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Lessons in leadership from an artist: this is why cultural leaders are successful change-makers

Lynette Wallworth talks about her work with the New Narratives Lab 2020

Lynette Wallworth talks about her work with the New Narratives Lab 2020 Image:

Gayle Markovitz
Acting Head, Written and Audio Content, World Economic Forum
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This article is part of: The Davos Agenda
  • Lynette Wallworth talks about her work with the New Narratives Lab 2020 cohort - involving three artists who have taken part in the year-long World Economic Forum fellowship, supported by the Ford Foundation.
  • She shares insights into cultural leadership, diversity, authenticity and shared experience.
  • She argues the pandemic has taught many artists to think in a "multi-platform" way about where their audiences are. This may be a lasting and positive legacy.

The 2020 New Narratives Lab cohort will come together during the Davos Agenda Week to reflect on a year of cultural leadership during extraordinary times.

Here, Lynette Wallworth talks about the three fellows nominated at the 2020 Annual Meeting in Davos, and shares broader insights into cultural leadership, diversity, authenticity and shared experience.

She explains how cultural leaders – as experts in translating the personal to the universal, and inspiring empathy and imagination – offer important lessons for policy-makers and leaders of industry and business.

Have you read?

What’s the New Narratives Lab?

The New Narratives Lab initially emerged from the extraordinary opportunity that I gained from being invited to bring work to Davos and China through the World Economic Forum. I was blown away by suddenly being in a space where the people I might most want to put my work in front of were there in the room with me.

I had an overwhelming mind shift about audience. That happened for me in an organic way. I thought, ‘what if we could formalize this?’.

Not all artists want to change the world, but some artists are interested in social and cultural change and use their work to bring about that change.

Lynette Wallworth

The prospect of bringing work to the Forum and then having access to heads of industry and countries is a phenomenal opportunity. With Nico Daswani, Head of Arts and Culture at World Economic Forum, we began to think about how to take that from being something organic to an experience we could sculpt.

Have you read?

    So we found artists who have the ambition to activate social change through their work but who may not have that access. We focused on those artists whose voices might be traditionally underrepresented at leaders’ tables. And we invited them in.

    We gave them the experience of being able to walk into those rooms and enter those conversations. That’s what the fellowship is. If you hold a dream of creating change in the world, it is an invitation to enter that space and learn the skills of leadership in order that your voice can be heard.

    The initiative began in 2020 at the Annual Meeting. It has run for the entire year and it’ll wrap up in January.

    Annual Meeting 2018

    What can you tell us about the three New Narratives fellows and how have they spent this (extraordinary) year as cultural leaders in their respective fields?

    The three fellows we chose for the inaugural year are, Wanuri Kahiu who is a filmmaker from Kenya, Thando Hoppa who is a model, lawyer, and activist around diversity from South Africa, and Rena Effendi, originally from Azerbaijan and lives in Istanbul, who is a photographer who goes into post conflict areas and captures imagery of the devastation.

    Each of them has really particular goals for the reach of their work and we felt this year could offer the opportunity to extend that reach. So we partnered them with three mentors who were powerful allies to help them navigate firstly being at Davos and onwards through the year with their leadership goals.

    By April, we realized things had really changed – as they had for the rest of the world. And the kind of face to face experiences that we’d imagined and planned for were not going to happen. So we shifted very quickly to an online curriculum.

    With funding from the Ford Foundation, we’ve been able to enable them to shift their gears as cultural leaders.

    Do you think there are aspects to creative leadership that are distinct for women?

    We designed the lab for underrepresented voices. So perhaps it’s better to talk more generally about diversity and difference in terms of leadership. I think that’s one of the things that has become very clear after spending this year in close conversations with these three fellows.

    If you belong to the dominant culture everything is designed to reflect your world view so you never have to explain yourself. Perhaps it's hard to know that, if it's all you have ever experienced. Being the person who is not from the dominant culture in the room can mean constantly trying to translate yourself, your world view, to the room in order to be understood.

    That demands a kind of shape shifting – trying to pull your experience into a more recognizable form which allows it to be heard. That is not diversity. What our complex world needs, in terms of global challenges, is not more of the same but the vibrancy of difference.

    What our complex world needs, in terms of global challenges, is not more of the same but the vibrancy of difference.

    Lynette Wallworth

    I think creating more diversity in leadership hopefully will mean that we all have those moments of discomfort, where we kind of quizzically try to understand what that person is saying, because their experience, their cultural background their understandings and way of moving through the world is different to my own and offers unique solutions that emerge from the particularities of difference.

    And really the deep hope for this fellowship is that we get enough diversity in leadership to be able to shift away from all having to try and fit the mould that was there before we came along.


    What is a Cultural Leader?

    What shared, inclusive narratives do we need today, and how are artists unique in creating those and having them resonate widely?

    One of the things that artists are particularly adept at doing is finding the authentic voice. It’s one of the key trainings. In any kind of storytelling, in any kind of filmmaking, in much art-making – you are searching for the authentic voice. We are living in hyped up communications – much of it online – where we are see a plethora of narratives that are not linked to authenticity. They’re constructions and creations.

    I come from the documentary world, I am tethered strongly to stories that come from truth. I think that it is one of the functions of the arts to present us with a mirror of authenticity of experience.

    And what can political or business leaders learn from cultural leaders?

    If you think about the goal of making work – you are constantly imagining the audience as someone you try to connect with. This means finding those pathways to connection – it’s part of the role of being an artist. So it’s not grandstanding or speechmaking. It’s trying to find where resonance might be. Where is the point at which this person that I am placing the work in front of might resonate with what I am presenting?

    I think of art as lifting the personal to the universal – especially when it comes from personal experience. And so you are automatically trained to bring everyone into the room with you. And I think that there is something very beneficial there as a way of thinking. It’s not about “talking to” it’s actually an attempt to “talk with”.

    Wanuri Kahiu at the Annual Meeting 2020 Image: World Economic Forum / Boris Bal

    Do you think there is a relationship between wellbeing, culture and social change?

    I think that we are a healthier society when we have a rich cultural life. It should go without saying but maybe we have to say it now. We are healthier for connection and that too comes from the arts. A great loss of last year were all those moments of communal celebration and experience of the film piece or the theatre piece or listening to music together. These allow us to feel we are in some sort of shared emotional communal connection.

    The arts are often one of the great ways of experiencing that. The pandemic experience teaches us how wellbeing is linked to belonging to a community and the arts are a pivotal part of that. In its most essential form – gathering around to be together, to sing for example – is the gift of art making. At its essence it’s about connectivity. We now know that being connected helps us feel far better about ourselves and our lives than we feel when we experience isolation.

    How has this past year affected your work – has it taken a new direction? Has it been more or less challenging to work creatively and have you been more or less productive?

    There’s something about being constrained that can lead to leaps of imagination – or it pushes you in a direction that you might not have gone before. So I have turned to writing – which is not my first practice – and to doing podcasts. I have enjoyed having conversations with people all over the world from my little apartment here in Sydney. It has certainly felt productive and I may keep doing it.

    What’s your prediction for the future of the arts post COVID? Will there be a rebound or a new direction?

    I think we are going to love to be together again. There’s nothing like that buzz you get when a whole lot of people are together with that expectation of something you’re going to experience. But for many of us, we’ll become more nimble about the form of work that we do so that it can have multiple presentation opportunities. Some which could be live and others which are delivered by other means. That thinking won’t go away. It’s like thinking in multi-platform way about where your audience is. And there’s wonderful things to be gained by that.

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