Arts and Culture

How cultural leaders can change the world

Wanuri Kahiu, Film Director, AFROBUBBLEGUM, Kenya during the Session "Generation AI " at the Annual Meeting 2018 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 26,  2018.   Copyright by World Economic Forum / Boris Baldinger

Cultural leaders have an important role to play in making people feel and act Image: Boris Baldinger

Nico Daswani
Head of Arts and Culture, World Economic Forum Geneva
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Creative Economy

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

Working in an organization where the words “leader” or “leadership” are mentioned on average every six seconds makes it difficult to think about anything else. At the World Economic Forum, when we talk about leaders we generally mean chief executive officers, heads of state or next-generation entrepreneurs. What most of us usually don’t think about in this context is artists.

However, “cultural leaders” can shape how the general public thinks. Just consider the influence of television, film, music, art and architecture on our cultures and values.

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The arts are not foreign to leadership. Many social movements have included artists prominently in their leadership. Developing creativity and critical thinking skills is essential for future leaders, according to the Forum’s Future of Jobs Report. More and more universities are bringing the arts into MBAs to promote the creativity of future business leaders. For example, the Forum collaborates with Columbia School of the Arts on an outstanding week-long creative course to benefit the Forum’s Global Leadership Fellows.

However, leadership has broadly been perceived to remain within the realm of “serious” activities. Those artists who have managed to enter the spheres of power and influence to lead others in committing to social change have largely been from the mainstream themselves. For example, Bono’s huge popularity enabled him to use Davos as a stage to promote the ONE campaign to fight extreme poverty, which has helped secure more than $30 billion in funding. Elton John’s leadership in supporting those affected by HIV/AIDS is remarkable. Leonardo DiCaprio’s advocacy on the climate crisis is commendable.

Power to influence change

These cultural leaders use their enormous cultural capital to effect change. They don’t need to go to business school. Advisers, coaches, publicists, lawyers and their far-reaching networks provide the necessary support system to help turn their visions into actions. Who wouldn’t want to be associated with these greats? With such adulation and almost unlimited access and resources, their achievements in this realm should be the norm rather than the exception.

However, under the radar, away from the mainstream, many other artists are poised to become cultural leaders. These artists are often lacking in access and resources, yet sometimes they are confronted with situations that require some of the most sophisticated leadership skills.

What is an artist like Kenyan Wanuri Kahiu to do when her movie Rafiki, about a joy-filled love affair between two women, is banned by her government? What skills will prepare her for what has become a constitutional court case about freedom of expression? How does the South African model Thando Hopa, the first person with albinism to be featured on the cover of Vogue magazine, continue to blaze a trail for bodily and cognitive diversity? How can Rena Effendi, the formidable photographer who tells stories of people left behind by technological advances, help those lives to be considered by policy-makers? What skills, what networks, what savvy will get these and other artists to a place where they are shaping agendas from within?

Power to shift discourse

It is already a challenge for under-represented persons to be at the table, let alone an artist from a community on the margins. And yet, as artists, as storytellers, as capturers of the imagination like no other group, artists’ potential to change norms and values is enormous. With their visions, they have the potential to shift the Overton window, that frame of acceptable discourse from which change is possible.

But they can’t do it alone. They need access, advice and resources that many others take for granted. They need role models to learn the ways in which you move beyond finger-pointing to shaping narratives that politicians, the media, the general public can embrace, despite all the obstacles. How did transgender choreographer Jin Xing become one of China’s most influential mainstream personalities, with more than 100 million people watching her shows every week? What kind of life journey led the celebrated Beninese musician Angelique Kidjo to be invited by President Macron of France at the 2019 G7 Summit to launch a $217 million fund to support women entrepreneurs in Africa?

In response to these questions, the Forum, in collaboration with the artist Lynette Wallworth and with support from the Ford Foundation, is launching the New Narratives Lab, a year-long leadership fellowship for artists, dedicated to fostering a new and diverse generation of cultural leaders. Through one-to-one mentorship with experienced members of the World Economic Forum’s network of cultural leaders, fellows from under-represented communities will be supported to use the Forum’s resources to navigate circles of power and decision-making, create valuable alliances, learn how to make their voices heard and bring about change.

As we enter a defining decade for people and planet, how we support these exceptional artists who have the potential to be leaders could make all the difference. We need new narratives to bring people together to achieve a more inclusive and sustainable world at a time when, as Greta Thunberg said, “our house is on fire”. We need artist leaders, from diverse backgrounds and with a variety of life experiences, who can shape these narratives and help us reshape the world.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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