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As we move from the immediate crisis towards new ones, we need atypical thinkers, agile doers and creative problem-solvers who thrive in unknowns, says Kai Syng Tan. She and Tom Northey explore examples of ‘Artful Leadership’.

group of street-drummers marching for Juba do Leão - Handmade 2018
Holly Prest (right), director of Juba do Leão

Bill Pilkington

What have artists been doing during the crisis? Here are four examples:

Holly Prest is a percussionist and arts leader who recognised the catastrophic impact Covid-19 would have on communities in north east Brazil, where she had studied and been inspired by local Maracatu Nação groups and their unique socio-cultural model. Holly co-led a crowdfunding campaign which has already provided essential supplies to 14 organisations in Brazil. The speed and impact of this digital, artist to artist, international solidarity opens up possibilities for future exchange and collaboration.

London-based artist Catrin Osborne is a multi-hyphenate, which is typical of many who, like her, have Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder and dyslexia. A trapeze artist-turned-writer, climate change campaigner and self-declared ‘Feminist Winter Pond Swimmer’, Catrin is also the artistic director of circus theatre company Osborne & What. ‘I lost all my jobs due to COVID-19 crisis’, she quips. Yet, without missing a beat, she adds ‘I took my yoga online and it is building nicely’. Her yoga classes are free for those who have lost their income. Others she asks to ‘pay what you feel’. She has also just finished her first urban fantasy/sci fi novel and is organising an online Science Fiction Convention on Covid-19.

Iola Weir is a freelance designer/visual artist from Devon who, like thousands of other professional costume makers and seamstresses immediately set to work making scrubs for healthcare workers. Soon Iola found herself working with partners to coordinate dozens of professional and non-professional makers across her rural county. She’s now considering where that energy, engagement and creativity might go next.

Despite facing huge losses in earned income, Carnival arts specialist Global Grooves immediately made their fundraising team available to artists and arts organisations from all disciplines across Tameside, helping grassroots groups secure substantial emergency funding. As a result, Global Grooves have a much deeper understanding of their local creative ecology.

These are but four examples of artists who are inventing artful, agile and atypical strategies to lead change during the pandemic. There are many more. Could we think about this creative mode of being, organising and creating in terms of ‘Artful Leadership’?

Reclaim ‘leadership’

Pre-pandemic, it has been clear that ‘leadership’ is in crisis. Many reject the term, not least as a reaction to the toxic models of governance in the global political arena in the last decade, but because artists and activists have always invented novel frameworks of organising, being and creating that counter and critique dominant forms.

Perhaps now is a great moment to unpack, problematise, and reclaim ‘leadership’? Since 2019 I have been thinking about ‘Artful Leadership’: thinking, making, organising and being in ways that are artful, agile and atypical, which artists excel in. This is about leading within, as well as beyond the arts/cultural realms, by which I refer to being embedded within the socio-political structures, to effect cultural, social and systemic change.

This is about engaging in productively antagonistic dialogues with members of other species and communities, including health and social scientists, politicians, economists, humanities scholars, bankers, and more. This may involve the activation of high-quality artistic processes and outcomes, exploiting art’s power to provoke, confuse/amuse/bemuse. Or, the ‘art’ may slip in, surreptitiously, deviously, as processes of inquiry and provocation, in the forms of asking new questions, reframing situations, and reimagining new possibilities. This would be ill-disciplined, shrewd and courageous -- hallmarks of art intervention, social practice and live art, as well as those who are neurodivergent or have ‘atypical’ cognitive modes (at least 30% of those working in art and design).

The pandemic is exposing structural injustices and inequalities. Virologist Dr Elisabetta Gropelli describes the coronavirus as ‘clever’ because it hijacks the human body to transport itself to other bodies. So, more than ever, we will need atypical thinkers, agile doers and creative problem-solvers who thrive in unknowns to help lead the conversation and strategies for change. The crisis presents additional challenges, and opportunities, for neurodiverse artists, many of whom are already experts in self-isolation and social distancing. This speaks to research that is emerging on how behaviours like risk-taking, courage, out-of-the-box thinking, craving for knowledge and giftedness are common in people with dyslexia, autism, ADHD and more.

Art can take the lead

Generous, proactive leadership has come from every sector during this crisis. As we move forward, arts leaders can’t claim a privileged status for their work over other vital social/health agendas in the competition for resources. But there is certainly a strength, dynamism and inventiveness that many artists have demonstrated over the last few months, which will have huge value in rebuilding economies and communities. It is precisely when we are cowered, resources are scarce, minds are closed, news is faked, and people more tribal, that art can take the lead and initiate and develop new processes and platforms for new conversations, new insights and new questions.

In shining a spotlight on how artists are already leading change, we are calling for a more inclusive and creative socio-political ecosystem. With the global arts and cultural industry continuing to fight for its survival in the last decade, and the relief packages now camouflaging the ‘cultural bloodbaths’ that have been steadily occurring worldwide (with one survey pointing to cultural and creative businesses in Europe losing €273 billion by the end of 2020), such a re-thinking can be a win-win, when artists get paid instead of doing what they do out of ‘goodwill’. Artful Leadership – championed and modelled by (neurodivergent) artists – can help us imagine and build something better.


Dr Kai Syng Tan is an artist-curator and academic. She founded the Neurodiversity In/& Creative Research Network and is a trustee, consultant, co-leader or member of 15 networks and organisations in research, arts, health, and human rights.

With input from Tom Northey, Director of Con Brio, an independent arts consultancy.

Link to Author(s): 
Dr Kai Syng Tan
Tom Northey headshot in black and white