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How to change arts leadership in Canada: An insider’s perspective

Rosalyn Rubenstein works with cultural and creative organizations in Canada and internationally. She is the Principal of Rubenstein & Associates.

The question of leadership for nurturing the next generation has reached a pivotal point for the arts and culture sector in Canada. Moving forward requires shared commitment and ownership. Here's why: Canadian cultural organizations are experiencing a leadership deficit and the problem is worsening as more and more highly regarded chief executive officers announce their retirement. We are seeing a generational change in leadership. Coming retirements for 2018 include long-standing CEOs Peter Herrndorf of the National Arts Centre and Piers Handling of TIFF.

It typically takes more than a year to replace a CEO and, as The Globe's Kate Taylor points out, too often boards end up hiring from outside of our own country. Take, for example, the recent Toronto-area appointments at the ROM, AGO and McMichael. All of these hires are well qualified – and also men from either the United States or Britain. I welcome them – however, I would also welcome more diversity, more Canadians and more women given the opportunity.

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The good news is that the Museum of Contemporary Art broke the Toronto-area streak of hiring foreign-born male CEOs when Heidi Reitmaier took the helm in January. Well qualified, with experience in Canada, the United States and Britain, she is also a Toronto native, and a recent graduate of the specialized cultural Getty Leadership Institute in the United States. This is a stunning shift from the earlier hiring of Chantal Pontbriand, which was based on her impressive curatorial expertise.

Whereas countries such as the United States with its Getty Institute and Britain with its Clore Programme have long tackled the challenge of developing the next generation of cultural leaders through specialized training, in Canada, we have just begun to do so. New leadership development programs are now, finally, offered at the Banff Centre, the Cultural Human Resources Council (CHRC) and Business for the Arts (BFTA).

These new specialized leadership programs are a significant addition to the cultural ecosystem in this country, but are a drop in the bucket for what is required and where we need to go. These are cohort-style programs or mentorships for a limited number of participants. Open training, that is development open to anyone in the culture sector wanting to develop their leadership potential, is idiosyncratic in this country at best. Specialized workshops and events, for example, are few and far between. Online learning is virtually non-existent. We have not even begun to develop our own specialized resources, including books and blogs. Where is our body of knowledge to move us forward – and move us forward rapidly? Learning keeps us competitive yes, but it is the speed of learning which makes or breaks.

Here in Canada, we have plenty of arts training models and success stories to build on for leadership development: think back to the Centre of Expertise on Culture and Communities (2005-2008) at Simon Fraser University, or the groundbreaking work of the Canadian Museums Human Resources Action Strategy (1995), or the Toronto performing arts collaboration Creative Trust (1998-2012). These were innovative programs, bringing people together for challenging learning and development.

The point is acute because it's getting harder. CEOs in any sector today have to concern themselves with an increasingly complex array of issues from diversity to digital to reconciliation. All while ensuring safe and creative workplaces and strategically leading their organizations into the future.

Rightly so, governments are investing more in culture. These new investments are upping the expectations for what the sector can achieve in society – and we are meeting the challenge. Canadian cultural organizations, together with their counterparts in other countries, are experiencing a transformation of engagement and empowerment – a transformation that will serve us all well. For our efforts and our examples, Canadian cultural leaders – past and present – are active and respected across the globe. So why aren't there more Canadian faculty on the new leadership program in Banff? Too often our talent is recognized much more outside of our own country than in it. To meet the leadership challenges of today and tomorrow, we need to cultivate a body of knowledge and a culture of Canadian leaders.

And this brings me to our cultural ecosystem. With the demise of the Canadian Conference of the Arts in 2012 and the Association of Cultural Executives in 2011, we have lost open, inclusive, multidisciplinary organizations (which work with all of the subdisciplines in the arts and heritage) for nurturing our field.

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The players mentioned above, Banff, CHRC and BFTA, are taking on leadership roles, as are others including HEC in Montreal, the Toronto Arts Council, Queen's University and the National Theatre School. To be sure, every year, the Canadian Arts Summit, a partnership between Banff and Business for the Arts, brings together cultural leaders from the largest institutions across the country; however, participation is restricted, even with live streaming and social media. We need to build on the success of what happens there into something more inclusive and accessible.

Throughout my professional career working with cultural and creative organizations, I have never been more proud of the potential of our sector to contribute to our humanity and our society, nor have I been more preoccupied about the future of our sector – to train the next generation, to develop our own body of knowledge, and over all, to nurture culture and creativity for the benefit of all Canadians.

Moving forward purposefully and collectively will make the most impact. As Simon Brault, the head of the Canada Council for the Arts put it in his remarks at the January Annual Public Meeting, we need to work together. And this includes cultural organizations across the sector – museums, art galleries, libraries, science centres, theatres, parks, professional associations, arts councils and so on, as well as partners from educational institutions and digital learning, together with our funding partners, community partners, media partners and all levels of government.

To develop the next generation of arts leaders requires nothing less than a culture shift and systemic change. This will only come about through partnership, collaboration and shared leadership.

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