At our cohort’s graduation ceremony at Tate Britain this month, we were each asked to give a short speech about the impact of the Fellowship on us, and on the sector - through us - in the years to come.
It was quite hard.
I listened as each Fellow skilfully selected a slice of their experience, while cheerfully thinking ‘this will help me write my concluding blog about clearing space to hear multiple voices’.
Something that recurred was the specific influence of the cohort on each individual. While we spoke to a room of funders, mentors, secondment hosts, and all round impressive people from the cultural sector who have enabled and contributed to our experience – many of our words were to each other, in gratitude and recognition of the time we have put into one another’s development.
It is remarkable to realise that a group of ambitious people are more concerned that other people know their worth than with their own being noted. It lifts every endeavour.
Quietening my own view in order to hear others more wholly is a trademark of the year that is now actively informing my choices back at work. It is expanding the way that I curate events and it has helped me to understand an early challenge from my mentor, who said:
“If you can easily contact all the people you are programming for an event you aren’t reaching far enough away from yourself.”
When one cohort of Fellows leaves and the next begins, we don’t meet each other – but an effort is made to reach across the hinterland of envy and well-wishing (both genuine) to say something useful. As the Clore 15s begin their year, I recall advice from one of the Clore 13s:
“Build bridges with those you don’t immediately feel a connection with. Look for it. Make multiple attempts to find it. It will be worth it.”
Good advice the world over. There were swift connections and there were ones that took steps, came with time, wine or lucky circumstance. Everyone has given me something of value, and for this last blog I’d like to honour that by inviting the other Fellows to co-produce this piece with me. The importance of co-production has been brought home to me in many forms; through my secondment at Streetwise Opera where there is always someone who is or has been homeless at the table, in the talk from Claire Hodgson and Jamie Beddard who became co-directors of Diverse City, and from seeing the increased success and deliverability of ideas that had been created and tested in forum, group, or as part of an Action Learning Set.
So I sent up a flare to the Clore 14 WhatsApp group: ‘I’m writing a piece about the influence the other Fellows have had on you as a leader. If we mean anything at all to you, please respond before my editorial deadline.’
There are now at least twenty-five people who know me well enough to support me, and support me well enough to challenge me – here are seven of them. This way of working with others is what I hoped to find when I applied for the Fellowship programme, and I recommend reaching for it if you are more inclined to collaborate than compete in a sector which thrives on the complex navigation of both.
The following words weave a more accurate picture than I could manage alone of the ongoing imprinting process that occurs amongst a cohort – a process that provides a sense of stability for open and innovative leaders.
“Individually and collectively, they gave me place to dissent and discuss and I realised how essential this was to me. My Fellows, friends, helped me raise my voice and I want to help others raise theirs.”
I recall a meeting Petra and I had after dinner one evening, in which I gave her space to articulate her ambitions - at my request - while I tried to map out how a person might feasibly deliver on such a complex set of incredible notions in the span of one human lifetime. We made her a five-year plan on a big sheet of paper and she has it on her wall. I believe in Petra completely and taking the time to reflect back to her the ideas she has communicated this year was one of the most useful contributions I could have made.
“My fellow Fellows (I still enjoy that formula) have made me incredibly optimistic. It’s reassuring to see at first hand that, come what may, there are people with incredible reserves of energy and passion prepared to dedicate their lives to a sector I love.”
More than reassuring to me is that Ross is a Senior Policy Officer at Arts Council England, unendingly hard working and a person of huge integrity. His passion for castles is adorable and the hours that he works deplorable to me. I am grateful to him for the attention he pays to people’s experience across all sectors and for the tangible feedback he has given my work.
“Hello! Fellows changed me in so many ways - mainly inspired me to be brave, to see the bigger picture, to take up more space to believe in myself, and when on study trips, to see parts of the UK in different ways – i.e. more understanding of the complexities, contexts and issues. Our Fellows feel like the base of a trampoline from where we can take turns taking off, they are whom I can talk to about anything on any level, wherever I’m coming from on that day. I’ve had conversations that have persuaded me to listen more to the views I disagree with (although I am still working on that!!).”
Sophie and I had a conversation about having the confidence to take up the space you know yourself to be capable of. We hold each other accountable to that agreement and loudly praise the other when we witness it in action.
“It’s difficult to articulate the impact you all had in my experience of the Fellowship - I certainly learned from all of your skill sets and the collective mine of knowledge in the group was an invaluable resource. But more importantly, I learned to make space to see the whole person. Now that I’m back in work, I find I’m taking time to really see the whole person in front of me, to slow things down rather than react. It’s making my teaching much more enjoyable for me and the students, and I feel like a calmer colleague.”
Kathleen hosted a study visit at her workplace, the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance. The experience made me want to sing in public again, something I haven’t done for a decade. Her relationship with music is about expression and connection more than performance or perfection, and something unlocked in me about acceptance, presence, and the living role of the leader. I saw how holding practice at the heart of what I do immediately makes me more grounded and accessible.
“My fellow Fellows have taught me to take a breath, to stop and listen. Not just to hear and respond with my own thoughts, but to really listen. It’s still work in progress but I’m getting better at it. They’ve taught me there is more than one way to be successful.”
After most sessions Marianna would tell me what had really landed with her. This was almost always surprising to me. I noticed how she steadily added to her already considerable arsenal of skills, and always credited whoever had helped inspire them. Her early insistence that I give my new initiative a name made the difference when an opportunity to bid for funding came up. What seems like an obvious action to one isn’t even a part of the picture for others, the Fellowship year gave rise to people sharing what they knew for others to grab and try out.
“I’ve never been regularly together with such a broad range of people’s experience, knowledge and points of view across the cultural sector, rigorously considering how and why we do things. The other Fellows inspired me, challenged me, provoked me, supported me and helped me to consider where I want to be within the sector, where my art form sits within the bigger picture and how we might do things differently and better. I see the incredible potential of what can be achieved by my fellow Fellows, and am excited by what will happen as we continue to come together, collaborating across our disciplines and positions. And they have become beautiful friendships, for a lifetime!”
On the first afternoon Elizabeth approached me during a tea break with two invitations. To discuss something she had perceived I was anxious about, and to go and see some contemporary dance with her. Taking the initiative and creating solutions in one elegant offer. In the final weeks of our Fellowship we took a course in facilitation called ‘Conflict, Challenge and Confrontation’ at the Gestalt Centre. I understood the experience so much more clearly because of Elizabeth’s familiarity with me and her ability to speak to that truth.
“Ah my fellow Fellows! A set of 25 unique individuals who somehow (by the power of WhatsApp and Clore Leadership combined) became a symbiotic hive mind capable of balance, empathy, insight, critical advice and wisdom on seemingly any topic. We were told it would be the most valuable part of the course but they didn’t let on just how valuable. How we’d go about our day and suddenly have 25 other voices in our head, watching, advising, prodding, probing and daring us to make the next leap. Whilst we were only physically together as a group for 4 weeks (can that be correct?) you left a collective imprint on my psyche, an internal moral/ethical/spiritual Wikipedia to check in with when I need to ask how, who, what or why. What a gift, eh? That’s what was on the surface! Edit as you see fit.”
I left in Jonny’s final line to me because it represents something important. By entrusting a group of professionals who were strangers to each other a year ago with our unedited ideas about how and why we do the work we do, we have allowed ourselves to be seen and shaped into clearer, stronger leaders.
“A friend is one to whom one may pour out the contents of one's heart, chaff and grain together, knowing that gentle hands will take and sift it, keep what is worth keeping, and with a breath of kindness, blow the rest away.” - Dinah Maria Craik