Benevolent leadership in the arts
How does one become a therapist for artists? That is the first question that popped into my head when I prepared for an interview with Margi Brown Ash.
Brown Ash started out as an actor, achieving great success at the beginning of her career, which turned out to be very stressful. “I found that there weren’t avenues, like there might be today, for actors to talk about their feelings or their health,” she says.
Brown Ash believes that actors and artists in general should not wait until they are unwell to start seeking counselling. “If your currency is your emotions and your body, it makes sense that you would need a conversation now and then.”
Brown Ash’s long studies — she holds a PhD, an MA in Collaborative Practice, a Master of Counselling and various other diplomas — nourished her dual practice as both a therapist and theatre-maker. All of those threads have helped her gain insight on what makes a benevolent leader. She kindly shared her learnings with me.
Embracing horizontal leadership
“As a theatre-maker you learn leadership very early on because you work in collaboration with a team and unless that team works, your projects fail,” explains Brown Ash. She applied this collaborative approach to her work as a therapist: “when you are in the therapy room I am not the expert, you are, because you know yourself better than anyone.”
Adopting a position of “collaborator” and “facilitator” rather than that of an expert is something Brown Ash believes art professionals would benefit from implementing at all levels. Horizontal leadership can help your team feel more connected to the mission of your institution and serve audiences more successfully. Horizontal leadership can also make you reconsider the way you interact with your audience: if you are no longer the expert but the collaborator or facilitator, what new plays, exhibitions, shows might you create?
There is no such thing as a single story
During our conversation, Brown Ash explains to me that in the therapy room, a story told from a single viewpoint is called a “thin” story. Thin stories usually lead to misunderstandings and struggles. For instance, when we enter into conflict with someone, it is usually because we only think of one way of solving an issue, or just one way in which the events unfolded. “As a theatre-maker,” Brown Ash says, “I want to hear everyone’s voice.” For her, there is no such thing as a single story. Here again, applying this idea to the way you work with your teams could make a huge difference. Brown Ash concedes that when an important deadline approaches — the exhibition opening, the very first performance of a new play — team leaders might need to become “benevolent dictators” because decisions need to be made. Besides those exceptional times, Brown Ash argues that people in leadership positions within art institutions could do their best to listen to all the different stories and voices within their team, “because who’s to say that the best idea doesn’t come from the youngest person in the room?” exclaims Brown Ash.
Agreeing to investigate all the various layers of a story can also have a huge impact on the plays, shows, exhibitions and programs that you start offering to your audiences. “Watching other people react to art, including my three-year-old grandchild, has made me look at art in a completely new light.”
Leaders aren’t perfect and that’s okay
“As leaders, we all make mistakes at some point …and that’s okay!” Brown Ash remarks with a broad smile. “You need to stop pretending you know everything because you are the CEO, or Director.” According to her, fessing up to our mistakes and creating a work environment where all members of our team feel both supported and supportive is key.
“People in leadership positions often feel alone or feel like they should be on their own,” adds Brown Ash, “this is because we, as a society, are still clinging on to the story of the hero.” Brown Ash argues that arts professionals — and people in general — now need to embrace the collaborative archetype.
Brown Ash and I discuss the numerous collaborative systems that have preceded the hero phase : indigenous communities from different regions of the world, but also trees, as recently uncovered by Peter Wohlleben, have networks of communication and work collaboratively to insure the well-being of the forest they form. “I remember my first introduction to theatre when I was a child at school and the teacher asked me to be a tree,” she says, “and decades later, here I am again, trying my best to be a tree. I have come full circle!”
Margi Brown Ash will be speaking about creating an environment of wellbeing inside and outside art institutions at the upcoming Communicating the Arts conference, in Montreal October 8-10. Join her and hundreds of arts professionals at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts for three days of talks, events and workshop on the theme of inclusivity, empathy and well-being.
Photos by Genevieve Memory