Oxford Cultural Leaders 2018: Creativity in a Climate of Constraint

On Sunday 18th March 2018 a group of twenty international delegates set course for the City of Oxford. Battling against surprise snowstorms, and demonstrating extreme patience in the face of the inevitable ‘travel disruption’ that ensued, they made their way determinedly to Pembroke College... to what end you ask?

To present an imaginary gift to a complete stranger.

Working Live session with Rob Poynton at Oxford Cultural Leaders 2018

The ability to take something (a gift) and run with it – to put aside your assumptions and to be open to new ideas – is essential on Oxford Cultural Leaders (OCL). Our ice-breaking activities, led by Rob Poynton, Associate Fellow at the Saïd Business School, use improvisation to encourage our delegates to relax and free up their minds so that they can be open to the new concepts and ideas that will be introduced throughout the rest of this intensive programme. By the end of the session, delegates from ten different countries, and from disciplines ranging from curation and conservation to marketing and corporate affairs, had bonded over invisible objects (and a significant amount of tea and biscuits!) and were ready to take on the challenges of reappraising their cultural leadership skills and embracing new ways of working.

"For me, Oxford Cultural Leaders 2018 was a chance to reflect and think deeply about our joint values, purpose and responsibilities as leaders in the cultural sector. I came away energised and incredibly hopeful about the future, knowing that together we could inspire the organisations we all work for”

Miki Lentin, Head of Corporate Affairs, British Library

Venture Sprint with Pegram Harrison

Over the course of six days OCL explores what it means to be a cultural leader and through a series of keynote speeches, facilitated workshops and reflection sessions, it investigates how approaches to leadership need to adapt and evolve in response to our changing times. This unique programme has been developed by the Oxford University’s Gardens, Libraries and Museums, in collaboration with the Saïd Business School. OCL brings in additional OCL Faculty members from across the cultural sector including: Richard Evans (Director, Beamish Museum), Kaywin Feldman (Director, Minneapolis Institute of Art), Darren Henley (CEO, Arts Council England), Diane Lees (Director General, Imperial War Museums), Catherine Mallyon (Executive Director, Royal Shakespeare Company), Kathleen Soriano (Curator), Carol Souter (Master, St Cross College) and Yolanda Vazquez (Presenter, Olivier Mythodrama).                 

Kaywin Feldman speaking at Oxford Cultural Leaders 2018

Dynamic keynote speakers kick-start each new day. Our faculty this year included special guest Kaywin Feldman, Nivin and Duncan MacMillan Director and President of the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), who joined us at the Ashmolean Museum on Day 2 of the programme. Kaywin opened the day, and set the scene for the rest of the week, with a discussion about brave leadership in anxious times. The political and social turmoil that has become a constant over recent years, has created a very difficult landscape for cultural institutions to navigate. Kaywin described how the politics of identity has become a key issue, for museums themselves as much as for the audiences they seek to serve and represent. She is a keen advocate for authenticity, and from her experience at Mia, described how the organisation had come to find itself and its role within the community. This grounding has allowed Mia to be innovative and to continue to keep pushing the boundaries, and as such she encouraged our delegates to be experimental, innovative, and unafraid of trying something new.

Adaptive Leadership with Keith Ruddle event at Oxford Cultural Leaders 2018

Throughout the week our colleagues from the Saïd Business School also encourage our delegates to take up new approaches. Through a series of workshops on Days 2, 3 and 4, our delegates learn about the practice of Adaptive Leadership and are encouraged to reframe individual challenges (brought with them to the programme) with a greater understanding of the complex interdependencies that are present in their respective organisations. Within the workshops they are provided with a series of tools and techniques that can be used to help address adaptive challenges: to build resilience within their organisations, leverage the skills of their staff, and motivate their teams to work together to implement change.

"I found the sessions directly relevant to my work, in particular Keith Ruddle's session looking at engaging others in your big idea. I've used this recently to position a potentially contentious Board paper and it worked really well to get people in the right frame of mind for listening to the project.” 

Philippa Rawlinson, Director of Operations & Marketing, The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Beyond Doubt with Michael Smets

In addition to the teaching of established models of business practice, the programme also provides the opportunity to engage with cutting edge research for our sector. On Day 3 our delegates explored some of the preliminary results from the Museums Leaders Report, a Saïd Business School and Oxford University’s Gardens, Libraries and Museum joint research project, supported by the National Museum Directors Council (NMDC). Michael Smets, Associate Professor at the Saïd Business School and lead researcher on the project, used interactive media to allow our delegates to compare their own perceptions of their roles with the collective thoughts of the NMDC participants. This research project is providing a platform for the specific investigation of leadership in the cultural sector: examining the key issues and the direction of travel for the industry. The final analysis stages of the research are currently being concluded will be published in the summer.

Participants engaging in conversation at Cultivating Creativity

Oxford Cultural Leaders draws on the expertise of our colleagues at the Saïd Business School, but also receives great support from our four fantastic university museums. Our delegates had the chance to hear from, and put their questions to, all of the Directors: Xa Sturgis (Ashmolean Museum), Paul Smith (Museum of Natural History), Laura Van Broekhoven (Pitt Rivers Museum), and Silke Ackermann (Museum of the History of Science) on our Directors' Panel, chaired by Diane Lees (Imperial War Museums). With extensive experience from a range of institutions of different sizes and very different natures, collectively the Directors have been able to provide valuable insights and advice on a wide range of subjects. They have been committed to Oxford Cultural Leaders since its inception four years ago and are continuing to help us to expand and develop the programme. OCL 2019 will include closer ties with the University’s Gardens and Libraries and, in a taste of things to come, Richard Ovenden, Bodley's Librarian, joined us on Day 6 to deliver the closing keynote: describing the redevelopment of the Weston Library (involving one of the largest book moves in the history of the Bodleian Libraries) and telling the inspirational story of how the team succeeded at their task, defying all those said it couldn't be done.

Group photo of Oxford Cultural Leaders 2018 Cohort

Oxford Cultural Leaders 2018 Cohort

The difficulties of striking a balance between ambition and realism are all too familiar to many of our delegates. There are no simple solutions to this ongoing issue but on OCL we seek to help our delegates to find techniques that will work for them and allow them to find the courage to make the decisions they need to. At the end of Day 5 we were delighted to have Darren Henley, CEO of the Arts Council, join us to give an inspiring and witty after dinner address. Speaking of the challenges facing the sector, he reflected on the importance of understanding our place: cautioning against overstatement, and instead encouraging us to identify the areas where arts and culture can really make a difference and to then work hard to quantify and make our case to government for the space and the funds to do so.

With great insights, and personal support, from such an experienced and diverse range of cultural leaders, our OCL 2018 delegates have gone away from the programme empowered to take action and create change. Condensed into just six days, OCL is an intense experience, but our delegates time in Oxford is really just the beginning: our network continues to grow with each passing year... and we look forward to welcoming even more in 2019!