Directing an arts organisation

 1 February 2011

Starting as promotions coordinator for St George's in Bristol, Suzanne Rolt is now director of the music venue. She describes how she built up leadership skills for her work.

St George's Bristol is a concert hall and recording studios.
St George's Bristol is a concert hall and recording studios.

Leading an arts organisation

"If you look at the job description, it's all about leadership for the organisation:

  • the vision to lead it forward
  • the skills to communicate that to your staff
  • to get everyone working together as a team
  • managing that team.

"The job that I have is quite particular. As well as having that leadership role, I also do some of the artistic direction as well. So the classical music that we programme at St. George's is a strand that I personally programme."

"In a lot of large organisations, what you'll find is that you have an artistic director, but you also have a chief executive who takes control of the day-to-day running of the building. But I encompass both those roles, and hence any day can be very different."

A typical day as director

"When it's coming to the lead-up to the launch of a new season, getting all the information into the brochure for audiences to know about concerts, then I'm probably on the phone from 9:00 in the morning: talking to artists, pinning down the final details of a concert, talking to them about the programme itself, discussing whether the concert is going to be have something new added into it. It's very much the creative/artistic side."

"As well as having a leadership role, I also do some of the artistic direction."

"But then it will also be about negotiating the fees for that concert. Suddenly you have to put a different hat on. You're talking to an artist, having moved from those very nice, warm, safe conversations about repertoire and the themes of a concert, to having to be a bit hard-nosed."

"Because with that hat on, obviously what I need to do is to get the best possible financial deal for the organisation."

"That could be one aspect of what I'm doing. I might then find I actually have to write the copy for that concert, so I have to summarise it in 100 words, and that's just something I have a particular skill at being able to do."

"In a larger organisation, maybe the artistic director books the concert, they immediately pass it on to marketing, and then the marketing team would craft the copy to appeal to the audience."

The leadership role of a director

"Dealing with the artists is an important part of what I do. Every week we have a staff meeting, we get all the staff together and there are things, issues that need to be discussed. Every two weeks, a senior management meeting where I actually have to bring up the main topics that need to be looked at."

"People skills are vital. If people like you and you like them, the chances are, you'll get somewhere with a project."

"I need to report back every two months to a board of trustees, so I have to take any objectives they have. They will set strategy - within a charity, that's officially what a trustee does. They establish policy and strategy and it's for me as the director and the leader of the executive team to actually implement that. So a lot of the day will be about implementing it."

"In a venue like this, it's about looking at the building as well as the artists. So I could be talking about how well the bar operation is working downstairs. It could be about: have we got a problem with the stage, is there a creaky floorboard in the stage? It could be a last-minute problem coming up with a concert happening that night and suddenly something goes wrong, so you need to react to that."

Engaging with audiences and the arts

"I think an important skill as a director of an organisation is to actually be able to engage with people, communicate with them easily and fluently, to lead to a productive working relationship."

"Increasingly I find myself going out of the office to meet people around the city. Perhaps travelling to London to talk to other people from other music venues. Because so much today is about partnerships.

"Everyone talks about 'person skills', but they're absolutely vital. If people like you and you like them, the chances are, you'll get somewhere with a project. If you clash with people or don't communicate with them, don't bother talking to people, I think you end up going into quite a narrow alleyway."

"I want St. George's to be all about opening up, engaging with its audience and artistic community and with other people who work in the arts."

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