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Spike in turnover of artistic directors due to increasing pressure of the role with funding issues at the core, figures within the sector say.

Director rehearses play with actors.
Concerns have been raised about the pressures currently facing artistic directors


The precarious funding environment facing theatres and the ongoing impact of the cost-of-living crisis are behind a rise in the number of artistic directors leaving the role, it is claimed.

In the last year there has been a series of departures announced at venues across the country including Rufus Norris of the National Theatre, Roxanna Silbert from Hampstead Theatre, Michael Longhurst from the Donmar Warehouse, and Bryony Shanahan and Roy Alexander Weise from the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester.

Earlier this month Creative Director of Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse Suba Das stepped down with immediate effect after litle more than a year in post.


Addressing the issue on Twitter Tarek Iskander, Artistic Director and CEO of Battersea Arts Centre, listed 33 reasons why the role "feels more difficult than ever", including "unsustainable inflationary pressures", staff shortages and constrained reources.

"There's a combination of external factors - Covid, Brexit [which are influencing] staff shortages in an incredible way, and the huge impact of the inflationary wave that nobody saw coming has impacted every industry, but impacted theatre very severely," Iskander later added in a discussion on BBC Radio 4's Front Row.

'Decades of neglect'

"I think what's difficult for theatre is that we're a particularly fragile ecosystem.

"A good ecosystem needs a thriving commercial economy, which to some extent we have, but we don't have a very strong subsidised sector  - that's been run down over decades of neglect - to withstand these shocks.

"So it's not a surprise that many people coming in looking at those challenges and feeling quite helpless in the face of them all, struggle to know how to deal with it."

Iskander said theatres across the country have been cutting the number of shows they produce and are running shorter seasons.

He added that a "chronic lack of investment" in new research and development work is resulting in "a lot of retreads happening across the sector". 

"[Battersea Arts Centre] always has a maintenance season in summer, but those seasons seem to be getting longer and longer as we try to consolidate our investment in the work. 

"I feel very fortunate that we can still keep investing, but there's no doubt that a huge injection of further support or cash for everyone would mean that we could completely transform this landscape overnight."

Business model is broken

Cultural consultant Sherry Dobbin joined the conversation on Linkedin saying traditonal theatre business models don't match the new demands and needs of the industry.

She cited a list of often conflicting demands that theatres are expected to meet including "must be more affordable but deliver more and and must be diverse and specific and yet inclusive for all ages all the time".

She added that "salaries haven't grown in over 12 years, but the delivery of social-media and digital content has doubled the expectations and skills needed". Likewise, artistic directors face increasing pressure from funders to monitor and report with fewer staff and no mentoring support.

Lack of support

Amanda Parker, a campaigner for inclusive change in the creative industries, said many of the artistic directors leaving after having only been in post a short time are ethnically-diverse leaders, who have not received enough support.

"The sustained under-investment in the sector and the historic lack of diversity means that those new appointments, generally speaking, are more frequently ethnically diverse or from other marginalised backgrounds.

"We've faced a 30% or 40% real terms drop [in funding] over the last 10 years and that has an effect on every leader.

"But in this instance, we have new leaders coming in with strong track records, with terrific talent. But because they're left to navigate everything their peers are navigating - plus the newness of leadership, plus the newness of their board looking at leaders that don't look as familiar - that is leading to a situation where they're not being given space to grow. There isn't the support around them.

"There's this shorthand that diversity in leadership just means the appointment at the top and not the shifting required to make the space inclusive, to make the programme inclusive, to make the board inclusive and receptive to diverse and new and fresh opinions."

Radical leadership models

Recognising how difficult it has become for one person to lead a large organisation in the current climate, the National Theatre's recent advert for Rufus Norris's replacement said the company was open to exploring different models of leadership.

That could be in the form a single lead applicant proposing one or two deputies; a single applicant with a team of strong associates; a joint application; or an application from another creative discipline other than directing, or any other form of approach.

"In the past this has been one person. We are now in a different world: culturally, politically, socially, economically," the advert states. 

"It therefore follows that we should be, and are, open to different models of Directorship of the National Theatre."

From Battersea Arts Centre, Iskander said the sector should be open to all sorts of models that suit different environments and different organisations if it can help address some of the pressures faced by leaders.

"It would be nice to see some radical models that we can all base on in terms of governance or leadership," he said.

"I [have thought] about what collective artistic leadership could look like, - a more democratic approach, with more assembly-led decision making. 

"I'm really curious, as we try to make our art more relevant to our local communities, what that might look like. But unfortunately examples to base it on are very few and far between."