tasked with saving the charity’s Foundling Hospital collection and putting it on display in what became the Foundling Museum. “I was ordering the loo paper as well as documenting the collection.”

All-round leaders

Coming from a non-museum background, the NRM’s McNicol embodies this new type of all-round leader. She studied business and worked in engineering, training and development in the commercial sector, before joining the museum as head of commercial development in 2004. 

“It’s important that leaders have the skills and awareness to find a balance between future-proofing the museum and meeting the needs of visitors and the collection,” she says. 

McNicol has taken up the role just as the NRM is undergoing a £50m masterplan. “An ability to deliver big projects is increasingly in demand,” she says of today’s leaders.
Although they may be more business-minded, many in the new cohort of leaders are also keenly aware of the social role of museums and culture. Reflected in policies such as the Museums Association’s (MA) Museums Change Lives campaign, the past decade has seen a greater focus on how museums can develop socially engaged practice that contributes to agendas such as health and wellbeing, placemaking and economic regeneration. 

“Museums have the power to help people explore their identity, improve wellbeing and develop a sense of place, and we have to use the collection in our care to do all of that,” says NML’s Laura Pye, who adds that seeing the “difference museums can make to people’s lives” is her inspiration for working in the sector.

She “fell into museum work” after doing a placement at Liverpool Museum – now the World Museum – as part of a history degree. Being the first of her family and friends to work in the arts, Pye says class was a barrier for her. 

“I still have my scouse accent, although my brother doesn’t think so,” she says. Now back in her home city, Pye says her main focus at NML will be “to ensure we’re representative of our communities, in terms of our audiences, staffing and what is on display”.  

Representative of society?

But is the sector’s leadership representative of society? Diversity has been a sticking point in the culture sector for years, and although progress has been made in improving the gender balance at senior levels, people from black, Asian or minority ethnic or socially disadvantaged backgrounds, and those with disabilities, are significantly underrepresented. 

“Things have really improved,” says Battersea Arts Centre’s Tarek Iskander. “We need to give credit and respect to the many people who have worked tirelessly at every level to enable that to happen. But there is patently so much more to do and we can’t take our foot off the pedal just yet. And we have still only made progress in terms of ‘visible’ types of diversity. Working on the ‘invisible’ barriers – for example, socioeconomic, educational or in terms of mental health – is the new frontier.” 

Sector diversity

Professional networks such as Museum Detox and Museum as Muck have been doing vital work in this area, but the lack of diversity at leadership level is a deep, structural problem. 

However, some policy-makers are making targeted efforts to address it. Last month, Arts Council England launched Transforming Leadership, a £6m fund that will support leadership development programmes in England, with the specific aim of improving diversity.

With an evaluation period that runs much longer than usual – until 2026 – the fund aims to support “much bigger-impact, bigger-reach, long-term stuff”, according to Helen Parrott, the arts council’s senior manager of skills and workforce. 

The fund aims to test out innovative ways of nurturing leadership. Parrott cites the MA’s recent Mentoring for All pilot scheme, which tried out a more inclusive model of mentoring, as an example of a new way of working that could help develop a more diverse leadership. 

In addition to improving diversity, the fund aims to address skills gaps in the sector. But what new skills do museum leaders need? An ability to “manage and mitigate risk” is vital for today’s leaders, says McNicol. “We live in uncertain times and leaders need to be able to adapt their approach to risk and to try new things, as well as considering income, new collaborations and visitors.”

“Digital skills are also massively moving up the agenda,” says Parrott. It’s not clear whether today’s emerging leaders – probably the last generation able to remember life before the digital revolution – are entirely at ease with this yet.

“The world will likely change fast in the next decade in terms of artificial intelligence and the way information is shared and data used, so [we] will need to be comfortable in adapting to and shaping the world,” says Iskander.

“The new generation of cultural leaders will have to be good at setting the agenda, otherwise seismic social changes could easily overtake them.”

What had the biggest impact on your career?
Tarek Iskander

Wonderful individuals who, at various critical points in my career, just said “yes”. Taking a risk on someone and giving them unconditional trust when they are at a vulnerable phase, even if you don’t know them well, is the greatest gift you can offer someone trying to break through. I feel my biggest responsibility now is to be that “yes” person to as many people as possible.

Judith McNicol

The realisation that you can do anything that you put your mind to. I was told, by someone I hugely respected, that the only thing holding me back was myself. 

Laura Pye

I have been lucky to have had some great training and leadership courses at key times. I did a course called Raising Stars early on in my career and then the Clore Leadership short course. More recently, I completed the Museums and Resilience Leadership. Each turned out to be just what I needed at the time, and I still refer to things I learned from them today.