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Melissa Nisbett, Ben Walmsley and Emma McDowell have been conducting research on abusive leadership in the arts. Their findings will set alarm bells ringing across the sector.

The contour of an individual who appears to be a woman, standing in the darkness with a spotlight positioned behind her, creating a shadow that outlines her figure like a silhouette.

Molly Blackbird

Our study on abusive leadership in the arts has uncovered a spectrum of mistreatment: from racial, gender and age discrimination to sexual harassment, class prejudice and sidelining; and from fraud and financial mismanagement to bullying, victimisation and coercion. 

Interviews with 13 participants from managerial and leadership roles, across different artforms and organisations based in the UK, revealed that arts professionals who have been the victims of abuse have suffered from depression, anxiety, emotional exhaustion, loss of confidence, and a fear of colleagues and the workplace. 

While our sample size for this exploratory study was small, our research echoes and builds on existing studies and reports of bullying and abuse in the arts. It sheds light on an area that is gaining traction and increasing awareness - for example, this recent article on the formation of a new Creative Industries Independent Standards Authority (CIISA) - of the need to prevent and tackle bullying and harassment across the creative industries. 

Our research focuses on how arts organisations, and governance structures in particular, deal with abuses of power and on how the mechanics of abusive leadership prevail.

Abusive leadership is everywhere

Even the most senior participants in our study, with over 40 years of experience, gave recent examples of how they had been the victims of bullying. Many arts workers also disclosed how they had consistently witnessed abusive leadership throughout their careers, at all stages, roles and levels, across many institutions and multiple artforms. 

According to one senior marketing manager: “I’ve never experienced a cultural organisation that hasn’t had bullying very central to its make-up.” If this comment rings true for other arts professionals and is a sentiment shared more widely, then it implies that abusive leadership is an enduring and ubiquitous feature of working life in the cultural sector. This would represent a staggering condemnation; one that demands urgent action.

No accountability

Our study found that abuse was generally accompanied by a failure of leadership and governance. Victims who reported their mistreatment experienced being sacked, made redundant, paid off, placed on gardening leave, demoted and forcibly moved out. 

Yet staggeringly, their abusive leaders remained in post and some were even promoted. Their behaviour went unchecked, with little to no formal investigation, and no recourse or rebuke. This was systematically due to a lack of internal procedures for pursuing complaints and/or a mishandling of investigations by colleagues who lacked the necessary competencies.

In some cases, workers were fearful of the repercussions of reporting abusive treatment, so they chose to remain silent. The ‘small world’, ‘village-like’ nature of the sector meant that they didn’t want to be seen as troublemakers, although this finding also potentially hints at a wider culture of fear. 

Bad boards

Those who did report abusive behaviour told us how their complaints were systematically mismanaged. Board members reportedly offered little to no support. While there were of course exceptions, on the whole trustees were seen as distant, disengaged, under-qualified and ill-equipped to deal with abusive behaviour, as they generally failed to understand their roles, remits and responsibilities in this regard. 

In some organisations, the trustees themselves were actually the perpetrators of abuse. One freelancer who had been subjected to racism reported feeling ‘afraid’ after being confronted by an ‘angry’ board member, who threatened: “You should be mindful because this could be bad for your career.”

The dark side of charisma

Several participants talked about feeling they were ‘going mad’ or ‘imagining it’. One marketing manager was gaslighted by her abuser and told she was ‘bonkers’ for thinking that she was being mistreated. Another was portrayed by the chair of the board as an ‘aggressive raving maniac’ for challenging racist treatment. 

In a blatant example of class prejudice, one participant shared a story of a manager who disapproved of the way she spoke in meetings and who mocked her colleagues for having regional accents, even doing impressions of them. 

This is not a question of a few ‘bad apples’ behaving badly and getting away with it. Rather, the picture that emerged was more complex, linked to organisational cultures that reward certain types of behaviour. 

In one case, the director of a national museum talked about working for an ‘inspiring workaholic’ who damaged people’s health by pushing staff to ‘breaking point’ but who got away with it because it was thrilling to work alongside them, like ‘driving a car beyond its speed limit’. The board had failed to ‘step in’ because they were equally ‘caught up in the excitement.’ 

All this confirmed our previous research, which highlighted the dangers of charismatic leadership in a sector that naturally attracts, celebrates and elevates charismatic people. This presents a perplexing and problematic picture of abusive leadership and is something that warrants further investigation.

No place to go

Those who challenged abusers were often up against a lack of internal reporting structures or processes, including insufficient and ineffective HR support within organisations. When abuse was reported externally to stakeholders such as arts councils, sponsors, philanthropists and local councils, complaints were ignored or not acted upon. 

This was compounded by a worrying lack of union representation among participants and their colleagues. And even when workers were unionised, they rarely called on these support structures to challenge abusive behaviour. This put the arts professionals who participated in the study in precarious positions, as they experienced a minimal duty of care, with little to no safeguarding, and nowhere to turn for help. 

Is the arts sector exceptional?

Although abusive behaviour is evident in other sectors and in society in general, our research asks whether there is something distinctive about the arts and cultural sector that makes it particularly susceptible to abuse. It discusses the toxic combination of highly charismatic leaders, which the academic literature connects to abusive behaviours, coupled with passionate arts workers who, according to this new study, frequently place their artforms and institutions ahead of their own wellbeing. This means that arts workers may be particularly vulnerable, as they are potentially both overly open to abuse and ripe for exploitation. 

A crisis of accountability

Although this phase of our study was exploratory and can’t yet definitively document the true scope and scale of abusive leadership in the sector, it does already prompt a discussion on where culpability, liability, responsibility and accountability should start and end. Where and with whom does the buck stop? Where should we draw the line between bad and abusive leadership, and who should determine these boundaries?

Our study raises questions around how far the findings speak to the artistic community as a whole. How far does this exploratory study act as a diagnosis for a bigger issue, and to what extent are these findings representative of an endemic problem? Although this was a small study, its findings are significant. Some of our interviews were explosive and the conclusions should ring alarm bells for those funding and working in the arts. 

The cases shared with us showed that governance was threadbare, at best, and highlighted a systematic lack of accountability, which allows abuse to continue and perpetuates, indeed exacerbates, the suffering of victims. Our research ultimately tells a sorry tale of workplace injustice and underscores the urgent need to safeguard arts workers. 

A call to action

It appears we have learnt little from the work of global social justice movements such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter. What we need to know now is whether these initial findings are indicative of the sector more broadly. Are our participants unlucky exceptions or is this just the tip of the iceberg? The study suggests the latter and lays the foundation for further quantitative and qualitative research, to assess the actual scope and scale of the problem and drill down into the detail of lived experience. 

We plan to host a series of events for cultural workers and researchers to share and discuss our findings in more detail. We are also planning a large-scale study, looking at victims, perpetrators and crucially, the extent to which organisational cultures can not only enable abusive leadership, but actively reward and encourage it as a normative mode of behaviour in this fast-paced, time-pressured sector. It is only by understanding abusive leadership in all its facets and intersections that we can collectively work towards its eradication.

Dr Melissa Nisbett, Department of Culture, Media and Creative Industries, King’s College London.
Professor Ben Walmsley, School of Performance and Cultural Industries, University of Leeds.
Dr Emma McDowell, School of Performance and Cultural Industries, University of Leeds.

@MelissaNisbett | @BenWalmsley | @EmmaMcDoofus

If you are interested in finding out more, attending a presentation of this research or taking part in a bigger study, please enter your details on the online form here.

Melissa Nisbett headshot
Photo of Ben Walmsley
Emma McDowell headshot
Arts Professional welcomes readers' opinions. Please ensure your comments observe our policy.


My work used to put me in touch with leaders and board members of diverse arts organisations. Two things stood out; the way they treated their staff and the way they dealt with authority. They could not relate to frameworks for management in the voluntary sector. They made atrocious allegations about discrimination when they did not win funding. On the other hand there were a few skilled organisations and they did very well for themselves and their members.

I think this is a real key to the issue- many leaders in the arts have come up through freelance work, possibley as a director, choreographer or performer. They feel like creative freedom and control in the rehearsal room should translate to absolute control of an organisation and convince themselves that anyone that questions- or not even questions but wants to share space in that, is inferior, and a threat to their "power". They have often no experience of being managed in an employment scenario and just do not know the mechanics of being an employee in an organisation, let alone an employer or in anther position of authority. In addition, they feel like the artistic product is untouchable at the expense of everything else, literally trampling on people to achieve their vision, their noble cause, not realising that the people around them are part of the vision, part of the work.

I applaud this research and am in a position to underwrite its findings fully. As a visual arts professional, curator of exhibitions, I was bullied throughout my career under abusive leaderships in the two organizations for which I worked for twenty-one years in total. In fact, my career was ended brutally when I was bullied out of my job. My successor did not need to apply for my job and was given my position without it being advertised and without interview. An RCA graduate, I am a cultural historian with a lifelong commitment to the arts who also holds an MBA. This article has been of particular interest to me since it may be the start of addressing the abuse that goes on in arts’ organizations on a daily basis. I won’t hold my breath because I know full well how wily abusers are, both male and female. All the same I hope this exposure will lead to some improvement. The occasions on which I was subjected to bullying are too numerous to go into here but I will describe two incidents. As a woman, I remember being faced by four male fine art academics who stared me down across the table during our meeting refusing to enter into a discussion about a standard exhibition issue with which they disagreed. On another occasion, I met with a senior manager, this time female. When I entered her office in order to discuss her purchase by the back door of an exhibited work of art for which she refused to pay the standard commission, she literally ducked behind her laptop in order to put me off. Interestingly, the abuse did not only occur from above but also from below with caretakers transgressing my personal boundaries. I suspect such behaviour was tacitly encouraged by those who used it to cement their authority and hide their own lack of management skills and evade accountability. Bullying and abuse were such standard practices where I worked the longest, that the HR and Finance departments played their condoning role in it: there was nowhere to go for anyone who was made a target. Many of these bullies went on to climb the greasy pole acquiring elevated positions in the creative industries. Hiding behind their procedures for whistleblowers they can continue undetected and deny accountability.

This absolutely resonates. I worked as one half of a 2 person leadership team for a number of months; the worst of my life. I was literally ill with the stress, wondering how the person was going to behave on a particular day. They systematically dismantled every bit of confidence I had; including things to do with my personal life. They sneered about my past work, unpicked my current work from day 1 criticising and blaming. Initially I gave some feedback- never again, it just got worse. Basically, they wanted total control of everything (even though they were often absent for chunks of time mysteriously) and wanted me to do everything that was onerous to them, and everything their way. If I had different methods to them, they thought that meant I was wrong, stupid and that my work was bad. Sometimes, some of the things they said to me come back and haunt me. It literally broke me. I am lucky to be working with organisations now where our leadership is supportive and collaborative.

To add, I had to leave the job and take the risk of returning to freelance work.

As CEO of a small charity with a wide reach, I like to think our small team operates in a supportive environment which enables each team member to feel valued. The outward values of the organisation impact not just our work, but also how we lead, and I do believe what you put out you get back. BUT i do recognise these issues from colleagues I speak to who work in other orgs, and I also think that the bullying can sometimes affect inter-organisational relationships, preventing joined up working in the field. There are a lot of egos about, and perhaps stress and fighting for the cause translates (though this is certainly not an excuse) into ego-driven protectionism. I'd give my own and our organisations full support into any initiatives which help combat the issues raised.