Leading a regional theatre known for its championing of new writers and its capital projects, Jim Beirne discusses why he believes that listening to others and sharing ideas and practice has been crucial for his success.
CGI by Flanagan Lawrence.
Live Theatre is an organisation which is open to learning, committed to training artists and young people, and at its heart is the championing of writers and the creation of new plays. It is also adept at taking and managing calculated risks to sustain itself. I am fortunate to be its CEO and over the last few years I have been involved with two organisations: Vistage, a private sector CEO training programme, and the International Society for Performing Arts (ISPA). I am also during 2014/15 a fellow on the National Arts Strategies (NAS) chief executive programme: community and culture. NAS is based in the US and aims to help leaders who are tackling the big questions facing the field. As part of the programme, 50 CEOs from countries around the world, and who represent a diverse range of cultural activity, meet three times a year.
I come across new perspectives (often more valuable than new ideas) which enable me to voice things differently, present things more powerfully
Live Theatre is acknowledged as an enterprising cultural institution with four ground-breaking social enterprises created over the last eight years. We are in the final year of delivering Live Works, the fourth and final of these enterprises, a £10m capital development which includes purchasing the freehold of the surrounding buildings and the development of a new commercial office block on Newcastle’s Quayside, along with a new public park and outdoor performance space, and a children and young people’s creative writing centre. By 2018 our four social enterprises should net the charity £500,000, which should cover reductions of public sector investment yet give us more resources to invest in our mission.
So how do I make sense of delivering a major capital project in 2015 with being a fellow of NAS, a serving board member of ISPA and my monthly Vistage meetings? I have learnt things I would otherwise not have come across. For example, new perspectives (often more valuable than new ideas) which enable me to voice things differently, present things more powerfully, write stronger and more dynamic business strategies, become a better advocate for the arts and in turn raise more resources to make more art.
I attended an Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO) conference in 2004 and came across the social enterprise model which became such an important template for Live Theatre’s development in the past decade. At an ISPA conference in Sao Paulo I heard about the social enterprise support centre (SESC) model of arts development and now talk about my work as “trying to make our corner of the city a better place”, rather than a CEO of a new writing theatre, and have found this a much easier way in for politicians and stakeholders. With Vistage I hear from great management thinkers.
But the real advantage is in participating with leaders (of whatever type of business) and working through what turn out to be the same things: managing your vision, your people and your resources. With NAS we have been examining the most effective way to create business strategies. We have looked at what makes innovation and what constrains it. Is it the individual, societal, technological, industry, organisational or the group? It makes me ask the question (even in the context of a new theatre producer): who or what is getting in the way of innovation? Is it me?
I am writing this from the ISPA congress in New York where 450 delegates from 40 countries are focusing on ‘Dynamic leadership - creating the future’. More than 50 of the delegates are fellows, beginning and mid-career artists, arts workers and arts managers, who benefit from seeing their work in a global context and who will develop broader networks and become better leaders as a result. At an ISPA congress in Wroclav I heard political scientist Benjamin Barber talk about culture and economy being the twin pillars of any successful city. Two weeks later as the arts cuts in Newcastle hit the news I was using the same set of ideas on BBC radio in the Today programme, underlining the importance of culture and sidestepping some crude political questions.
I am on the board of ISPA and have recently been elected co-chair of the nominations committee from 2016. Picking the right leaders of a global organisation to keep the goodwill of its membership, as it has done for the last 68 years, is deft and complex. But hearing the stories of passionate people engaged in whatever endeavour always leaves you with food for thought - and even some tactics for the future!
Live Theatre has brought many friends and stakeholders together over the past nine years. The result is that we are stronger and more able to deal with a changeable landscape. Our annual turnover is £1.8m but to date we have fundraised £22m for our theatre refurbishment and our social enterprises. We have done this because we put quality at the heart of everything we do. We have presented our ideas, and our work, around the world. Learning from colleagues in our industry and beyond has made our message and our pitch stronger. When things get tough, our instinct is usually to ‘button down’ and attend to the internal. I believe the reverse is true, getting out there listening to others, sharing ideas and practice is the best way to sustain yourself, build resilience and prevent trouble ahead.
Jim Beirne is Chief Executive of Live Theatre.