Transform, connect & collaborate: 3 goals for being a successful cultural leader

The culture industry is changing.

Content is everywhere. Culture is everywhere. The old distinctions between audience and artist — consumer and creator — have disappeared.

Today I’m going to share three new strategies that cultural leaders — be they organisations or individuals — need to understand to succeed in the arts in the coming years.

Transform, don’t deliver
The mission of Melbourne Writers Festival (MWF) is not to deliver a festival or even to be the world’s best festival. Our mission is to enhance the creative and intellectual potential of all Victorians. We want to use literature to transform the cultural life and experience of Melbourne’s citizens.

My personal mission is not to attain at particular senior role — though there are many that are appealing. My personal mission is to bring literature into the mainstream. I want to transform what is considered to be a ‘niche’ culture into an art form that is understood alongside music and film as a ‘popular culture’.

Successful cultural leaders are not happy with maintaining the status quo. Success in the future years will come to those who seek to transform their industry or art form.

My most successful and far-reaching projects have come about because I’ve been trying to solve a greater problem. I founded the Digital Writers’ Festival to make the writing industry to accessible to writers across Australia, when my organisation the Emerging Writers’ Festival was still a very Melbourne-based organisation and we didn’t have the money to travel. I conceived and presented the Future Bookshop exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria because I was thinking about how to bust ‘literature’ out of its usual venues and formats. In 2013 I brought Tavi Gevinson and Boris Johnson to Australia because I wanted literature to reach potentially non-bookish audiences. 
Cultural ambition — the ambition to transform — will naturally lead to innovation, engagement and excitement.

Connect, don’t curate
Cultural leadership no longer favours a top-down approach. It’s no longer about curation, i.e. putting together a program for your audience. It’s about programmers being close to their customers, and understanding what drives their artists and what their audiences are seeking when they visit. It’s about allowing a program to be driven by audience and artist needs and desires. 
What audiences increasingly want is not to be passive consumers of content. They want to be active participants in their area of interest. Programming is no longer about curating, but connecting.

In my industry, literature, it’s connection to writers, connection to ideas, to fellow readers, to a literary community and industry. Our audiences want to ask questions, explore, meet each other, be inspired, and have their voice heard in discussions. Cultural leaders will enable connecting rather than focussing on curating content.

At Melbourne Writers Festival I am now programming events that look very different to traditional literary formats of panels and lectures. We have intimate events for five people at a time (in a caravan!). We are programming a city-wide literary adventure. We have trivia nights, gigs, salons, forums, exhibitions, walks and dinners. There will be parties, discussions and significant ways to connect online as well.

As I said earlier, it’s a fine line these days between customer and creator, and successful cultural leaders are those who understand what people, experiences or ideas their audience want to be meaningfully connected to.

Collaborate, don’t compete
Collaboration is the next frontier for cultural leadership. Organisations within an industry should not exist in silos, nor see each other as ‘the competition’, but should rather seek out ways to increase their capacities by working together.

Melbourne Writers Festival has just entered into a significant collaboration with a local magazine, Dumbo Feather. When we came together to talk, we discovered that our organisations have crossover in our aims, artists and audiences. Given the near-perfect alignment of our missions, it made perfect sense for us to enter into collaborative programming to service our shared aims and audiences. This project will be able to increase the capacity of both organisations to inspire and delight our audiences. Working together to increase capacity helps build the culture we are collectively striving for, and has a far greater reach and impact than working solo. (Note: this project was Caravan Conversations which became a beloved part of MWF’s program: intimate conversations with artists in a caravan.)

Melbourne Writers Festival has an office in a building called The Wheeler Centre, which houses seven literary organisations whose staffs range in size from one to 30. And apart from a photocopier and our physical spaces, there is no resource sharing. I can’t help but wonder how it would transform our organisations if we signed confidentiality clauses and pooled our resources — if we had a shared HR manager, book keeper, publicist or administrator.

Similarly, MWF hires many fabulous contractors each year, who move between festivals as required. Our production manager works Comedy Festival, MWF and Melbourne Fringe in any given year. I wonder how it would transform the way those festivals do business if we pooled our resources to collectively ‘hire’ those workers on a full time basis, rather than compete with each other for their time and attention.

In summary, three questions to ask yourself are:
What are you transforming? 
How are you connecting?
Who are your collaborators?

Ok I lied. There are actually four ways to succeed. The fourth point is to have fun.

Culture is no longer a serious industry, and one of the best ways to succeed in what you do is to be playful, experiment, and make sure you, your artists and your audience are all having a good time.

Did you have fun today?

Talk first given at REMIX Sydney Summit, Sydney 2014