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‘We will become humbler and can improvise better’

Published 19 August 2021 in Leadership • 10 min read

Leaders from theaters, galleries and museums share the lessons learned from dealing with the unprecedented challenges of COVID-19. They tell how they mobilized digital innovation to keep the arts alive.

Cultural leaders faced an existential threat to their institutions during the COVID-19 crisis. They had to adapt quickly, making innovative use of digital technology, to surmount enormous difficulties. In two previous articles, they shared with us their experiences, the good and the bad, of leading in turbulent times.

In this third and final article, I asked them what lessons they had learned during the pandemic that they could use going forward. To ensure confidentiality, all quotes are anonymized.  

As might be expected from this group of leaders of theaters, galleries and museums, they have all found creative possibilities in the darkness that could bring about significant change for their organizations, as long as the learning does not fade too quickly. These possibilities are by no means specific to cultural organizations – they are potentially widely applicable – and they fall into five broad areas. 

 1. Greater focus  

 Non-profit cultural organizations typically have multiple bottom lines – a range of different metrics for success. As a consequence, they can often find themselves stretched in different directions, chasing funding or oblique opportunities at the expense of a more singular concentration on core purpose. The demands of the pandemic have forced leaders to focus on “core mission and values and hone down activities to the things that are critical and important”. One said: “We have prioritized like never before” and have made “efficiencies that can be re-invested back into our core purpose – to serve the public”. 

The pandemic seems to have had a cleansing effect: “Much of the baggage of leadership has of necessity been cast aside, the bureaucracy and the meetings, as the big issues of survival, colleagues’ state of mind and financial priorities have taken all our energies and time for month after month. We intend to recover and stay focused on those big issues.” 

One heritage leader spoke of fundamental review, noting that that his organization had begun “to cost too much to run; it was bureaucratic and over-governed, full of complexity and slow to react. The pandemic has forced a full-scale review of costs and we have reduced staff levels by more than 40%. The restructuring and role changes that I thought would take years are nearly complete. Ways of working changed overnight; the challenge is to hold on to new-found agility.” 

A museum director expressed succinctly what I suspect many leaders feel in more normal times: “Previously, we were hyperactive – ‘think big, do more’. We always talked about doing less but never did. This forced us to do less, think further ahead and for once we have had enough time to do this.” 

There are 3,212 panes of glass in the domed ceiling of The British Museum’s Great Court, and no two are the same. They can be viewed in a 360-degree view virtual tour, and visitors can explore The Museum of the World, an interactive map showcasing two million years’ worth of treasures.

The National Gallery in London offers virtual tours allowing an exploration of the world’s greatest collections of paintings, via desktop, phone or VR headset.

The American Smithsonian Institute moved its artworks online, dispensing with the need for permission and allowing virtual audiences to download and share images.

Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle are among the Historic Royal Palaces that can be explored on virtual tours.

Shakespeare’s Globe streams plays live online and offers recorded performances for rent.

The Young Vic, in London, has said that it will livestream all future productions after successful experiments during the pandemic – and viewers will be able to choose which camera angle they watch from.

Teams hosted V&A Academy courses The V&A Academy offers online art courses comprising video lectures, study materials and discussion spaces.

In Amsterdam, the Van Gogh Museum offers in-depth explorations of the artist’s works and his letters in online exhibitions.

Kew Gardens, in London, is among 50 UK gardens featured in one botanic virtual hub. A fascinating online exhibition on Google Arts & Culture.

Perhaps in search of new markets, early in the pandemic the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, along with others, donated their collections to Animal Crossing, Nintendo’s long-running game which has more than 13 million players who curate their private islands.

“We’ve just come through this terrible thing together that indicated how much we are all connected. I hope that what comes out of this is something that helps to elevate us all. ”
- Michael Stipe

2. Test and rethink

When all normal planning and operational assumptions disappeared at a stroke in March 2020, organizations were forced simultaneously into rapid solving of new problems and having to try different ways of thinking and being. In addition to greater focus and prioritization, many leaders saw it as “an opportunity to test and consider organizational resilience, to restructure and rethink our people resources in a way that would have been harder otherwise”.

“In normal times, I hate change for the sake of it but have had to be bolder than I would have been. And our teams are up for change; it’s happening anyway so they see it as positive steps to rebuilding now.”

Another said: ‘It has rekindled an entrepreneurial spirit with regard to fundraising – we are much more joined up and purposeful about this than we were. The Business Continuity Group that I instigated last March has been brilliant at controlling the flow of work to the capacity in the operation – something we never sorted before. Comms have been streamlined and focused.” A third said: “New systems and processes have meant that we have become more efficient in some areas and, ultimately, leaner.”

Many of the larger cultural organizations operate across different sites, sometimes in the same city while others are spread across the whole country or even across national borders: “I can now do a management meeting for our two main London sites at the same time without needing to get a boat and say it all twice. Of course, we miss interaction, and we will bring that back, but this has shown we can save travel and do the day job. We won’t let that drop.”

 In the same vein, another remarked that “cultural barriers have dissolved – between geographically different parts of the organization – everyone is equalized on Teams. And when we were open, we didn’t have enough people, so front and back of house all got stuck in together.”

Anyone who has attempted to lead cultural change knows that it can be a long and far from smooth process. But the pandemic caused disruption like never before, so in some cases, leaders have been able to bring about progress in short order:

“We have become much quicker to adapt, better able to put to one side what we’ve always done and think about what we should do now, more willing to try things out, better at supporting each other and all ‘mucking in’, more focused on our visitors’ needs. Our Board and Management Team have developed greater confidence in each other’s skills and respect for each other’s contribution to the organization.”

Or, in briefer fashion, the CEO of a major German cultural organization said: “We will become humbler. We need less office space. We can improvise better. ”

Changing Destiny is an aptly titled new play being presented at the Young Vic theater company

3. New Partnerships

Several of my respondents talked about the stresses of the pandemic prompting “the camaraderie and new partnerships that a crisis can bring”. In some cases, this was reflected in a greater feeling of togetherness inside the organization. One noted, “Senior leadership is much better connected with the organisation”, while another said: “I think the organization is stronger because we have been in this together.”

Many cultural organizations rely heavily on their volunteers and one or two leaders gave particular attention to retaining and building their connections with what can sometimes feel like a disparate group of individuals: “Our volunteer programme is more engaged than ever. We’ve run Zoom talks for up to 100, quizzes, Instagram, and delivered diversity training to all. This has been a real benefit to a group which includes many who are isolating or alone. So, we have really delivered on community and giving back, and we’re stronger for that. All of this will continue: we never had space or time to get people together often and now we can.”

New external relationships have also sprung up as organizations have looked to others for support and to make a stronger case to government for support: “Cooperation in the sector feels at a new high,” said one theater director. A museum CEO reflected: “The pandemic gave us the opportunity to engage with and support many organizations to plan responses and recovery together. This has resulted in us becoming more transparent, permeable and embedded locally and has offered us the chance to help many smaller organizations during such difficult times.” While another said: ‘We have also deepened our connections with key partners (City Council, Arts Council etc) throughout and these strong and honest relationships (friendships even) should show benefit in years to come.”

4. Switch to virtual

If the pandemic had arrived 10 years earlier, a shift to virtual ways of working would have been almost impossible. Organizations and companies large and small adapted and exploited technology to ensure a surprising level of continuity as workplaces and public spaces went off limits. This agility is a quality to be harnessed in future and the rapid change in working practices is likely to have some permanent impact, even as a measure of normality eventually resumes. Speed and ease of decision-making is one of the benefits highlighted:

“The need to work virtually has enabled a significantly higher level of collaboration across directorates but also speed of decision making and delivery. Before COVID-19 we spent an inordinate amount of time traveling to meet each other often over several weeks to agree something that can now be nailed in a meeting.”

Communication and integration have also improved as rapid response to the pandemic required people to be kept up to date with leadership decisions: “Our weekly e-bulletin has grown from staff comms to stakeholder newsletter and has demonstrated much about the values and practices within an organization that our board and supporters have not perhaps appreciated before. ”

Will these changes stay in place over the coming years? Some see advantages: “I do feel that this mixed approach to office and home-based working will ultimately benefit people’s health and wellbeing, whilst at the same time, increase productivity.”

However, others were a little less sure: “I think we are all waiting to see the longer-term impacts on ways of working but I’m not sure that everyone who stepped off the rollercoaster is going to be quick to jump back on and a more blended way of office/home working is probably going to better balance everyone’s lives with improved happiness and productivity. But that does depend on the individual circumstances and inclinations of staff with management challenges probably yet to emerge over time – there you go … we just don’t know yet!”

5. Digital content and reach

Just as new technology has made possible a virtual way of working internally, so it has also presented an alternative for audiences and visitors to the real live experience of performances, collections and places that are at the heart of all cultural organizations:

“Finally, we have realized that our digital reach is limitless and that, through these channels, we can build new relationships and achieve new income streams.”

In the response to the pandemic’s existential threat, rapid digital transformation was central to survival for some organizations and will become an integral part of the future. One festival director said: “As our business model relied almost exclusively on running live events, survival depended on adapting to new ways of working. We created a digital version of our work in a matter of weeks and developed it as a successful model over a number of events in the UK and internationally. While we hope to return to live events later this year or next, our digital events and products have supported increased reach and inclusivity, and we will continue to develop a digital strategy to support our traditional work .”


Our digital events and products have supported increased reach and inclusivity, and we will continue to develop a digital strategy to support our traditional work.

Some found staggering levels of take-up for their new offer, suggesting that new channels will become central to finding maximum reach in the future. One major national museum “pivoted our learning portfolio online with alacrity and astounding success. Our paid for adult learning program now has global reach and consistently over-performs both commercially and on net promoter scores. We won’t return to the pre-COVID model but will instead create a blended offer with majority provision as digital.” Meanwhile, not far away in London, a theater CEO found himself “marveling at how over 3.3 million viewers from over 137 countries enjoyed our YouTube Globe on Screen premieres; we now need to better integrate digital ambitions into our recovery and rebuilding plans.” 

This series has shown where, during the pandemic, the unprecedented and sustained stress fell on cultural organizations, how leaders have drawn on key qualities to guide them through it and the positive learning that will help them frame a different future. Notwithstanding, the particular demands of steering their organizations through the daily challenges of a prolonged crisis, many cultural leaders also found time to turn their eyes outwards and forwards, to reflect on what kind of better world we should be working to build.  

 As the artist and musician Michael Stipe told The Guardian newspaper earlier this year: “This is our learning period. We’ve just come through this terrible thing together that indicated how much we are all connected. I hope that what comes out of this is something that helps to elevate all of us, and to show ourselves to ourselves, show ourselves to each other.” 


Michael Day

CEO of the United Kingdom’s Historic Royal Palaces from 2003 to 2017

Michael Day was CEO of the United Kingdom’s Historic Royal Palaces from 2003 to 2017, where he led an organizational transformation program at the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, and Kensington Palace. A trustee of the National Trust and Chair of The Royal Tennis Court, he has taught cultural leadership, governance and historic site interpretation around the world. He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Kingston University in 2010, and appointed Commander of the Royal Victorian Order in 2015.


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