U.K. Old Boy’s Club Keeps the Arts in Manly Hands

Top arts jobs are opening up in the U.K. How many will be filled by women?

The way things are going, the answer might well be: Keep dreaming.

In the next several years, the directors of the National Theatre, Tate and the British Museum will step down or retire. The likelihood of female replacements is not high, peers say.

Men dominate the highest echelons of the profession, and women are either deemed unfit for No. 1 positions or too shy to apply, say the female bosses of the Serpentine Gallery, the Southbank Centre, and the London Symphony Orchestra.

“In culture, there are a number of women,” says Julia Peyton-Jones, director of the Serpentine Gallery since 1991. “However, there is not a woman running one of the four national institutions in this country: the Tate, the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery or the British Museum.”

Peyton-Jones says the U.K. workplace, shaped by generations of men, is ill equipped to accommodate women, who “do things differently and see things differently.”

“The glass ceiling exists because there’s not a way to enmesh women in the professional world,” she says. “We don’t know how to do it, and we also don’t know how to support women so they can do it.”

Royal Opera

A dearth of female arts leaders became apparent last year when the Royal Opera House searched for a new chief executive officer. The Guardian, Daily Telegraph and London Evening Standard listed potential contenders.

Only two were women: London Symphony Orchestra Managing Director Kathryn McDowell; and Ruth Mackenzie, director of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. The job went to Alex Beard, deputy director of Tate.

English National Opera now seeks a chief executive after Loretta Tomasi announced her year-end departure. The company -- which lost 2.2 million pounds ($3.43 million) in 2011-12 and is still in the red -- needs a CEO with financial acumen, and will advertise the job.

One woman with the right credentials: Sally O’Neill, the Royal Opera House’s interim chief executive and finance director.

At present, the Imperial War Museums are the only major national museum group to be run by a woman. Diane Lees, 49, IWM’s first female director general, is from an unrelated background: She ran the Museum of Childhood, an East London branch of the Victoria & Albert Museum dedicated to toys, dolls and other childhood objects.

Mary Rose

Earlier, Lees helped restore and display Henry VIII’s warship, the Mary Rose, in Portsmouth Harbour.

National Theatre Director Nicholas Hytner, 57, steps down in March 2015, when “it will be time to give someone else a turn.” Hytner has been a vocal advocate of gender equality.

In a November lecture, he said it would take a decade or two for the theater to be fully gender-balanced and reflective of audiences. In 2007, he described U.K. theater critics as “dead white men” who were biased against women directors.

Tate Director Nicholas Serota, 67, has no fixed retirement plans. The term of British Museum Director Neil MacGregor, 67, expired in 2012, and he is currently on a rolling contract, with no set departure date.

The debate over women in the workplace has flared up in the U.K. with the publication of “Lean In,” in which Facebook Inc. Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg urges women not to let self-doubt or motherhood hamper their careers.

Sandberg Sarcasm

In her book, Sandberg writes that women leaders have historically faced sarcasm. U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was nicknamed “Attila the Hen,” Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was referred to as “the old witch,” and German Chancellor Angela Merkel is “the iron frau.”

For Peyton-Jones, too, authority came at a price.

“I would be called ‘head girl’ or ‘head teacher’ in a way that for a man would never be said, because that would be a man being assertive,” she says. “It wouldn’t matter if it was Genghis Khan.”

Southbank Centre Artistic Director Jude Kelly -- in the job since 2005 -- confirms that her profession is behind the times. “You’d expect the arts to have a different, liberal relationship to gender, but they don’t,” she says.

Even when it comes to works of art, “the story is that the central genius, the visionary leader is a man.” The woman is “slightly in the background, whether you’re talking about composers’ wives or artists’ muses or whatever.”

Female Vision

As for U.K. arts institutions, they’re full of women in “facilitating” roles -- administrators, curators, producers. “There’s a question about whether women can have a vision, be a visionary leader who can drive an entire workforce,” she says.

So women hold back. A 43-year-old arts professional on a leadership course told Kelly she was applying for a job as assistant director because she wasn’t “ready” for the top job.

“You have to get girls and women to think big and then to have the courage to see it through,” Kelly concludes.

At the London Symphony Orchestra, McDowell -- appointed in 2005 -- recalls that the orchestra was all-male until the 1970s, then became “whole-hearted” in its drive toward gender equality. LSO now includes many women players, a quality its late music director Colin Davis appreciated.

Culture Balance

“He felt that it brought a balance into the whole working culture,” says McDowell, “and also changed the sound of the orchestra.”

Like her peers, McDowell would like to see fewer men steering U.K. arts. “I hope that more and more women will put themselves forward for senior roles, because they have the skills and attributes to do the job well,” she says.

As the orchestra’s manager, McDowell is noticing positive shifts: The challenges of childcare and work-life balance are faced by players of both sexes. “Within many young families now, there’s a sense that it may be the male who may be carrying some or a lot of that load,” she says.

Over time, with gender roles less and less defined, culture will become less male-run, says McDowell.

“As the changes to the chief executive and managing director roles come through over the next 10 to 20 years,” she concludes, “I would like to think that many more appointments will be made, and many more women will be putting themselves forward.”

(Farah Nayeri writes for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

Muse highlights include the New York and London weekend guides, Lewis Lapham on history, Jeremy Gerard on U.S. theater and Greg Evans and Craig Seligman on film.

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