The Art in Coaching

Image: St Matthew Passion (as Matteuspassionen) for Folkoperan, Stockholm 2014. Directed by Joshua Sofaer. Photo by Markus Gårder.

Claire Antrobus, Relational Dynamics 1st coach and trainer interviews Joshua Sofaer about how his work as coach and his work as an artist interact. 

What first attracted you to train as a coach?

A large component of what I do as an artist is speaking with people and I was looking for a way in which I could become more useful when listening to other voices and creating contexts for those voices to be heard. At the same time it would be true to say that I was initially skeptical about coaching. I think that was the result of preconceptions that I had about therapeutic language, which in fact coaching avoids.

After the RD1st course, what other coach training or research have you done?

In terms of formal training, I did the Clean Coaching with Emergent Knowledge distant learning course with The Clean Language Centre. Clean Coaching with Emergent Knowledge is a highly structured approach propounded by David Grove, and is a useful tool as part of a coaching skills kit. Apart from the methodological approach, it has made me very aware of how clean (or not!) my language is.

Regular co-supervision and The Coaching Lounge are important ongoing peer learning methods; places to share and gather ideas and to ask questions.

In terms of thinking about how a coaching approach might apply to larger groups, I found Harrison Owen’s Open Space Technology extremely useful. (I had been to a number of sessions advertised as being ‘open space’ but it was not until I read the whole book that I understood and could implement the process effectively.)

At the moment I’m reading Let Me Tell You a Story by Jorge Bucay, which I have found helpful in thinking about what can be achieved by having a clear symbolic or metaphorical picture of a situation.

How do you use coaching now in your work?

There are three main ways in which I use coaching in my work.

The first is a conventional coaching relationship with a client: what could be called ‘clear coaching’.

The second is as part of my long-standing practice as a facilitator and mentor, where I have found coaching invaluable as a way of enriching creative processes for artists and makers: what could be called ‘peer-to-peer coaching’.

The third is as a way of engaging with participants in my art practice. I suppose there are two different strands to this. One is about giving participants a voice in the work, and the other is as a form of art practice itself. For example, to give you an idea of how I have used coaching as a way of giving participants a voice, I directed a staged version of Bach’s St Matthew Passion for Folkoperan in Stockholm in which I replaced the biblical narrative with filmed interviews with the singers and musicians about the core themes of the Passion: forgiveness, guilt, pain, loneliness, fear, love. Coaching became a vitally important way to ‘hold the space’ for the singers and musicians who chose to share their personal stories.

To give an example of how I have used coaching as a medium in arts practice itself, in a piece called Object of Love for the Wäinö Aaltonen Museum in Finland, I created a structure where I offered 25 minute coaching sessions to members of the public in the art museum. Sessions took place in a large soundproof glass box. I wanted to see how an explicit use of a coaching in an art context might function. These conversations could be witnessed but not heard. People on the outside of the box could see the coachee undergoing some kind of change. I was interested in how levels of seeing might affect the coaching session. I wear an elaborate costume that covers my face. I wanted to become a symbol or a figure, rather than someone to whom the coachee would look for reassurance. The aim was to be an object that precipitates or moves the coachee, rather than a figure of authority, or a reassuring, validating presence.

My experience was that this structure offered permission to audience members to become coachees and to feel free to share. Some of this seems paradoxical: the public setting somehow stimulated a feeling of security. The soundproof glass box encouraged focus.


How would you describe coaching in your own words?

Coaching is a process through which an individual or group is supported to achieve personal or professional goals. It is centred in the objectives that are brought by the coachee. It is future and action focussed.

What have you found most challenging about coaching?

Despite having become aware of how spoken and non-verbal language is so full of bias and has the capacity to lead others, I still find it challenging to keep my own communications as clean and bias-free as I would want.

Image: Object of Love by Joshua Sofaer. Wäinö Aaltonen Museum, Turku 2013. Photo by Hannu Seppälä.


What have you found most useful about coaching?

Coaching has made me much more mindful of how I listen and elicit responses from others. As a dialogic tool it has influenced my personal relationships as well as my professional relationships.

What has surprised you about coaching?

I think what surprised me at first was that to be a productive coach you do not need to have disciplinary expertise or subject specific knowledge in the coachee’s area. The process does the work.

Are there any new or more ways you want to use coaching in the future?

It is important for me to continue with all strands of my coaching practice: ‘clear coaching’, ‘peer-to-peer coaching’, and coaching in my art practice. Most immediately I am working on a UK tour of a piece called Opera Helps. Members of the public apply for a ticket with a problem. Opera singers then go to their house and listen to the problem.


Image: Opera Helps (as Operahjälpen) by Joshua Sofaer for Folkoperan, Stockholm 2012. Photo by Markus Gårder

When the problem is in the air, the singer selects an aria from the classical 19th Century repertoire and sings it directly in the person’s house with a pre-recorded professional backing track. When you are in the audience of an opera you bring your own life. You are hoping that some magic will happen on the stage and that you will leave somehow better for the experience. By locating the interaction in people’s homes and making the problem the reason for meeting, paradoxically, people listen to the music more acutely. It’s very interesting to work on active listening skills with opera singers, who have trained for so many years honing their singing voice; and extremely humbling to experience up close the power of their song.

Supporting change at Ripon Museum Trust

Volunteer-led activity in the Workhouse Museum

This post was first published in Arts Professional magazine in November 2016.

Ripon Museum Trust (RMT) is a small independent museum group with three sites that tell a story about law, order and social justice – the former courthouse, prison and police station and workhouse.

Alongside the museum’s core staff team of three, more than 100 volunteers deliver the museum’s activities, including maintaining the original workhouse garden, delivering tours and learning events, caring for the buildings, front-of-house, book-keeping, collections management and fundraising.

Strategic workforce plan

Two years ago the trustees developed an ambitious strategic plan that recognised that if the museum was to make a bigger impact and secure its collection it had to invest in its leadership style and workforce development.

The plan also included the proposal to acquire part of the former workhouse site (Sharow View) which North Yorkshire County Council (NYCC) was planning to transfer into community ownership. This led to a successful application to Arts Council England’s (ACE) Resilience Fund and a grant of £85,000 in March 2015.

I started work on the project as the Leadership Associate in September last year, working alongside the new director. Our first step was to invite a cross-section of trustees, volunteers and staff to act as a combined steering group and project champions, known as the ‘Change Leaders’.

This group of 17 people collectively defined the project aim as “to build a stronger organisation with a shared vision and values, agreed ways of working, better internal communication and clearer roles and responsibilities”.

A shared vision

The first phase of the project, with support from People Make it Work, saw the Change Leaders develop this shared vision in the form of a set of four core values and associated behaviours, and a draft action plan.

The second phase of the project with Relational Dynamics 1st offered the Change Leaders training to develop skills and approaches needed to realise our vision. A key component of this training was a bespoke four-day leadership and coaching course covering high-level communication skills, goal-setting, action learning, understanding trust, feedback and difficult conversations.

The third phase entailed development and delivery of the action plan which was split into five ‘Learning in Action’ projects, each of which sought to improve one aspect of organisational resilience, such as improving quality and consistency of visitor experience, making fuller use of technology, improving internal communications and clarity of roles.

Threading throughout the year was the opportunity for Change Leaders to develop personal learning goals through external training and events, mentoring and study trips.

Very quickly we realised we had underestimated the impact of the project on the core staff, and two temporary part-time roles were created. This meant staff could take time away from their duties to visit other organisations and attend training, and also created some capacity to pilot and explore these new ways of working.

ACE was supportive of the need to reallocate funds from the training budget towards staffing capacity, and other changes we made to project design in response to feedback from the Change Leaders.

Coaching style of leadership

A year on since the project started, we are still in the process of turning the shared vision we developed into reality and expect that to continue for some time. The external evaluation shows we are well on track and that the in-house training, and particularly the coaching skills course, has led to improved clarity and openness of internal communications and increased trust.

Already by the end of the main coaching course people were seeing the benefits of a more coaching style of leadership. One participant noted in their feedback: “I have felt more valued, and been given independence and responsibility to solve challenges and work collaboratively with management and colleagues.”

The external evaluation revealed a shift away from assuming that one tier of the organisation has the answers towards drawing on the resource of the whole organisation to find them. As one staff member outlined in her initial thoughts about how she might apply the coaching skills she’d developed: “At the moment we have three layers – trustees, staff and volunteers – like a layer cake. It is hoped that using coaching techniques as a tool we can change the structure into more of a marble cake with more integrated participation in decision-making and responsibility for running the museums.”

Focusing on understanding our impact better through research, and using study trips to increase awareness of how other museums and other sectors, such as education, approach these issues has already paid dividends. The evidence collated through this project about the impact of volunteering, and ideas about co-curating, inspired by a study trip to Derby Museums, contributed to a successful £400,000 application to the Heritage Lottery Fund to acquire the Sharow View site.

Action learning skills

Finally, the group coaching or ‘action learning’ skills we developed are beginning to support the wider sector through a peer-learning event that York Museum Trust hosted in October. The event was attended by music, theatre and visual arts organisations in the Yorkshire region as well as museums, and we are hoping this peer-learning initiative will continue through an action learning set.


If you’re interested in the detail of what we did and how then you might find our project microsite useful reading. The site includes the external evaluator’s report and my own formal end of report for our main funder, Arts Council England, as well as projects updates and notes from key meetings and events.

Setting goals


I’m getting ready for a race tomorrow, a 10km run. I’ve pinned my number on my vest, found my lucky shorts, charged my Garmin watch and most importantly I’ve made a ‘pace bracelet’. The pace bracelet is a list of my target times for each mile in the race, which has been personalized for the time I’m hoping to achieve in the race – under 49 mins.

Over the past two years I’ve improved my running more than I had imagined was possible. It’s given me a lot of pleasure to get better at it, and the better I get the harder I want to try.

Each time I set a new personal record, I’ve been wearing my pace bracelet so I knew during the race how well as I was doing against my target. When you’re really pushing yourself to set a new PB in a long race, such as a marathon, you have to be careful not to set off too fast or you will ‘hit the wall’. But, run too conservatively then you’ll never beat your PB.

The day I set my marathon PB I had two pace bracelets – one for a good time which I would have been pleased with and was reasonably confident I could achieve, the other for my ‘stretch goal’ of sub 3:45, a time which would allow me to qualify for the London Marathon as ‘good for age’. Despite my good intentions, the excitement of race day got the better of me and I ran the first 20 miles a bit too fast, which meant by mile 21 I had hit the proverbial ‘wall’ and suddenly my legs felt like lead. One minute I was floating on air, clocking 8:15 minute miles, then next I was slowly grinding away at 10 minute-miles. Every fibre of my body wanted to stop and there were dozens of other runners around me starting to walk or stood by the roadside in pain as their muscles cramped.

Somehow I got through the next two miles, slowly and painfully, until I reached the outskirts of the city and recognised the finish line was only 2-3 miles away. I checked my pace bracelet and realized I was still ahead of schedule to break 3:45, in fact as long as I managed to get back to 9-minute-miling I’d be fine. This realization that I could still hit my target gave me a huge surge of motivation. The legs still felt very wobbly, but I was determined and gave it 110%. And, I made it (with 20 seconds to spare), 3:44:40, a whopping twelve minutes faster than my previous marathon. It was the run of my life.

Endurance sports, like road cycling and marathon running, are as much about psychology as they are physical fitness and professional athletes and their coaches understand this. Indeed, the father of British coaching Sir John Whitmore makes clear links between the Inner Game approach that developed in sports coaching in the 1970s and the way in which a coach enables a coachee to unblock the psychological barriers that prevent them fulfilling their potential.

As a coach when working with someone on a profesional goal I sometimes use the ExACT model which stands for:

Ex – exciting

A – achievable and assessable

C – challenging

T – time-bound

My pace bracelets work on all these levels. Setting a target time is both challenging and exciting. The time has to be within my abilities so it’s achievable, and race times are very measurable and timebound.

I was really surprised and pleased by my performance that day. I had set an ambitious target which I was keen to achieve and because I could see how I was doing in real time (thanks to be pace bracelet) I found that last bit of energy somewhere to get over the line in a new personal record.For tomorrow then, I have set two goals, one is a bit of a stretch (49 mins) and the other is a bigger stretch (48 mins). I have the mile split times for each distance on my wristband that I’ll be wearing alongside my trusty Garmin watch that tells me how fast I’m running. Fingers crossed this goal-setting technique works again.

What is a coaching culture?

“I arrive at work feeling good about the day ahead, clear about what needs to be achieved and a little nervous about whether I’ll manage to make it all happen – because we’re launching a new event tonight for local press and community stakeholders. Walking through the open plan office on the way to my desk I hear the happy buzz of purposeful conversation between colleagues who are excited about tonight and getting on with preparations.

I used to dread walking into the office as a colleague was always ready to pounce and would need me to make a decision about something urgent that I’d not yet had time to think through. These days people just seem to get on with things much more, and need my input far less.

Last time we had an event like this I was worried for weeks before. Would enough people turn up? Would anything go wrong? We had frequent problems with the caterers and so I always had to clear my diary on the day on an event to check-in with front-of-house staff and be on hand to sort things out at the last minute. No-one else seemed to keep on top of things and unless I inspected things myself I couldn’t be sure the standard would be good enough. It took a lot of my time checking-up on people and making sure things were right, even when I’d given really clear instructions people still seemed not to follow them.

We also had this perennial problem with local press turning up and not being treated well. The press officer used to get really frustrated because he’d arrange press interviews and check everyone’s diaries in advance but then on the day itself the exhibition curator was always too busy installing work to spend time being interviewed. I lose track of the number of times I was pulled into arguments about whose fault it was.

Tonight’s event though was the idea of the exhibitions team. They were keen to create a specific welcome event for local press and key stakeholders and the press and marketing team have been happy to work with them. It’s the first time we’ve done anything like this; we have got a few things wrong but we’ll know how to do it even better next time. What has impressed me most is the willingness of everyone to try a new idea and make it happen – people have really given it 110% this time.

Now I trust everything is going to plan and if there’s a problem that I need to resolve I can rely on my colleagues to let me know. Most of the time if there’s a problem my colleagues sort it out amongst themselves anyway, without my help. To be honest they are closer to the action and often know better than me what’s the best way to resolve things. I can concentrate instead on the meeting I have later this morning with a potential new patron. It used to be hard to find time to get out of the office and explore new opportunities, but I am doing a lot more now I have less fire-fighting and checking-up to do. It’s beginning to result in some new funding relationships and partnerships that could have a real impact on the organisation in the longer-term.”

Sounds great doesn’t it? This is the kind of story I often hear described when I’m coaching senior staff and ask them to describe the work context they are hoping to create, or when I’m working as a consultant with organisations seeking to change their working cultures. The picture is surprisingly consistent both in terms of the culture people want to work in, but also the culture they currently find themselves inhabiting.

Far too often we find workplaces where people are demotivated by overly-prescriptive and critical managers and unnecessary hierarchies. Manager and senior staff frequently feel over-whelmed by their responsibilities and unable to ‘get their heads above the water’ to engage in the more strategic, important aspects of their role. Too often they feel they are fire-fighting and being drawn into decisions that should be taken closer-to-the-ground. When compounded with the tendency of non-profits to over-stretch themselves, people begin to demand for clearer priorities (or more resources).

Instead, most people aspire to working with colleagues who are highly motivated, independent and good at what they do. Line-managers want to work with staff who can be trusted to get on with things. Most line-managers want staff to come up with ideas and solutions too. Staff want to feel trusted to make things happen without having the check-in and to be able to trial new things without fear of making a mistake.

These are all features of a ‘coaching culture’. A coaching culture is an approach based on the values of coaching and the skills that underpin it, such as highly developed communication skills. Coaching values include:

  • Delivering results – striving to improve
  • Empowering – encouraging people to take responsibility for themselves and being non-directive – respecting individuals’ autonomy and diversity.
  • Increasing awareness of your impact/ performance

So what does an organisation with a coaching culture look like in action? In the table below I’ve set out the features of a an organisation with a coaching culture:

Sounds like a great place to work to me! And given that coaching enables organisations to deliver results, it’s not surprising that across the commercial, public, and non-profits sectors many organisations are developing coaching cultures.

I’ve recently joined a team of  trainers at Relational Dynamics 1st – a specialist training provider with extensive experience of developing an delivering coaching skills and Action Learning training in the creative and cultural sectors. On 7 May 2015 we’ll be launching our new one-day Coaching Skills and Action Learning for Leadership course, kindly hosted by Siobhan Davies Dance Studios in London. We hope that you can join us!

Want to get better? Learn together

How do we improve the quality of learning experiences we offer children and young people in the arts? This is the laudable aim behind the development of a new set of ‘Quality Principles’ by the national funding and development agency for the arts and cultural sector in England: Arts Council England (ACE). You can read more about the Quality Principles via the link, but in summary they are:

striving for excellence

emphasising authenticity

being inspiring, and engaging

ensuring a positive child-centred experience

actively involving children and young people

providing a sense of personal progression

developing a sense of ownership and belonging

The process of developing these principles has included a series of pilot projects where arts and cultural organisations volunteered to test some aspect of the principles and share their learning with peers in their region. In my home region of Yorkshire six organisations participated in the pilot, including the regional ‘bridge’ organisations Cape UK, and today they invited the wider sector to hear about their experiences.

Each pilot organisation talked about just one of the seven principles (e.g. being child-centred, or authentic) and their approaches varied widely, as one would expect given the nature of their activities was diverse – from theatre-in-education, to museums to community arts and a contemporary art gallery. The principles are intended as a framework to be flexibly interpreted – rather than prescriptive. The jury was out amongst those involved in the pilot as to how useful these Quality Principles would be. Many of them seem rather obvious and most arts and cultural organisations will already be working in this way. Some speakers felt they would be most useful in terms of helping train and develop the next generation of arts education professionals. Others valued the legitimacy and confidence a clear set of principles, endorsed by the arts sector’s major funder, offered high quality learning practice when discussing internal priorities and resources with their senior colleagues.

The intention appears to be that ACE will encourage organisations to adopt the principles in their work with Children and Young People – only if organisations find them useful. Some of the pilot organisations had clearly found them useful, and others felt it was too early to say yet. Nobody in the room wanted to see the Quality Principles used as a crude measure of quality or prescriptive approach.

I found the morning’s session very rich and informative, not least as it’s quite rare to hear about the experiences of your peers working in other art forms or areas of the sector. The discussions set off several lines of further questions in my head – only one of which I will expand on below.

For me the one striking aspect of the conversations about how to improve the quality of our work was the importance that peer learning had played in at least two of the six pilots. Both Cape UK and Leeds Museums had used different models of peer learning at the heart of their projects.

For Cape UK this had taken the form of a series of facilitated peer learning conversations over a period of time – very similar to Action Learning.

Kate Fellows of Leeds Museums and Galleries outlined the ‘peer review’ model where they had paired individual staff with peers from Tyne and Wear Museums. The peer review – which initially some staff had feared – involved two one-day recipcrocal study visits with some phone contact in between. Participating staff had been asked to consider a research question (along the lines of ‘what is the organisations doing to create quality learning experiences?’) and write a short reflective blog.

From my experience as an Action Learning facilitator and practitioner, I can see how peer learning formats and techniques would be brilliant for focussing these kinds of learning conversations among peers. One of the sets I’ve been involved with is comprised largely of fellow coaches and we bring professional development issues to our sessions.

As part of the session today, we reflected on what made a quality learning experience so I thought it might be useful to share what I believe makes for a quality peer learning experience – many of these points having been also raised in the session as well:

  • The group learning together have a diversity of perspectives, although they have similar values and levels of experience.
  • There is good facilitation – the space feels ‘safe’ so people are honest, it is purposeful and well-structured, participants are respectful and non-judgmental, there is challenge and critical thinking present.
  • Discussion focuses on observation and what people have discovered – as well as drawing implications from this.
  • Participants share their individual learning with one another.
  • Participants reflect on real experience and think how they will apply their learning to new contexts.


The session itself today reflected many of these points about good peer learning – we had great facilitation, well structured sharing of learning, time for everyone to reflect on their individual learning and how they might apply it. And people felt able to raise challenging questions and speak openly (as far as I could tell!).

If you’re interested in finding out more about peer learning and Action Learning get in touch with me at the email address below as later this year, with Relational Dynamics 1st, I’ll be delivering some new one-day courses offering an introduction to the skills and techniques of coaching and Action Learning.

Clore Fellowship: is it worth it?

Around this time every year I normally receive phone calls or emails from people considering applying to the Clore Fellowship asking me for advice as to whether to apply. And I’m always very happy to talk them. I benefitted enormously from the Fellowship and feel incredibly lucky to have been offered this phenomenal opportunity – so I’m always more than willing to share my experience with others considering applying.

I started this blog in 2009 when I started my 18-month part-time Fellowship, partly as a way of sharing my experiences of the Clore Leadership Programme. There’s a whole category of 20+ posts in the ‘Clore Fellowship’ category of this blog which date from that period and document some of the things I did and my views about the Fellowship at the time (just click on the red category link at the top of this post). But if you’re looking for a summary then try these two posts summarise my reflections at the time: the first at the midpoint and another at the end of the Fellowship.

You’ve probably gathered by now that, generally speaking, I’d recommend the Fellowship vey highly. Other common questions I am asked about the Fellowship are listed below with my usual responses:

Can you combine the Fellowship with other work?

I was working freelance before I started the Fellowship and continued to undertake freelance projects throughout the Fellowship. I would not have liked (not could I have afforded) to just study because applying what I’d been learning was part of the process.

However, whilst there were short periods when I was doing intense projects, for most of the 18 months I gave 2-3 days a week to Fellowship-related activities. I think this was probably more than many of my cohort found themselves able to do – especially if they were in employment. I’d definitely recommend trying to find 1-2 days a week most weeks if you want to make the most of the opportunity – and indeed several of my peers left their roles to concentrate on the Fellowship for this reason.

Can you do the Fellowship with young children?

I did! My children were one and two respectively when I began the Fellowship. There were several disadvantages to undertaking the Fellowship whilst my kids were so small:

1) The 2 x 2-week residentials in Kent were hard emotionally and practically, not least as I live in York some 4-5  hours away which meant I could only see the kids for the middle weekend. It was the longest time I had spent away from the kids – emotionally I found that harder than they did. Practically I was lucky to have a very supportive partner, childminders and parents to help with additional childcare.

2) It might limit your options. I like to boast that I am the Clore Fellow who has spent least on international travel during their Fellowship. My peers did study trips to India, research trips and training courses in the USA, some clever people I now wangled a secondment in NZ! I did my secondment in Leeds, attended conferences in London, Edinburgh and Newcastle. I did manage one study trip to Metz to see the new Pompidou Museum (I was in Paris for work so just took a day trip!). I’m lucky that I’ve lived, worked and studied abroad before – so I don’t feel I missed out too much. But I also know how formative those experiences of working and travelling have been for me – and the opportunity to travel and work abroad that Clore offers should be seized if you can. Sometimes I wonder if waiting tip the kids were a little older might have been a good idea – but to be honest I think I’d probably stick with how I did it.

And, on the plus side, there is a huge amount I learned about leadership through the Fellowship which I have drawn on as a parent. For example, I constantly used the skills and techniques I learned on my coaching course as a parent.It would be no exaggeration to say the Fellowship has been of great use to me just personally as it has professionally.

Is is worth it?

Several people said to me, when I told them I planned to take a sabbatical to do the Fellowship – ‘You don’t need to do that. You’re good at what you do already’. Kind as that was for them to say this, I think they were wrong. I don’t mean I was dreadful before, but I did need to do the Fellowship. All and any of us would benefit from doing the Fellowship – it’s an opportunity to improve, to develop and to try new things. Some of us perhaps have more to learn than others – but we all have the capacity to improve. I’d do it again tomorrow if they’d let me.

When I began the Fellowship I had a few ideas about what I wanted to achieve (some skills gaps, improve my networks/ profile, explore some questions important in my field) but I had no idea quite what, and how much, I stood to learn. It really is the most wonderful opportunity.

Should I apply?

Obviously, that’s up to you! It was great for me – but you need to think carefully about what you want to achieve from the Fellowship and whether you have enough time to make the most of the one-off opportunity (as per my response about being a parent). There’s never an ideal moment, but as with most things in life you get out what you put in – and with an opportunity as golden as this, you don’t want to waste your chance.

Is it time to end free entry to galleries and museums?

The time has come where regional art galleries and museums might need to start charging for entry.

A few years ago I wrote this post encouraging people to donate more when they visited galleries. My argument was that art galleries were at a disadvantage to theatres and performing art venues where we expect to pay and that we needed to start shifting visitor thinking about contributing to the cost of their visit. But I fear donations alone are now not enough to meet the gap.

The last five years have seen public funding for galleries eroded nationally and locally. Despite the frenzied efforts to generate more income from trading and fundraising, the gap between what is needed to provide high quality galleries and art museums and income they can attract from funders or earn from their facilities is widening.

Of course some galleries and art museums already charge entry to special exhibitions, and others like the ICA have recently (re)introduced a very low admission fee of £1. Arguably £1 would not deter post people from visiting, and yet for those regional galleries attracting several hundred thousand visits a year even £1 per head could make a significant contribution to running costs.

However, many  in the sector would be understandably very, very reluctant to start charging for the fear that it would discourage visitors. Access is very important – although it isn’t financial cost that is the biggest barrier to current non-attenders in many cases.

I want to maintain maximum access to galleries and art museums but I wonder whether some form of charging is rapidly becoming a necessity. I think the time has come to seriously consider charging sensitively in a way that doesn’t exclude people who can’t afford to pay or who would be deterred by paying, and yet allows galleries to continue to operate at a high standard.

There are different options for charging entry:

My own local museum group in York, which receives local authority funding, offers residents free entry whilst generating income from the many tourists who visit the museums. This might be an attractive option for regional galleries which, particularly if in receipt of local authority funding, want to ensure local residents free entry.

Another option is to offer free access to certain groups – for example in France the under 26s can visit national museums for free and many heritage sites offer free entry for children when accompanied by paying adults.

Offering free entry on certain days is another model (the Whitechapel gallery used to do this when it had its annual paying exhibition in the 1990s).

Charging for entry has other benefits too. By charging entry galleries could improve their VAT recovery rate – compounding the financial benefit on earned income from admissions. And in my experience where admission is a bigger factor in the business model it focusses the mind more squarely on audiences during programming and programme delivery too, resulting in a better visitor experience.

So I fear the time has come to dip our toe into the water of charging for entry.  I don’t want to suggest this is an easy thing to do – visitors have come to expect free access and nobody wants to deter visits. It needs to be handled sensitively and the impact should be monitored closely. And, of course, we need to engage our visitors and wider stakeholders in a open conversation about why it’s necessary.

Want to become more resilient? How a coaching culture might help

Resilience – the art of anticipating and responding to change without losing sight of your core values – is a preoccupation for many working in the arts and cultural sector currently.

Following the lead set by Mark Robinson’s work on this topic some 4 years ago, the sector’s main funder ACE now encourages (rightly in my view) ‘National Portfolio’ organisations to develop their resilience and earlier in the Autumn launched a new open funding programme the Museum Resilience Fund.

But how can the arts and cultural achieve greater resilience?

I believe that a shift in leadership style could make a huge impact.

Back in 2010, I was part of the research team on Mission Model and Money’s Capital Matters project, funded by MLA, ACE, Creative Scotland and Gulbenkian Foundation. Our aim was to explore how to build resilience in the UKs arts and cultural sector.

We identified the following six key features among the most resilient museums and arts organisations as follows:

  • A strong customer/audience focus
  • Effective leadership and governance
  • Distributed leadership
  • A strong brand or clarity of purpose
  • Measurement of impact or outcome of activity
  • Flexibility in staffing structures
  • An entrepreneurial culture

The final report highlighted, that in terms of resilient organisations, it is this combination of skillset and mindset which is critical to success:

‘Having the right culture and an entrepreneurial mindset was identified as important in our consultation: this includes a willingness to take managed risks, ‘can do’ attitudes, and a focus on learning and adaptation. Mindset is regarded as more important than skills, which can be acquired. Leadership also emerged as key. Strong entrepreneurial leaders enable and facilitate change. ‘

In other words, resilient organisations need a workforce that is skilled, shares a common purpose, where leadership responsibility is distributed and where all are committed to improving individual and organizational performance.

To me that sounds a lot like a ‘coaching culture’ or coaching style of leadership.


What is a ‘coaching culture’?

A coaching culture is a organizational development approach based on the values of coaching and the skills that underpin it, such as highly developed communication skills, a commitment to enabling everyone to fulfill their potential, a focus on learning from experience and applying this to action (coaching has very close links to Action Learning principles).

In my experience coaching is an ideal model for increasing resilience as coaching:

  • creates a culture of shared responsibility
  • increases awareness
  • encourages reflection
  • is focused on making improvements
  • develops inter-personal skills and Emotional Intelligence

…all of which are essential for resilient organisations.

No wonder then that today many organisations, including in the cultural sector Tate, engage Extend leadership programme and Clore Leadership Programme, offer managers coaching skills training as part of developing a ‘coaching culture’.


How do you create a coaching culture?

There are many things an organization can do to develop a coaching culture, including:

  • Improving clarity, motivation and building shared responsibility by being clear about the impacts or goals you want to achieve and reflecting on your progress.
  • Increasing awareness by capturing evidence of your impact from different perspectives – for example non-user research, peer review.
  • Being focused on improvement – eg customer service, improving quality of programming.

Developing a coaching skillset and mindset is important too. That doesn’t necessarily mean staff need to become coaches, although some organisations do offer staff coach training so they can become ‘internal coaches’.

Instead developing coaching capability might include all staff training to improve skills such as active listing, clarification and reflection, using ‘clean’ language and use of open questions.

Working with specialist coaching training provider RD1st, I’m involved with delivering one-day courses of this type to in-house staff teams resulting in the whole organization being able to apply coaching approaches. If you’re interested in finding out more about this kind of training and what it might offer your organization please get in touch.

Visitor Experience and Learning - natural allies?

Many arts and cultural organisations are re-structuring currently. The drive to reduce costs often leads to a slimming down on expensive senior management roles, usually by merging departments together. The news this week that the V&A will be streamlining its senior structure and creating a joint Director of Learning and Visitor Services is not therefore surprising. However it is interesting to see which two departments are being brought together: learning and visitor experience.

Over the course of my twenty-year career, I have observed Learning teams (rightly and belatedly) starting to be represented at ‘the top table’ within museums and art galleries. There has been a welcome increase in the professionalism, profile, numbers and status of learning professionals and arts and cultural organisations are increasingly come close to actually doing justice to their charitable objects as educational charities. We still don’t see enough museum and gallery Directors progressing into leadership roles from a background in learning but it is beginning to happen, and having been involved in initiatives such as engage’s Extend leadership programme I am impressed by quality and ambition of emerging leaders in the gallery education sector.

Visitor experience, or ‘front of house’, in contrast, is too often the cinderella department in museums and arts organisations. Rarely does the front of house function have a senior-level representative, or sufficient capacity at that level, to enable it to contribute to strategic planning and programming conversations. Visitor strategies tend to be focussed on customer service and measured in terms of attendance and satisfaction, all important considerations, but rarely are the fundamental links between visitor experience and core strategy for programming or learning explicit.

Similarly time and again when I work with and with galleries I find front of house staff who are under-utilised and who would like to offer more to their visitors and the organisation. The tendency, in these times of cost-cutting, to replace skilled front-of-house staff with volunteers or appoint many of them on zero-hours contracts perhaps reflects where these roles are too often seen in terms of organisational pecking-order.

This is a real wasted opportunity.

Personally as a visitor, I find it is the quality of the front of house staff that often has the biggest impact on my experience, including my learning. When I visit with my family, the welcome and support received from front of house staff is even more important. This is borne out by in-house audience research time and time again. The vast majority of our visitors and galleries and museums do not participate in formal learning programmes, but they do far more frequently interact with front of house staff. Creating a ‘safe’ and welcoming environment where visitors feel comfortable and ready to explore is the bedrock of good visitor service but then for many institutions there is the potential of front of house staff to encourage learning interactions.

There are many brilliant individual front of house staff around in galleries and museums, but Baltic springs to mind as the venue where the quality of visitors service is consistently excellent.  As a gallery professional I’m a confident gallery visitor but I won’t always be familiar with the work of a contemporary artist on show at Baltic and appreciate being able to find out more about their practice and ideas through either informally chatting to staff or attending their regular drop-in tours. Several times a day front-of-house staff lead short tours of the exhibitions – which are excellent and always help me get more from my visit. Front of house staff also sometimes create interpretations resources, such as short videos which can be viewed in a comfortable, informal learning space called ‘the Quay’.

It is not surprising that Baltic stands out for front of house experience given the level of investment it has made in developing its front of house staff or ‘crew’ as it calls them, with external grants and support from Northumbria University. Baltic, like V&A, merged its Learning and Visitor service teams during a restructure (you can read about their approach in this free book). And others have followed their lead, for example Ikon Gallery in Birmingham. Baltic have invested in professional development of their ‘crew’ and provide regular training, although much of this is now internal, peer-led training – and described in the book. The gallery has changed job descriptions to enable staff to undertake research and preparation to inform their roles.

The result is a team of informed, confident staff able to support visitors get the most from challenging contemporary exhibitions. This success wasn’t created by simply merging two teams, but in bringing together Visitor Services with Learning teams Baltic recognised the importance of the crew in providing learning opportunities to its visitors.

So let’s hope some good comes from the unavoidable need to restructure and merge teams as organisations seek to reduce staff costs. Improving learning for all our visitors, by bringing together learning and visitor teams culturally and strategically, in addition to merging teams, could well be a major benefit of such changes.


Opportunity: Chair and Trustees sought for new music theatre festival

We are looking for a Chair and Trustees to guide a new biennial festival during its start-up phase, working closely with an experienced team led by Jonathan Best, Artistic Director.

The festival’s purpose is to explore the expressive potential of music and theatre collaboration by commissioning new works of music theatre, presenting premieres of the most interesting and ambitious new work from the UK and internationally, and by developing a programme of residencies which will enable composers, musicians and theatre makers to explore new collaborations and working methods.

Music in theatre usually falls into one of three categories; incidental music, the musical, or the opera. Composers, musicians and theatre makers are increasingly exploring the possibilities that exist in addition to these three recognisable forms, in the spaces between – and beyond – them. This festival will foster and develop new works that exist in these in-between spaces, some of them perhaps tending towards opera or musical theatre, some uncategorisable hybrids.

The first festival will take place in Leeds and London. Conversations are underway with both Opera North Projects and West Yorkshire Playhouse about developing partnerships with the festival. We’re also planning co-working with Beth Morrison Projects, Here Arts Center, and Prototype Festival in New York.

Programme, partnership, marketing and fundraising strategies are all in development. We are now looking for individuals to form the Board with the energy, capacity and enthusiasm to make a significant contribution to the leadership of this ambitious new festival during its
start-up period.

An information pack about the festival, its vision, plans and personnel – as well as more information about Trustee and Chair roles is available to download here.

For an informal conversation about these roles please contact either Jonathan Best on 07472 676215 or Claire Antrobus 07913 604678.

The deadline for applications is 5pm Friday 20th June.