About the Creative Sector - with Naomi Russell

7 November 2017

By Celine Tandoyo - Sitting in the Cultural Organisations class for my study (Master Cultural Economics and Entrepreneurship), I was inspired by the many practical experiences that the professor was sharing with the entire class. It’s quite refreshing to hear about what happens out there in the real world, thus, I wonder where she has gained all those amazing experiences.

Aside from teaching at Erasmus, Naomi Russell is a creative and visionary leader with 20 years of international experience in the arts and cultural sector. She is today a strategic consultant at Bird by Bird, a venture where she combines her consultancy practice, own initiatives and enterprises, and personal passions. Through this interview, we can learn a thing or two from her vast experience in the creative sector.

1. Share your work experience in the arts sector to date with us, specifically taking us to the high points.

I love arts, especially theatre and contemporary dance. Nonetheless, I’m not confined to particular disciplines as I have seen arts in other contexts as well, such as museums, visual arts, orchestra music, etc.

I started working in the arts sector as a fundraising officer for the Almeida Theatre, in London. Under the leadership of two artistic directors with strong vision, nothing was impossible. It was a purpose-driven and entrepreneurial organisation. There was always a risk, excitement, and pressure, which made it a powerful first experience for me.

Then, I became the development director for Young Vic Theatre, which was established with the aim to provide a place where young artists can experiment and attract a younger audience. It was an exciting period when the theatre decided to make 6 to 7 productions a year instead of 3. We were producing 3 works ourselves, and receiving the other 3 mainly from the Royal Shakespeare company: a big name but a very traditional company. To some extent, there was a conflict between what the Young Vic did and what the Royal Shakespeare company wanted to bring. Young Vic lost sight of its core value.

The appointed artistic director at that time, David Lan, wanted to reimagine Young Vic to be a place for the next generation of artists and audiences to create and enjoy works. He was determined that Young Vic would increase its own production from 3 to 10 productions a year. It aimed to provide a platform for young directors with different levels of opportunity, where they can learn the craft of directing. At that time, there was no other place in London who provided this. It was a radical decisive shift as we did not have enough money to do it and the business model also did not really support it. However, success started to pour in as the turnover over the next 5 years doubled, output increased significantly, and we started to attract big-name European directors.

Besides that, the building was in such a bad state that we had to make a plan to re-build the theatre. I was then appointed as the program director to lead this project. Thus, in Young Vic, I was quite involved in the change and I learned a lot, but I learned on the job. We all had to do it as it came along, we were all improvising.

One day I had a bike accident and, therefore, had to step down before the project was finished. After the accident, I had to take it slow, so I started at the Royal Opera House doing fundraising stuff. At some point, I thought that I wanted to do a broader range of project to keep myself stimulated, so I stepped out and started Wonderbird.

 Wonderbird, a consultancy company for the arts, provides strategic planning, mission brand, storytelling, fundraising, and leadership development. It started with my assistant, my SpareRoom, and me. Now, it’s a consultancy with 14 staff members, 2 offices (in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands) and clients in 5 different countries within Europe. Our clients include Bimhuis, Holland Festival, Nederlands Dans Theater, het Nationale Toneel, Opera Ballet Vlaanderen, and many more.

At some point, I had to leave the business due to health problems. I figured that I had to take a step back and work on fewer projects – before this I did 2 to 3 projects at the same time. Additionally, I also wanted to gain other kinds of experience: more artistic and production experience. Thus, now I work as a freelance consultant at Bird by Bird, my own enterprise.

2. As a freelance advisor at WonderBird projects, what was your primary focus?

Our focus was to work with organisations that wanted to grow or change into something new, bigger, or different.

3. As a leader at WonderBird yourself, what advice would you give to leaders in the creative sector?

As a leader, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by all the things that you have to do. My advice would be to always keep a flexible schedule because you might need to be directly accessible tomorrow. Be flexible so that you are focusing on the most important things, not only on the most urgent things. Leaders in the creative industry are time-poor, money-poor, and capital-poor; we are always squeezed here and there. So we have to think, “what is the most important?”. This ability to focus has helped me. 

4. Who are the people who have particularly impressed you? Why?

David Lan, the artistic director of Young Vic. He was an incredible person to work with. He is also an anthropologist and highly regarded academically. He was not particularly the typical person to be appointed as a director; he had done a couple of amazing shows, but not consistently. Nonetheless, his ability to ‘grasp the nettle’ – be clear about what he wanted – was phenomenal. His commitment, accessibility (his door was always open), and engagement despite having little to no prior experience, were amazing. 

5. What are the advantages and challenges of working in this industry?

The challenge is that with the more the public funding for the arts are being cut, the more the industry needs leaders, who are creative, resilient, and agile. Leaders must be able to always think of different solutions with regards to financial sustainability, as well as audience reach and connection. The advantage is the thrill you get when seeing a performance for the first time. Besides that, making the impossible things happen is thrilling.

6. What do you think are the exciting developments in the arts sector in the upcoming years?

It’s interesting to see overlaps and combination happening between different things, artists create and collaborate differently. For example, later next year, Marina Abramovic, a visual artist who usually works with performance and visual arts, is designing a new set for a classical Flemish opera and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, a Moroccan Belgian choreographer who usually works between different cultural identities, is directing. Furthermore, new positions with different combinations of tasks are emerging, since more skills are needed in a single position. It’s not a static silos model anymore. It’s becoming more and more important in the creative sectors.

7. What is the next big thing for you?

I’m thinking of a new business enterprise, where I can work more closely with artists and focus on the creation process. I’m particularly interested in how we can best source younger artists in this transnational borderless world, in order to maximize their practice as well as financial resilience. In other words, how can we create structure and provide tools for artists to reach broader audience.

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