The Choice – speaking truth to power or keeping quiet

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The Independent Theatre Council

ITC is a leading association for the performing arts, representing around 700 organisations across the UK from a wide range of performing arts organisations, venues and individuals in the fields of drama, dance, opera, music theatre, puppetry, mixed media, mime, physical theatre and circus.

Their slogan is,”good art thrives on good management” and they provide:

  • Management Advice
  • Training and professional development
  • Legal Support
  • Lobbying and representation
  • Industrial Relations
  • Networking and Information exchange

What happened?

Charlotte Jones, the Chief Executive of ITC, found herself at a party, in the company of the Chair and Chief Executive of the Arts Council. Against a background of much discontent with the Arts Council she had to decide whether to tell them what people really thought – or whether to keep quiet and munch on her canapé. Being Charlotte, there really wasn’t any choice.

With the help of a few drinks…..

It was at a leaving party of the Arts Council deputy CEO. They’d just announced a massive reconstruction of head office, with redundancies and people applying for their own jobs. It was a very expensive exercise and they lost lots of expertise. Many good people left. There were lots of leaving parties. But they were excellent networking events.

Charlotte spotted the Chair of the Arts Council, who she’d met before. She couldn’t help herself. Charlotte told him that they were making a mess, that people didn’t have confidence in the Arts Council or respect their decisions. The CEO joined in and they were both shocked and defensive. There was a massive row. She said, “maybe you don’t know who I am. I have 700 arts organisations standing behind me. You have never once met with me. It’s extraordinary”.

On her way home, she thought, “fuck, what have I done now?” She rang her Chair, who said, “typical of you”. Charlotte knew she had stepped out of line and broken the rules of the game. Instead of going through the usual routes, talking to the Arts Council Head of Theatre, knowing the message would go no further, she had gone straight to the top.

The result

Next morning the Arts Council CEO called her. “It’s time we met”, he said.

“Well, now I’ve started I might as well carry on”, she thought. Her AGM had just met and members had expressed strong opinions about the Arts Council and the current status quo – more strident than usual. “They’re terrified of what is going on”, she told the Arts Council CEO. “They feel you are imperilling the sector. You are not representing their interests and the power of the arts. You only represent the power of the Arts Council. You are seen as self-seeking. You are defeatist in the face of Government cuts to the sector”.

As a result, the CEO issued a statement, clarifying their intentions for the arts and its funding. He now talks about the arts, rather then the Arts Council. Charlotte is seeing the Arts Council put more pressure on government for funding. She thinks it’s still only PR, with ongoing cuts and apathy still around. But it does help to maintain a pressure for change, which she and others can use.

Since her outburst, the Arts Council regularly picks up the phone and at a more senior level. Her organisation is now used by the Arts Council to influence Government.

What was needed

Charlotte sees ITC as a means to put pressure on the Arts Council to get additional resources for the sector. She thinks there is a good argument to be made for a massive uplift in arts funding and to fight Government cuts to the sector.

She talks about the corrosiveness of the current atmosphere of powerlessness in the sector. “We want people to begin to talk and to think. We need to make people aware of what is happening and what might be lost – to prompt a dialogue and fight back”.

The power of numbers

ITC is a membership organisation, who – according to Charlotte – broadly agrees with each other. “We look out for each other, share information, campaign on each others behalf. We are united in our response”.

ITC avoids being seen as a campaigning body. “You can get stereotyped as a campaigner. We see campaigning as a way of working – raising awareness, generating a reaction and finding positions of influence”.

She says that ITC is not interested in leading or being the focus on any action. “We don’t look for people to know about us. It’s our members who are important and need to be known, not us. We get on with things, quietly in the background. We look for people we can act with and to maximise the numbers involved. We’re a broad church. What’s important is getting practical benefits and making change happen. My chair’s motto is “when in doubt be generous”. This can sometimes result in people being wary about our motives – what are they are to now? They must be plotting. Some people can be suspicious of our approach because it’s not the current culture to stay in the shadows or be co-operative.”

ITC draws its independence from a strong membership. Charlotte thinks that membership fees are important. “If we don’t deliver what they want, they can vote with their feet and their money. April, when membership fees are renewed, is a tense time. It’s the way to show the strength of our mandate and degree of accountability. We don’t have a cumbersome democracy. We just keep talking to them and use them as a sounding board. In return they expect leadership from us.”

The power to speak out

Charlotte used the power of ITC, to speak truth to power. “When I told the Arts Council CEO who we are – 700 organisations – I could see his body language change. He started to pay attention to me. I had power, weight, a mandate. Our membership has doubled in 3 years. I knew I had backing from my members and most of the sector in what I was saying. We have a strong Board, elected by the membership. I also knew I’d get support from my Board. Even though there is a huge amount of fear in biting the hand that feeds you. You have to be brave and certain.”

She also knew what she wanted to say and knew her own mind. “I’m getting better at doing this, taking my own independent choices. I check things out carefully, to make sure that I can’t be wrong footed – had I got anything wrong? Is there any information I’m not aware of?”

ITC makes sure that their eggs are in lots of baskets: funding; influence; contacts; allies; member involvement.

Charlotte explains, “I’ve learnt all this by trial and error and by being positive. I’ve learnt there is a huge currency in being optimistic. It’s a very powerful attitude. At ITC we don’t talk about crises, we don’t moan and we’re anti-victim. It’s too easy to pick on victims. If you present yourself as positive, people see you as strong.”

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