Thursday, April 23, 2015

Well done Tessa

Tessa Ross
It takes a brave person to step down from what could be considered the top job in British theatre within a few weeks of taking the reins.  Tessa Ross is clearly a brave person.  We don't know the ins and outs of her decision to leave, but we know it seems pretty amicable, and that both she and Rufus Norris felt that the model of a Chief Executive supervising the Artistic Director just wasn't working.

It's a model that the National sneaked in.  When Norris was announced as Nick Hytner's successor, the general sense was that he would be Director of the National in the same way that the previous five had been - the person at the head of the organisation, leading it artistically, with the administrative staff reporting to him.  The senior post arrived with no fanfares, but senior it was.  This has happened with disturbing regularity in recent times, particularly but not only in larger organisations, presumably because boards have been feeling that in the age of Osborne business acumen is what keeps arts organisations on track.  "Balances the books".  The extreme of this is the ENO board's response to being placed in special measures by the Arts Council: hiring as Chief Executive a seconded management consultant with no arts experience at all.

They could not be more wrong.  When an arts organisation does well - by which I mean produces work of quality and significance which excites and builds audiences - it is always because of the vision of the artist who makes the work.  An artistic leader does not always operate in direct relationship to the work - Nick Hytner programmed seasons with plenty of other directors involved - but it is always the result of an artist's vision and ideas.  When an arts organisation does badly - by which I mean produces work which is dull and loses the interest of the audience - it is usually because they are trying to "be more commercial", to "give the audience what they want", to be led by commercial rather than artistic considerations.  What audiences actually want is to be surprised and inspired.  Which is not something you can do with a business plan.

The ENO's troubles do not come from a poor business model.  They come from a crisis in an art form that does not currently know how to respond to the 21st century, and which needs a new creative drive if it is to flourish.  Business planning and sound financial management are all well and good - but they have to serve artistic ideas, rather than dictating them.

Tessa Ross is not a management consultant.  She was OUDS President when she was a student, and started her career as a director.  She's been a very successful film producer.  So, at a guess, she could see that what was needed at the National was real artistic leadership, which is something that in the end has to come from a real artistic leader.  I think she's done a brave and noble thing, and I hope the Arts Council and the boards of arts organisations take note.

We might also apply the same model to the election.  Everyone is talking about their ability to manage and to "balance the books".  Nobody is talking about their vision for the future.  Where, oh where, have real leadership and imagination gone?