Northern Ireland cannot escape its past, but its cultural leaders can work together to help it reach a new future, says Kevin Murphy.

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There is a wonderful paradox contained in today’s neo-liberal dogma. It has been undermining the broader value of culture since my early career in 1980s London and has reached a heightened sense of entitlement in 2016, grabbing much of what many of us believe is our common heritage. And yet, through sheer neglect, it seems to be unwittingly inspiring a new form of cultural leadership.

What you don’t see are the many leaders who are forging a new Northern Ireland from its long history of innovation and thought leadership and its current imagination

Perhaps, more accurately though, in its desire to enclose and throw everything to the market, it is accelerating the search for sustainable alternatives, calling for a style of leadership that has been under the radar possibly for longer than we imagine and quietly working for the common good. Not new, just different.

Simon Harris in his article in AP Producing leaders, not followers described this style of leadership as “generous, open, relational and values-driven, while being comfortable with complexity and uncertainty”.

A complex and uncertain region

There is perhaps no other part of the UK that is more complex and uncertain than Northern Ireland. It would be easy to suggest that the region is lacking in leadership because of the grinding political stagnation and the failure of our politicians to address our seemingly intractable social, economic and constitutional challenges.

Leadership here, though, has always been about making something out of nothing and what you don’t see are the many leaders who are forging a new Northern Ireland from its long history of innovation and thought leadership and its current imagination. Although we cannot escape our context as it is now, we don’t have to be bound by it in perpetuity.

That context has changed radically in the last year. Government departments have reduced in number from 12 to nine and local authorities have been reorganised from 26 to 11. The dwindling financial support from the public purse for the arts, moving from the some to not very much at all, has affected the publicly funded sector drastically.

Added into the mix, we have our complex and unique constitutional balancing act that recognises British and Irish identities and citizenships and involves both British and Irish governments. And then we have Brexit that brings this region into sharp relief as we live cheek by jowl with our European neighbours.

So leaders in the arts here are certainly comfortable with complexity and uncertainty – arguably it’s our default setting. There is also a growing sense that new approaches are not only necessary but possible. In my role with Voluntary Arts Ireland and connected to Our Cultural Commons initiative, I have been fortunate to be a part of a number of emerging approaches that point to a more sustainable arts ecology – from new networks working within the existing infrastructure to new grassroots creative clusters working interdependently.

Promoting a creative community

#artsNI and #DERRYcreatives are two such creative clusters. Both have grown from a few people to groups each involving over 350 creatives working together to put on events as well as share resources, give each other advice and promote the creative community of Northern Ireland.

These groups are made possible through the use of social media as an organising tool and interestingly involve amateur and professional artists, organisations and creative start-ups. From a standing start in January, #artsNI has put on the flagship event as part of BBC Get Creative Day in the Ulster Museum with over 15 events involving 2,500 people and a live broadcast by BBC NI, all without any direct public subsidy.

The ten lead arts development agencies have also been exploring collaborative working, primarily around joint training and online resources, with a view to improving how we all serve the arts sector. The resulting network is essentially a regular conversation between related organisations with a sense of common purpose, leading to practical joint activities that help strengthen the arts in Northern Ireland. It has already led to cross-sectoral training days, a monthly online collective resource bank and the beginnings of structured conversations with the new Department for Communities under which the arts sit.

Moving forwards

At the root of these approaches is a stronger sense of contributing to the common good, motivated by love for what we do. A leader in this context needs to know more how to be than how to do. Generous, open, relational and values-driven, and to that I could add curious, creative, kind, enabling, flexible and engaging (and we could all add more words no doubt). What strikes me about these ‘being’ words is that behind them are the concepts of sharing and motion.

What we are learning in this situation is that collaboration creates abundance. Rather than being held stationary in an ever-decreasing and failing economic narrative, we can move forwards at speed towards a wider horizon in which wealth is viewed as part of our overall wellbeing. What we don’t know for sure is how long it will take us to reach this horizon, how much change is required and what it will really look like. But that is what imagination is for.

Leadership doesn’t exist outside the times we are in. So what is it we need from our cultural leaders now? If it is anything like what I am engaged in, we need leaders who are prepared to bridge from the current landscape to a new emerging one, building the pathway with others as they go.

Kevin Murphy is Chief Officer of Voluntary Arts Ireland.
Tw @kpmurphy557

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