Industry figures including Madani Younis and Tarek Iskander have warned that theatres risk becoming irrelevant unless their leaders are prepared to give over power to local communities.
Younis and Iskander argued that a theatre’s local community should have more control in the decision-making with regards to both programming and operation, as well as a larger role when buildings undergo redevelopment.
The comments were made during the Theatres Trust’s annual conference, which took place at Battersea Arts Centre on October 15.
Younis, who is creative director at the Southbank Centre and a former artistic director of London’s Bush Theatre, said: “As a leader, I think it’s my job to lose control. That’s the most democratic thing that I can do to become more responsible to our communities.”
Iskander, BAC artistic director, told the conference: “There is a next level to giving power away [that needs to happen], and ultimately we are still to the large extent, to the day-to-day, making decisions on behalf of people.”
He added: “[A shift in power is] probably going to have to happen in the next five years. I don’t think we can sustain the way we are and be important and relevant to people.”
David Micklem, formerly joint artistic director at BAC, echoed these comments. “I want to say to our arts leaders that cultural democracy is only possible when we relinquish some of the power that we’ve worked so hard to retain,” he said.
He added: “I also strongly believe that the risk of ignoring this and holding on to that power is we risk culture becoming irrelevant in a society where everyone wants an active role in the decision making.”
Younis also argued that the most powerful people in theatre were “dictating the pace of change” in terms of diversity in the sector.
“I think there’s a kind of new paternalism that’s at play in the cultural sector,” he said.
“I think that a privileged few […] are saying: ‘Now look, we hear you, we hear this talk of diversity, we hear this talk of democratising culture and of gender equality, and not only do we hear it, we’re going to embrace these debates, and we’re going to own those debates.'”
Younis added: “When this change happens, it happens, in my opinion, without those communities being accepted into those consultations, it’s happening in spite of them.”