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Arts bosses need smooth transitions too

In the week that Donald Trump prepares to head to the White House, Matt Trueman reflects on why smooth transitions in arts organisations are vital

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Emma Rice, Tristram Hunt and Mark Ball
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage & V&A

Hold on to your horses, folks. This is the week that Donald Trump gets the keys to the White House. It seems as good a time as any to talk about transitions.

Handovers can be hard. As in America, personnel changes are about more than fresh faces. More often than not, they're driven by ideology and the best way of changing direction is usually to change your leader. In politics, those shifts tend to be about-turns; a new regime sets about undoing its opponent's work. In the arts it's a matter of evolution, and continuity is as important as change.

There's a lot of talk, inevitably, about who gets what job. Tristram Hunt nabs the V&A gig, and tongues start wagging. Mark Ball leaves LIFT, and pundits place their bets on his replacement: Purni Morell? David Lan? Jo Crowley? It's all part of the fun: Fantasy Arts Management. We get to imagine all the possible paths a venue or festival might take: such and such's Young Vic; so and so's Mime Festival.

You often hear of new artistic directors arriving to find the cupboards bare or their hands tied

What we don't often touch on, though, is the takeover process. They go on behind closed doors, and, let's face it, they're dull by comparison. No-one much cares about Rufus Norris's first HR meeting or Josie Rourke's choice of office chair. We want movers. We want shakers. We want somebody to cheer.

Nonetheless, the how is every bit as important as the who. Get it wrong and it can throw an organisation as far off-course as the wrong appointment.

And British theatre has had its fair share of bumpy handovers of late. Think of Tessa Ross stepping down at the National after only six months, or the Orange Tree losing its entire Arts Council grant on Paul Miller's first day in charge. The Globe's problems have their origins in Emma Rice's appointment process - a misunderstanding from the word go – and the National Theatre of Scotland has endured a rocky few years organisationally, with staff turnover at the topmost levels uncharacteristically high.

The how is every bit as important as the who

The ramifications of such rug-pulls run deep and all too often, you hear of new artistic directors arriving to find the cupboards bare or their hands tied. Changing that takes time and it's been notable to see how long it has taken some of London's newer artistic teams to hit their stride. Rufus Norris and Vicky Featherstone both endured some torrid press in the first year of their tenures – not all of it fair – before delivering strong streaks of work.

The thing is we tend to expect new directions from the off. Just as President-elect Trump has made much of what's coming in his first 100 days – things will be bigly different – we expect arts organisations to about-turn in an instant. We scan first season announcements for statements of intent, demanding fresh approaches, alternate structures and new voices. That's not how things work. As with ocean liners, it takes a long time to turn an organisation around.

There's too much at stake to afford a dropped baton or a false start

That's why it's heartening to see attitudes shifting. Last week, Out of Joint announced it was seeking a co-artistic director to work alongside Max Stafford-Clark and, while the veteran director has no plans to retire just yet, the move is part of the company's future-proofing process. Likewise, up in Manchester, where Mark Ball has joined Manchester International Festival as Associate Artistic Director to prep the Factory's programme ahead of its opening in three years time. The new £110 million venue is a mammoth undertaking for both the festival and its host city, and Ball's appointment has been sped through as a result, off the back of a previous job interview (presumably for the MIF directorship last time round). Even small organisations like the Gate and the Old Red Lion – at full stretch at the best of times – have arranged staffing overlaps to ensure smooth transitions.

Frankly, good thing too. There's too much at stake and, in straightened times such as these, too little slack to afford a dropped baton or a false start. And that's just the arts. Politics is another matter altogether.