Why doing a U-turn is OK
In a climate where we are encouraged to innovate as organisations, and in which failure is frowned upon – especially from a funding perspective – it can be difficult to find the balance.
At this week's Communicating the Arts conference in Sydney, two arts leaders offered an inspiring reality check that imbued the audience with confidence – a sign, if you like, that we can find confidence in our failures.
“It is actually OK to make a u-turn; that is not failure,” said Elaine Chia, CEO of Sydney's City Recital Hall.
“We work in the arts; we are going to fail. The human condition is one that won’t allow ourselves to fail,” she added. “We want to do our best because we are passionate about what we are doing.”
Chia was joined by Anthony Bastic, CEO and Creative Director, AGB Events, who said that we need to give people more license to take risks, and to fail.
Navigating failure with a brand shift
Chia was brought on by City Recital Hall to establish a new not-for-profit company charged with transforming the venue from a hall-for-hire model to a curated model.
“Our plan was simple at the start – you go big and you go fast. Those who live in Sydney know its short attention span, so unless you do something to disrupt [the market] they just say, ‘Oh another change of management’. So one of the first things I did was turn the dial on what the venue produced,” Chia explained.
After 16 years where 85% of staged events were classical music and other artforms made up just 15%, Chia and her team ambitiously set to turn that into a 50/50 equation in just three years.
“Numbers are really useful when they say the right thing,” said Chia. “We set amazing targets that reached for the sky – a 50% increase in four years – that is 50% activity and 50% audiences.”
Over time Chia and her team have increased activity by 27%, but their audience remains flatlined. “If our activity increased why haven’t we increased our audiences? Those numbers only say so much.”
She continued: “We went really diverse in our first and second year and it didn’t work. Because we have 1200 seats there is a tipping point when this feels wrong, so we have to really think more carefully about what we put on to give us the best chance of success.”
While City Recital Hall was not getting full houses, its qualitative engagement showed great traction around their new brand awareness. “It was a really conscious decision to do that, because you can’t bring in new audiences, genres, and diversity if you stay in one artform,” she said.
“The biggest challenge to that diversity was our name,’City Recital Hall’,” said Chia. The new organisation tried to identify more with its location, Angel Place, to rebrand, but was not successful due to legal challenges.
“We tried very hard to make ourselves more contemporary as a brand, and that hasn’t worked, so we let that go. I could spend two years with my team driving that brand change and its legal challenges, but what we can and we cannot control is real. So we decided to put our focus on what we put on our stages.”
Taking failure to your board
Chia is the Chair of the Board of Contemporary Asian Australian Performance (CAAP). “For me, to sit on a board [of another organisation] as well as holding a role in senior management I think is really important because it allows me to see both sides.
“It helps me to be a CEO to be a Chair, because I know how I want to be treated and I know when to step back,” she added.
With CAAP being a small organisation, Chia said her Chair role was very hands on, helping with grant applications and driving a lot of the organisation's activities.
“But as CEO of a larger organisation, if my Board tried to micro-manage I would push them right back. One of the biggest learnings I have had in the arts was, how do I tell my Board their role is to govern?” Chia said.
She made the distinction that if you, as a CEO, in tandem with your leadership team can’t own an idea, then it will go pear-shaped.
“Last year our Board come up with something that I just could not own. I had to make the decision of how much I was going to push back respectively, or how much do I let go and deliver something I didn’t believe. I did the former and it caused a lot of friction,” Chia recalled.
“How you get through that is with confidence and trust in each other.”
“The first time you cancel a show it is heartbreaking – you feel like a massive failureBut once you do it once, it is easier the next time. It is about understanding that failure and embracing that trust.”
She continued: “The first time you cancel a show it is heartbreaking – you feel like a massive failure – and I didn’t know how to go to my board and say we are actually cancelling the show. The box office was terrible; the show was great, but we hadn’t connected the artists and the audiences together. But once you do it once, it is easier the next time. It is about understanding that failure and embracing that trust,” Chia said.
Understanding what doesn’t work
Bastic said that producing a light-focused festival in Alice Springs was one of the hardest things he has done in his professional life. Still in its infancy, Parrtjima is a free, 10-night festival turning to Indigenous culture to define its creative direction.
Bastic is no stranger to the medium, having worked with the NSW Government to bring Vivid to Sydney.
“I was approached by the NT Government who wanted me to replicate the success of Vivid, but to take it out to Alice Springs as tourism was declining. They thought, ‘Vivid works so why not just move it?’ Vivid is the wrong answer for this cultural heartland. So as an events company, we set out to work with local community in finding out what they wanted,” explained Bastic.
“The greatest lesson I learnt was always listen to the community. What was really important for us was to develop a reference group that had the cultural understanding and the cultural permissions to share different stories, but in the first year we got it wrong.”
Bastic explained that the reference group was not representative and did not have permissions to share the local stories. “That caused us to look in the mirror and look at every aspect of how to create this festival. By following the correct protocols the community has embraced Parrtjima, constantly offering suggestions and their confidence has grown.
“I wanted to bring our know how to the country – to present ourselves as the enabler – not the creative director. The creative must come from the community,” Bastic concluded.
Chia agreed. “I am not an Artistic Director; telling stories is not my job. I can tell them to the audience and bring them along, but I do not make the stories. To think I am a creator is a very dangerous role for someone like me in this job.”
Giving your team agency against failure
Chia believes that “no idea is never dead. You can just suspend it or park it for a while. It is all part of our journey.”
She said that three years into their new strategic vision, City Recital Hall are more confident as an organisation about revisiting that brand conversation, because they now have traction for their new product.
“We have had to burn a lot of bridges and face burn-out to try and get to that point of saying what are we, and what are we trying to produce, and know what is going to work – and to be more confident in calling that,” Chia continued.
“No idea is never dead. You can just suspend it or park it for a while. It is all part of our journey.”
She used the example of a new program, the Extended Play Festival which ran from noon to midnight. “We wanted to attract a new audience and it just sounded good at the time,” said Chia. This was a project that in concept, vision and leadership, the entire team embraced; the sector embraced – we had 99 proposals for 20 acts. We even had philanthropic support and an Australia Council grant. Everybody wanted this to happen. But we just didn’t sell the tickets. And when we did it a second time, 50% of the audience was comped.
“The reviews were fantastic, the feedback amazing, so why did we not get the audience? The first question we asked was ‘Are we the right venue for this?’ The team decided not to do it again.”
As CEO, Chia gave her team agency over this decision and they again revisited the program.
“It feels like a failure because we worked our butts off but didn’t get the vibe we wanted, but we couldn’t let it go. The team decided to do it again but this time they’d own it – they’d curate it. There was no guarantee it will be a success. But we have come away saying that we don’t need next year to be a success or the next one after that. We have to accept that we have claimed this space in the Sydney music market – this is a long term proposition – and to allow ourselves the time to achieve that.”