In a speech on cultural leadership, Toni Attard argues that positive change can occur everywhere and across all levels.

We often discuss great artists and their work. We also praise the efficiency of cultural managers and eulogise the success of cultural entrepreneurs. We rarely reflect on cultural leaders that have unceremoniously, or otherwise, acted as influential agents of cultural change or any other form of development in our communities, cities, regions or countries.

Whether we view a ‘cultural leader’ as a cultural ‘super hero’ or as a cultural ‘misfit’ depends on the approach individuals take to lead the change they want to see. Their approach may be from within the sector or even outside. They may be from within institutions or in the form of actions taken by individual artists. In whatever context they are operating from, cultural leaders thrive in risk and transform it into opportunities.  

We live in a creative age where the cultural and creative sectors merge into one fluid and dynamic interdisciplinary sector of inspiring individuals across the arts, heritage, design, technology and even science. We live in a generation where most people choose where they want to live and create the work they want to do. As much as creative nations need great artists and creative professionals to succeed, they need inspiring cultural leaders to collectively build a dynamic creative ecology.

There is no magic wand to create better or new cultural leaders – everyone has the potential to create something that positively impacts the internal and external cultural environment. Great or poor leadership, be it cultural or otherwise will leave a remarkable impact on our future.

Issues such as the environment, economy, health and security feature prominently as global concerns in cultural leadership. Yet, although there is global consensus that culture is the soul of any nation, community and individual, the global community is not actively transforming conversations on culture into global action. Although there is a global understanding that no development can be sustainable without culture, culture is referenced explicitly in only four of the 169 targets which make up the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

If we all agree that culture matters on a global level just like environment, the economy, health and international security shouldn’t we expect to see a global cultural leadership movement equivalent to Davos or the G20?

I am not convinced that the cultural and creative sectors need such a permanent platform or even want it, because it needs more than the usual suspects to succeed. Cultural leadership is strengthened when independent artists, curators civil society, academics, politicians, creative entrepreneurs, artists, designers and members of various communities, network to share knowledge and collaborate. We are all cultural activists in our own way.

There are no optimal conditions for cultural leadership and no matter how small the budget is, how great the artist can be, how sophisticated the cultural ecology can be, positive change can occur everywhere and across all levels.

The concern is whether we are empowering ourselves, and those around us, to be the change we want to see and lead. People who make great culture happen may not be very good at making it matter. And by making it matter, I here refer to making it heard or relevant. Creative activity is enclosed within it’s own world: an artist within the studio, a dancer within the confines of a sprung floor, a designer within software programmes, a curator within the collection. A cultural leader looks beyond. Even though cultural leaders can also be creative practitioners, cultural leaders are concerned with the bigger picture. One does not exclude the other. They can lead through their own practice. They can lead by working closely with those who practice.

Ben Okri, a Booker prize winning novelist, remarks that, ‘every child that becomes an adult wants to live in a world that breathes courage, imagination and beautiful dreams’.

Cultural leaders too require courage and imagination to become responsible agent of agents. Their activism, vision and action should go beyond the cultural sphere. They form part of the creative solutions the world desperately needs in the hope that beautiful dreams can still be imagined and achieved.

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