Set on empowering the next generation of artistic leaders, Artistic Directors of the Future, founded by award winning founder and artistic director Simeilia Hodge-Dallaway seeks to demystify leadership roles; ‘celebrating the Black, Asian, Middle Eastern and Ethnic Minority talent which exists in our community.’ Formed 6 years ago, the charity’s impact has been significant within the theatre industry, conversations geared towards diversifying leadership a key factor in regards to advocating for change. Reflecting on the charity’s impact so far, Simeilia tells us more about the organisation’s journey, their Board Shadowing programme and Diversifying Boards event and her hopes for the organisation moving forward.

Hi Simeilia, you’re the Artistic Director and Founder of Artistic Directors of the Future, a charity committed to creating change at a leadership level. From the organisation’s creation in 2014 until now, how have you found the journey? What have you been able to achieve so far?

When I started ADF singlehandedly in 2014, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) was not a trend or buzzword – only considered for outreach and participation work, due to the fact that Black, Asian and POC artists and leaders were always viewed as emerging and thus never considered for leadership positions in mainstream arts organisations. 

I would draw on over 15 years of experience working in the industry in both a managerial and artist capacity to address key issues and barriers with specific programmes of activity to create new equitable models and pathways to leadership. I never anticipated that I would spend even more time trying to get organisations to invest their time, finances and resources in change that would redress the power balance, challenge the status quo and create diverse representation at leadership level within arts organisations. The resistance to change was overwhelming, exhausting and frustrating at times. 

It was important to me to create a 360 organisation which empowers, supports and advocates for POC artists and leaders as they embark on their trajectory to become art leaders, board of directors and executives at mainstream arts organisations and of their own arts organisations – and also demands that mainstream arts establishments imbed systems, policies and practice of equitability. 

We now have a growing membership of over 350 POC artists and leaders and have realised our ambitions to generate access to positions of power through our ground-breaking and impactful initiatives such as Up Next, a radical leadership takeover project which catapulted six ADF members into positions of artistic leadership at two iconic theatres in London, The Bush Theatre and Battersea Arts Centre, with each institution’s artistic director handing over the building for 18 months to create space that brought new audiences and diverse voices. Tarek Iskander, one of our Up Next cohort,was appointed as the Artistic Director at Battersea Arts Centre. 

After bringing the UK arts industry’s attention to the lack of diversity on boards in mainstream organisation at conferences such as Who’s Who (2015, hosted at the Young Vic Theatre) and Diversifying arts Boards (2016, hosted at the National Theatre), our National Diversifying Boards initiative which includes the board shadowing programme received The Innovation Award at The Stage Award in 2020

Our training and development sessions create a deeper level of engagement between existing arts leaders, boards and execs with our ADF members to demystify positions of power, broker healthy relationships and raise the profile and visibility of our members.  

Last year, our Associate Producer Sandra Thompson-Quartey, designed the first ever training course on how to start a theatre company which has been adapted for our new e-learning platform, ADF Bite-Size. ADF Bite-Size is the UK’s first virtual resource specifically designed to support Black, Asian and POC artists and leaders interested in pursuing an arts leadership career, enabling them to connect and learn in an online environment.  Our new e-learning platform consists of videos, articles and additional resources which include audio descriptions. 

Furthermore, over the years, ADF has become a great influencer in the arts sector, working in partnership with Arts Council England local, theatre buildings and companies and education conservatories across the UK and internationally. Our initiatives, practice and values have played a significant role in demystifying, reshaping and dismantling both leadership and governance structures as well as contributed to the appointment of Black, Asian and POC leaders in theatres and arts institutions across the UK. 

The charity’s core values are: collaboration, company, connectivity, development and advocacy, excellence, learning and inclusion. Why are these values crucial to the charity’s success?

The values of the charity reflect to the progressive change that we demand to see in the industry. It is important that we operate on a growth mindset and lead by example to demonstrate what equitable and best practice looks like. We want to see more diverse representation at leadership level within organisations, transparent and better recruitment processes with excellence employed in decision-making and a genuine investment to life-long learning for the entire staff and board of directors within organisation. 

It is the work of ADF, arts sector and the wider artistic community to consistently assess and widen their talent pools and programming to mitigate the risk of creating a monolithic industry and advocate for others. At ADF we have redefined the meaning of connectivity, inclusion and collaboration to deepen the level of engagement with our members and stakeholders, identify ways to share power and agency and ensure that our organisation is open to learning from our staff and members to serve the community. 

The charity’s board consists of Pooja Ghai – an independent theatre director, Jessica Brewster – co-founder of Theatre Deli, Javaad Alipoor – Artistic Director of Northern Lines, Matthew Xia – Artistic Director of Actors Touring Company and Richard Matthew – Head of Marketing and Development at Graeae Theatre Company. How have you all collaborated to support the charity’s aims?

It has served the charity well by having a board of directors who are exceptional artists and leaders in the sector. Our board have lived experiences of the barriers and inequalities within the industry and their passion for change have resulted in playing an active role above and beyond board duties by speaking at national conferences, brokering relationships with other organisations and key players in the sector and advocating for the work of our organisation in the arts sectorand beyond. 

The Board Shadowing element of ADF’s work won the Innovation Award at this year’s The Stage Awards. Can you explain this element further? How did it feel to be acknowledged for your work?

Winning the Innovation Award at The Stage Awards was a triumphant moment for altruistic reasons. The award signified a recognition of the hard work behind the scenes and the importance of the diversification of boards in the arts sector. After designing and piloting the programme with no financial support, we managed to gain the attention of Arts Council England who partnered with us to create the second diversifying boards event at Sheffield Theatre which subsequently led to establishing a relationship with five Yorkshire Theatres: Hull Truck Theatre, Leeds Playhouse, Sheffield Theatres, Stephen Joseph Theatre and York Theatre Royal – creating the Board Shadowing Programme: Yorkshire Edition. However, many people are not aware that after all five theatres agreed to partner on the programme, it took almost a year before they agreed to sign a letter of agreement, due to some of the theatres’ refusal to financially contribute to the running cost of the programme. The lack of commitment from organisations to invest their finances in change is an ongoing barrier to change. POC-led organisations such as ADF, are constantly expected to provide transformative sector support to organisations with little to no financial compensation. As well as doing the transformative work, we also burden the responsibility of enforcing fair pay for the work carried out by our organisation and the many other organisations and individuals who work in a similar line of work. 

Ironically, the board shadowing programme has been highly praised and used as a case study for best practice by partner organisations, ADF members, Arts Council England and the wider artistic community. The Board Shadowing has interest from other sectors, including dance and museums who recognise the power of demystifying, diversifying and finding new ways to engage and identify new board members.  

What makes our board shadowing programme unique is the way that it has been deliberately designed to create power balance between the participants and trustees. The programme is more than shadowing a board, it allows all parties to broker relationships, challenge their perceptions and unconscious biases and share their perspective of the industry, structures and decisions at board level. More importantly, our board shadowing programme enables our members to understand that there are many different types of boards and we encourage them to examine what type of board is most suitable to their personality and expertise. 

Our programme has led to many ADF members being offered and appointed onto the boards of arts organisations. However, the success of the programme is equally placed on organisations learning from the evaluation process and make the necessary changes to their recruitment and induction processes and board structures. Partner organisations have also benefited from participating as part of a consortium, evolving their practice with like-minded leaders. But like most things, the individual/organisations that get the most out of it are the ones who are truly receptive and dedicated to enhancing the practice within their organisations. 

The inaugural Diversifying Boards event took place at the National Theatre in 2016, its aim to address the lack of cultural diversity within Chair and Trustee roles, and to start up a conversation as to how to create change. How have you found these events in terms of impact within the industry?

Our diversifying boards events have played a vital role in initiating conversations about board representation as well as contributing to the significant increase of diverse board appointments in leading theatres and theatre companies. Through our diversifying boards events and board shadowing programme, organisations can no longer hide behind the falsehood of there being a lack of interest from Black, Asian and POC artists and leaders to join boards or the notion that they are underserving or unqualified to be a trustee or Chair. 

The many organisations who have attended the events gain the opportunity to assess their board structures in a safe space with trustees and senior executives from other organisations as well as ADF members and are presented with provocations from leading artists and leaders, brainstorming and action planning and networking opportunities. All organisations leave with a clear idea of what short, medium- and long-term goals to implement within their organisations and are tasked with sharing these plans and taking action. In the past, the impact has been instantaneous with organisations signing up to the board shadowing programme, identifying ADF members at the event and within our ADF network to discuss their interest of joining their boards and/or becoming a member of ADF to gain promotional support with their board vacancies and further consultation for the implementation of equitable practices. 

The media attention about our work, advocacy from funding bodies such as Arts Council England who have recognised our board work as a model of good practice and the many success stories have also helped to reinforce the need for change and contributed to the large impact within arts organisations as well as incentives for our members to aspire to become a trustee and/or Chair.  

There are Artistic Directors of the Future Members Meet Ups allowing future leaders to connect. What do these involve and how can creatives apply to take part?

Earlier this year, we decided to take a step away from the conventional approach to meet-ups to re-examine the benefits of our meet ups and create opportunities that serve our members interests and needs.

This examination inspired us to introduce the ADF Think Tank which was piloted earlier this year. The think tank enables our members who actively want to be a part of change. Essentially the think tank is arts leadership research laboratory enabling our members share experiences, take a deep dive into self-identified sector and professional related issues to identify solutions and support the change they want to see. We have a large number of members who run their own organisations or are embarking on setting up an organisation, which can feel quite isolating, therefore, the think tank provides an opportunity to instantly become a part of a community of thinkers. Our intention is that the think tank will comprise of a wide range of diverse voices that vary in terms of age, ability, sexuality, gender to provide our members with the opportunity to explore ideas from a multitude of perspectives. 

Our new e-learning platform Bite-Size will also provide an online meet-up for members to broker relationships with each other and leading professionals as well as become a part of a supportive network for support, guidance and evaluation. 

The Bite-Size platform is another great way that we have reimagined our meet-ups. The e-learning platform is an exclusive member zone which will allow our members to talk and interact with fellow members and build relationships. We are also building a student zone to encourage students to talk openly, freely and safely about their careers and personal and professional barriers. 

What are your hopes for Artistic Directors of the Future?

Firstly, I hope to continue to build the resilience, capacity and ground-breaking practices at ADF and to remain a risk-taking, experimental and innovative organisation. 

I hope that we can start to build more leadership opportunities within our own organisation as well as in arts organisations in the UK and internationally. When I founded ADF, our primary focus in regards to partnership was to build a strong working relationship with national and London based theatre organisations. However, the successes over last few years have enabled us to recognise our own power, influence, agency and resources accumulated since the conception of the company and I am hoping to share this level of influence and power with our members. This will provide our members with leadership and decision-making opportunities at ADF to critique the industry, explore new pathways, structures and systems and test new ideas. 

We believe in our members. They have the answers to change the industry for the better and ADF have the passion, integrity and nimbleness to make space for the next generation to think beyond programming and lead the charge in the reshaping and redesigning a post-Covid, equitable arts industry.

For creatives considering a career in leadership, what advice would you give?

As the world and the arts industry rebuilds itself post-covid and the social and political uprising, there has never been a more critical time for the world to welcome a new succession of leaders. 

However, any creative considering a career in leadership should be prepared to lead with integrity, recognise their agency and not be afraid to speak truth to power. We desperately need leaders who are innovative, politically-conscious-minded and self-identified changemakers who are devoted to cultivate opportunities not just for themselves but for the many generations to come. 

We need leaders who are prepared to question the industry and allow those questions to motivate them to make positive changes in their own practice and workplace. No matter what people say, there is always space for new ways for thinking, new operational models and new policies. 

Use your industry experience together with your hopes and dreams of the industry to create a robust strategy and an experienced and self-motivated team and network of support. This will help you achieve these ambitions without burn out. 

Recognise that organisations such as ADF exist because they stand on the shoulders of giants – a rich legacy of exceptional leaders and it is our primary purpose to give the next generation of leaders the opportunity to think more expansively, stand even taller, hold a bigger mirror up to the industry and lead the fight for change. 

And lastly, dedicate time to gain a deeper understanding of the history of the arts industry, the backstory behind particular organisations, initiatives, closure of companies and productions to understand your values, to feed into your practice, mitigate risks and avoid reverting to the same outdated and problematic systems. Allow this research to make you a better leader, one which makes the next generations’ experience easier than the last. 

Questions by Lucy Basaba.

To find out more about the crucial work Artistic Directors of the Future are currently doing, visit here…

To find out more about their Bitesize series offering online resources for the leaders of tomorrow, visit here…

To become a member, visit here…

Written by Theatrefullstop