The Producer Competencies and the Art of the Impossible

Guest Blog by Graham Leicester from the International Futures Forum

Sultan’s Elephant photo with caption: “The Sultan’s Elephant, produced in London by Artichoke, May 2006. Photo copyright Sophie Laslet”

It is a commonplace to remark today that we need new organisational forms to operate well in the complexity of the 21st century – less rigid, more creative, more human.  At IFF we have drawn inspiration from how creative work in the arts is organised – what Henry Mintzberg called the creative ‘adhocracy’ and the role of the artistic producer.

We have identified the so-called ‘producer competencies’ as vital.  I am delighted to be hosting a workshop in Edinburgh on 28 January to explore them with the creative producer Suzy Glass as part of Scotland’s Fire Starter Festival.  This post serves as a gentle introduction.

I was first alerted to the importance of the producer role by Roanne Dods (who went on to become both a Trustee and then a Producer for IFF before her untimely death in 2017).   Roanne led ground-breaking work on the producer role during her time heading the Jerwood Charitable Foundation. She saw that the arts are not just about artists and ‘arts organisations’.  There are also certain individuals who have the skill and capacity to mediate between creative artists on the one hand and structures of funding and accountability on the other to deliver acts of the imagination that are (by definition) unique and original.   

This same underlying challenge also describes the practice of transformative innovation.  Roanne soon joined IFF in seeking to understand better how these same producer competencies express themselves in the public, voluntary and social sectors, the domains of social innovation.  

The best source book, commissioned by Roanne, is Kate Tyndall’s The Producers:  Alchemists of the ImpossibleIt offers a series of rich interviews with arts producers in many disciplines and gives a flavour of the range of skills and attributes involved.  These people, in Kate’s words, “might be the chief executive of a well-developed organisation with specialist teams focusing on particular aspects of the producing task, or they might function solo or lead a small or medium-sized team. As producer, however, they hold the full picture, and are responsible for the successful intersection of all the forces at work in order to realise the idea in the most brilliant way possible.”

The interviewees describe qualities like a sense of balance and creative connection: “It’s the producer’s role to be the bridge between the work and the world, the artist and the audience” (Michael Morris).  A capacity to be supremely attentive: “What I am doing is based in the powerful, intense, productive moment” (Paul Heritage). And a recognition of just how demanding this role can be: “I’m fuelled up on adrenalin and probably heading for an early grave…  But unexpected and unwelcome things can be interesting. It’s like that bit in a show that creeps up on you and smacks you. It either throws you off balance, or it can be the very thing that propels the experience to a new dimension” (David Jubb). 

One of the producers featured is Helen Marriage of Artichoke.  Helen subsequently gave a seminar for IFF on ‘the art of cultural disruption’ – about her role over five years in bringing the 12m high Sultan’s Elephant to the streets of London in the spring of 2006.  “The deal we did was that if they [the funders] bought into the idea of the project we would guarantee to make it happen. It is the producer’s role to take responsibility.”  

Her story of this fabulous happening includes countless heartwarming tales of people involved at every stage going the extra mile, being swept up in something bigger than themselves, revelling in the joy they have helped to create, telling their grandchildren about some of the proudest moments in their working lives.  

In a second seminar for IFF much later Helen focused on the producer competencies themselves.  This resulted in the pamphlet The Producer Role and the Art of the Impossible drawing out the essence of her practice. It describes seven lessons on how to act like a producer:  

  1. Don’t start from “this is impossible”
  2. There are no rules (even where there are rules) 
  3. Get the fears articulated
  4. Make friends
  5. Take responsibility and seek contribution
  6. Don’t ask for permission – it cannot be given
  7. Push the ambition.

Alongside these sit eight characteristics of the culture she inspires and embodies:

  1. The culture is respectful
  2. The culture is trusting
  3. The culture is responsible
  4. The culture is meticulous
  5. The culture expects surprises
  6. The culture demands quality
  7. The culture promotes freedom
  8. The culture feeds hope.

The most successful transformative innovators we come across in the public and social sectors embody and enact many of these same characteristics.

IFF has also had the privilege over the years of working closely with Watershed, the cultural cinema and digital creativity hub in Bristol; in particular with Clare Reddington and Dick Penny, both exceptional producers.

Watershed has taken the producer skills to heart and has effectively become producer for the city, or certainly for its most creative and ground-breaking projects.  It consciously sits in an entrepreneurial ‘second horizon’ space configuring people and resources in disciplined processes to bring third horizon imaginings into being.  Unsurprisingly its skills and approach are now in demand around the world – and IFF has learned a lot from its practice. The pamphlet Producing the Future:  Watershed’s role in ecosystems of cultural innovation is a good introduction to theory and practice in how an organisation itself can take on the producer role.

The workshop in Edinburgh next month is part of a process of engaging with people across public services and the social sector to influence the design of a producer programme led by IFF – seeing the producer competencies as part of the practice of transformative innovation, introducing the new in the presence of the old and growing a new culture over time.  This will draw on learning from Watershed’s own creative producers international programme, teasing out lessons for creative practice beyond the arts.
If you are interested in joining this conversation, contributing ideas and insight, or in participating in the producer competencies programme when it is launched, please do get in touch.  Better still – come to the workshop next month.

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