Graham Henderson (OCL 2015): "My OCL Leadership Journey"

I was delighted to be selected as part of the first cohort of the Oxford Cultural Leaders (OCL) programme in 2015. I came from a rather different background from most of my colleagues. Many of them were in senior leadership roles at large national museums or cultural organisations, and the course provided them with an opportunity to refresh their practice and to gain perspective on the way their own organisations operated. There were many areas of shared interest with my OCL peer group, but to some extent I was approaching these from a completely different direction. Although previously a city lawyer, I had spent the last 12 years working as a cultural entrepreneur. Rather than dealing with the problems facing an established museum or historic gallery, I had been wrestling with the challenges of founding a new arts organisation and growing it from scratch into a sustainable and successful brand.  When I took over Poet in the City in 2003 it was a charitable fund-raising project for the Poetry Society, which had no separate legal existence. I realised that, as an independent arts organisation, it had the potential to create large new audiences for poetry as an art form, and to attract sponsorship and earned income from a range of new sources. Launching Poet in the City as a separate charity in 2006 I oversaw its development from an entirely on-paper project into one of the UK’s leading arts organisations and (from 2010) a member of the Arts Council England National Portfolio.  

When I passed over the organisation to my successor in 2014 it was programming 50 live events per year, had a membership of over 10,000 people, an office in Kings Place, a permanent staff of 3, and a community of over 350 volunteers. It had attracted significant new arts sponsorships to poetry, including major partnerships with HSBC, Lloyd’s of London, Lloyds TSB, and Wellcome Trust. By 2014 it was also covering the costs of its events programme from ticket sales and generating significant earned income from other activities, including an innovative public art consultancy. Through all this my constant challenge had been not cultural change but implementing my vision, professionalising the organisation’s activities, and laying down strong foundations for its future growth. Always close to my mind on the OCL course was the question of how you took the very best practice from within the cultural and business sectors and applied it in an effective way to small or medium-sized arts enterprises (SMEs). 

This remains a strong area of interest for me. I continue to believe that the OCL programme benefits from a diversity of participants, and that SME leaders are amongst those who can benefit most from the opportunity to work and learn with colleagues from larger and better-funded organisations such as national museums. Although the cost of the OCL programme is very reasonable, it still poses an obstacle to cultural entrepreneurs who are often not being paid a living wage, and who are struggling just to get their organisation off the ground. Perhaps it is only in the cultural sector that you find an already publicly successful arts leader whose Board is unable to find a relatively modest sum to invest in learning and development for its senior management. However, this is certainly the case with many of the individuals who are members of my own Culturepreneurs’ network, some of whom I have actively encouraged to apply for the OCL programme in 2019. I  think that it is in a vibrant ecosystem for cultural entrepreneurship and for arts and cultural start-ups that the future health of the whole sector lies. Even the largest museum brand was once a start-up, and one of the great things about OCL is its capacity to foster the prosperity of the sector by encouraging new leadership and innovation.

When I applied to be part of the first cohort in 2015, I had already become CEO of the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation (R&V), a new arts start-up which I had incubated within Poet in the City since 2011. This arose out of the legacy gift of the Regency property at No 8 Royal College Street in Camden, home in 1873 to the celebrated French poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine. To take advantage of this gift I launched R&V as a separate arts organisation and charity in 2014, with an entirely new Board. We were determined that R&V should not be just a small house museum. Instead the strategy has been to develop it as a new kind of arts organisation, with a much greater emphasis on earned income, the exploitation of IP rights, and the development of new sources of earned income. 

In my application to OCL my focus was therefore on good corporate governance and on the further diversification of income streams. For me OCL came at just the right moment, giving me a much-needed opportunity to think about my previous experience of leadership in the arts, and about how a new start-up should position itself at a time of very rapid change in terms of technology, audience development and the overall funding environment. The involvement in the OCL programme of colleagues from the Saїd Business School was particularly attractive to me, ensuring that experience from the cultural sector was combined in interesting ways with the latest business thinking. I think that it is this tension between different approaches that contributes most to innovation in the cultural sector and is one of the secrets to the success of OCL. Indeed, in my view the arts and business sectors have much to learn from each other. 

In my case, the experience of OCL made a great contribution to my efforts to develop R&V as a new kind of arts organisation. The programme gave me the confidence to think in new ways about the purpose and function of an arts organisation, how it should be funded, and its wider importance to the health of a thriving society. Over the course of 2016 and 2017 R&V developed a detailed business plan for new investment in the arts, based on a limited (or capped) profit model, a proposition which I believe offers an exciting new way to encourage innovation and dynamism in the cultural sector at a time when traditional sources of grant-funding are drying up. This ‘patient capital’ investment model provides a way for the sector to transform its financial resilience, to earn income from its IP, to become a rich content provider, and a driving force in the knowledge economy. Connections made through OCL also helped me to develop a new kind of mission-led investment bond, providing cultural organisations with a way to leverage existing assets to raise much-needed capital investment. This device has the potential to encourage innovation, develop new audiences, and build new sources of earned income, transforming the prospects of the whole cultural sector. Despite widespread interest in R&V’s business model amongst investors and High Net Worth individuals, the organisation has not yet attracted the investment it needs to implement its plans. At a time of great uncertainty caused by BREXIT there is very little appetite for such investment. However, I continue to champion these and other new solutions for the sector, which I believe provide a very positive template for future change. 

I have been delighted in 2018 to take a lead in the development of the OCL alumni network. It has become apparent that this network is an important and ongoing source of strength for the programme. Amongst other things it provides a great way for those who have passed through the programme to stay in touch and to share best practice. In 2018 alone the OCL alumni network has enjoyed fascinating and informative sessions with the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation, the RAF Museum, the Design Museum and Oxford University’s Botanical Gardens. We are due to meet again in Edinburgh in May 2019 as the guests of the National Museum of Scotland and other Scottish partners. For me it has resulted in great new connections with talented leaders from across the world, and a source of enduring friendships. I have discussed with the OCL team the idea that the OCL alumni network might, in future, form the basis for regular seminars and conferences of benefit to the whole sector. In the meantime, the OCL alumni network get-togethers provide a fantastic reminder of the brilliant experience we all had on the course, and the way in which it has contributed to our own leadership journeys. 

I look forward to staying in touch with all my OCL colleagues, and to meeting up with you again soon! 


(Banner: The Poet Rimbaud's Residence in Camden, London 1873, illustration by Nick Hayes, from a project initiated by Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation)