Why we need strong women to lead risk-taking in the arts
In a recent conversation, a curator posed a question: ‘When will we stop considering the words “strong” and “women” as an oxymoron?’
As a sector, we have got better at talking about gender equality – and we certainly have published plenty of advice on how women can break through the "glass ceiling" professionally – but is all the talk leading to tangible change?
Alison Wright, Assistant Director, Engagement and Development at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA), believes that we need to change our own vernacular to affect change. ‘A lot of people align strength with the work that I do, but in actual fact it is just my work.
‘We certainly don’t say it for the male CEOs of business across the spectrum – we don’t use that language, "strong and bold". It is OK to be kind and firm; those two things can work together.’
"It is OK to be kind and firm; those two things can work together."
Wright acknowledges that we are in a time when empowering women is more important than ever. And while she enjoys working in an organisation where 69% of full-time staff are women, she did not start her career in the arts. Rather, she began in the male dominated fields of car racing and the Asian business world.
‘Internationally, I think Australia has a way to go in seeing and valuing women inside business with regard to progressive and flexible workplaces. In some respects, the arts does embrace a more creative person.’
Wright adds: ‘I definitely want to see a world where talent, and not privilege, is what drives good decision making for leaders.’
"I definitely want to see a world where talent, and not privilege, is what drives good decision making for leaders."
Wright joined the National Gallery of Australia in late 2014 to support the organisation in the area of provenance, becoming its Assistant Director a matter of months later. Most recently, under newly appointed Director Nick Mitzevich, her portfolio has again expanded to include visitor services, what she described as the ‘end-to-end brand experience’.
‘The [gallery’s] brand has shifted dramatically in that time, and the biggest shift has been becoming a customer focused organisation. The best way to deal with that is to not have a fixed view along the way, because the ecosystem within which you work changes all the time. Being adaptive is the thing to aim for,’ says Wright.
Why women need to be bolder
More so than embracing risk, women in leadership today have the capacity to be bold and to lead. Respect for that kind of ambition is slowly growing.
‘You bet!’ says Wright. ‘It’s time for us all to talk a little bit more.’
‘We need boldness – I align it to risk and courage – and we need it in the arts because we are competing inside a consumer market and we want to share what we have with as many people as possible and you don’t do that if you're timid. You certainly don’t do it if the status quo just exists.’
"We need boldness and we need it in the arts because (...) we want to share what we have with as many people as possible"
‘For some people it is an innate quality, it is part of their leadership of style. For me it feels a slightly more forthright, straight talking – courageous if you want to call it that – way of operating. It’s part of my nature – the kind of leader I want to be and what I want to deploy as well,’ she said.
Wright adds that she feels that organic growth doesn’t feel like the right thing for our sector at the moment. She believes that it is not only a case of bold thinking and backing yourself, but one also of timing.
Working with "push back"
Part of the territory of a senior position is dealing with “push back” – reticence to change and authority, especially when it is driven by a woman.
‘I thrive on the challenges of what change brings – sometimes good, sometimes not as good. My career has change management all the way through it,’ says Wright.
‘One of the things about change is to be unafraid of it, to accept that we are in a constant changing state anyway. The best way to push through – to push back – is to listen, but also to make your argument and then be ready to make the hard decisions,’ she continues.
True leadership requires the ability to have conviction on that change, believes Wright.
‘A person has to have the ability to step into a space and carry people with them, but they also need to say these are the right actions for the organisation, and while I appreciate there’s a portion who might disagree, this is where we stand and this is where we are going.’
‘That word “resolve” is quite important, more than strength; It is about a spine, a confidence, and sometimes that confidence needs to be quiet and sometimes it needs to be loud.’
Brave decision making
Wright believes that the best management practice is to trust your intuition.
‘I really admire and value courage – when the junior employer disagrees and makes a point to fight for their idea – that is a something I see in myself, and you end up valuing different things based on that experience.
‘I have quit my job three times in my career with no job to go to. People tell me that is not the golden rule for shaping a good career, but every time I have been confident in who I am and the abilities I have. It’s a very liberating space to be in.
‘I think instinct is hugely undervalued. When you are building teams, and evaluating people who work with you and you want to grow an organisation, then you must trust that instinct – to feel what is working,’ says Wright.
"I think instinct is hugely undervalued. When you are building teams, and evaluating people who work with you and you want to grow an organisation, then you must trust that instinct – to feel what is working."
She believes that it comes with maturity, that some of us are lucky enough to have it young, but also that you can grow it, ‘like a good garden. It is about confidence and it is not exclusive to gender.’
She said that a large part of it comes from losing fear in the spoken word.
‘I have seen it every day in every business I have worked in, where people are constantly filtering their language. There is something really powerful in having a culture where you can speak freely,’ she said.
"Our remit is not Canberra; our remit is sharing"
Today, that tone of language in business is not restricted to a management style. Rather it is the domain of brand and content – the areas that Wright is responsible for at the NGA. She is about to embark on writing a new content strategy for the NGA.
‘When we think about content, people have been very focused on the digital space but my good friend and colleague, JiaJia Fei from the Jewish Museum, says that if digital or technology is the answer, then what is the question?’
Under Wright, the NGA has recently invested in an in-house filmmaker. ‘We think we are in a great position to work with creatives to make content with the collection and our exhibitions – content creation is the key – just look at the Netflix platform.’
‘When we are thinking about an exhibition we should not be thinking about a show and a book. We should be thinking about the education materials that sit around that which don’t require you coming to Canberra; what films we can make to tell a story; how social media can interact with our blog – today there are a myriad of opportunities. Our remit is not a Canberra remit, it is a sharing one.’
Wright has a question she likes to pose to her team. What is more important: the person who comes to the gallery and spends three hours, gets an audio tour and spend $100 at the shop, or someone who is passing through, uses the toilets and passes through the Aboriginal Memorial poles in the gallery’s foyer en route?
"It’s OK to engage in different ways and one should not be less valued over another."
‘This word engagement is bandied around everywhere. One of the things I try to convey is a lack of judgment on how you engage with the arts. It’s OK to engage in different ways and one should not be less valued over another.’
‘I once had 15-minutes to go to the TATE [London] and I found myself in the “Rothko room” balling my eyes out. You don’t have to immerse yourself any longer in a space to make it more meaningful. It is OK to have fleeting cultural experience – bring them on! We need to become more relaxed about that as a sector – the way we value engagement,' she says.
It's thinking like this that has forged Alison Wright’s career – not as a strong female professional, an “oxymoron” – but as someone who does her job well, and that fresh thinking is inspiration for all, regardless of gender.