Cultural leadership: What it means for me, what it means for Unlimited

Jo Verrent delivering a talk during an Unlimited event

Jo Verrent, senior producer for Unlimited, takes us through 5 lessons she learnt in relation to cultural leadership and then how she applies them now

So lets go back to the early 1980’s when I was at school – I didn’t know what I wanted to be, but I knew what I didn’t. I wanted to work in the arts but as what? I started to loose my hearing as a teenager, in fact I got my first hearing aids a couple of weeks before I selected my O-levels, like GCSE’s now.

It didn’t occur to me that the two things would be linked – the subjects I liked and wanted to study would surely stay the same just because I gained some plastic and a lifetime dependency on batteries? Not so. I was rapidly switched from arts subjects like drama to sciences with the line: “When you go fully deaf, you’ll be grateful. You don’t have to talk to test tubes”

That wasn’t the only change. I was taken out of music to do speech therapy. I was stopped from leading the younger students at drama club – it was ‘encouraging false expectations’. And I can still remember the ‘learning to lip-read’ class where they said I should never eat spaghetti again in public (as you need to look down so you can’t lip-read at the same time).

So what’s this got to do with cultural leadership?

The first lesson I want to pass on is the need for determination, persistence and a real solid desire to do what you want to do irrespective of what other people think. I wanted to work in the arts – I knew that was the thing that inspired me, made me feel alive. I was told again and again that it wouldn’t be possible but somehow I seem to have achieved it.

I’ve worked as a performer, a playwright, a director, a journalist, a community arts worker, the leader of projects, companies and organisations and finally I’ve found my ‘home’ – as senior producer for Unlimited. I’ve been employed, unemployed and self employed. Have set up companies and also been responsible for closing some too.

That’s my second lesson – try lots of things to find out where you best fit. If you like performing, great. But try writing and directing too. Try backstage, try front of house, try marketing. Try lots of ways – working part time, full time, working on a few different things at once. Your perfect fit might not be exactly where you imagined it was. The cultural sector covers a lot of areas – and new aspects are evolving everyday – that’s what makes it constantly exciting.

Three – try things that are new. Get a taste for the fresh, the developing, the cutting edge. Don’t get stuck thinking that there is only one way of doing things. Whether that’s keeping up with social media, or live screening, or pervasive media. I love it when I come up against something I have absolutely no idea about. Vine is my new one at the moment. I’m determined to create a vine during my time here today just to prove I can! I’m a grandmother and my grandchildren, let alone my children keep me up to date with what’s what (although I’m not going on Snapchat again, that’s for sure!).

I’ve not always been like that. For years I stuck with what I knew. I felt all the time that I was running behind what other people were doing. I link it to my deafness. I always thought that I was missing something – or was going to miss something. That I was on the edge, on the side, not quite in the middle, not quite in control.

I was lucky in 2012 as I was selected to be a Clore Fellow. That meant I became part of the Clore ‘family’ but also that I had to go through a full on, jam packed year of learning, development and also personal soul searching. I was challenged by others, and also challenged myself. I learnt to do the things that most frightened me – but through that really got to know what I truly love doing and became bold enough to fight to get to do what I truly enjoy. The Clore short courses, the fellowship, the emerging leaders course – they really ‘get’ the cultural sector and that is not about books and models but instead is about people and values. I really can’t rate them highly enough. But you do need to be brave to put yourself forwards for them.

That’s lesson four – be bold. I’m good at organising – I now truly believe that. It’s not just luck or good fortune. I am actually good at it. I’m fair – I play fair and fairness is embedded in everything that I do. It’s ok to recognise what you are good at. It’s ok to push yourself forwards if you know you can do something well. Recognise your strengths and build on them.

Recognising your strengths also means recognising your weaknesses – that you have them, that you will make mistakes, will get things not quite right all the time. The last lesson I have learnt is about resilience. You have to stick it out when things get tough. You have to see things through and come out the other side. At these times it helps to have a life outside of work – you can get a better sense of perspective.

So how do I use all of these in my work at Unlimited?

First, a little about us. We fund artists to make work – across all artforms, and across the UK – well, England, Scotland and Wales. We have a total budget of £3 million, which sounds a lot, but it’s surprisingly easy to spend!

I’ve had to be determined and persistent to get this role, and to get Unlimited the funding and profile we have. I can do it because I truly love the work – what we stand for and what we can achieve.

I wasn’t 100% sure I could do the role when I applied… it was a stretch, but a good one. I had to have confidence in myself, a belief that I could deliver whilst also knowing there were lots of things I still needed to learn.

Even within my role now I get to try many new things, go to many new places, meet many new people. I thrive on new experiences and so have found a role where that is an asset and where I am not bored.

I’m good at my job – not perfect, but good – and there are always things that we can improve upon. I’m obsessive about evaluation. Not just collecting information on how things have gone, but on looking for ways to work out how we can get better.

And I’m tough. In March we announced our new commissions for 2015. Nine lucky artists that we can support for 18 months as they develop new and amazing works. To do that we had to turn down over 150 fabulous artists too. That was tough. Really tough. How to get through it? Certainly not by burying my head in the sand. I’ve commented on applications, held skypes with unsuccessful artists, pushed projects to other partners where I think there is synergy. I’ll be happy if another 20 or 30 of the great projects we couldn’t support get supported through by other funds.

For me, that’s part of being a leader – not just looking after your work, your team, your project, but looking more widely at the sector in which you work and seeing how you fit within it. And you can start that wherever you are – as a student, as a volunteer, as an intern…

Find out where you fit, and how you can start making it all fit together better, for the sake of everyone. Now that’s cultural leadership.

This presentation was given at the Shape Arts Inspiring Futures Open Day last April for young disabled people hoping to break into the creative industries, the aim of the event was to give young disabled people a chance to find out more about progression routes and opportunities in the arts and creative industries, and also about some of the support available to them, helping to remove some of the barriers they might face.

If you’re interested in the Inspiring Futures project or any of Shape’s projects, please feel free to get in touch – info@shapearts.org.uk

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