Imposter Syndrome 2/3 – Critical Thinking

In the first of these three pieces I argued that Imposter Syndrome in the cultural sector is both pervasive and unsurprising giving the historical imbalances of power which remain unaddressed within it. In this second piece I would like to explore what we can do about it.

Once a month at Achates, we as a team take on a thought leadership challenge. It’s a problem that is usually philosophical in origin and which requires us to challenge our preconceptions about culture, its purpose, how it operates, and how it should operate. Recent challenges have included: What is the difference between subsidised and private art galleries today? And: On what basis should Arts Council England funding be redistributed? There is no right or wrong answer to these challenges, just a requirement to abandon received ideas and to think for ourselves.

These thought leadership challenges stem from writing of pieces like this, in which I ask myself difficult questions about the cultural sector and try to answer them. It’s a discipline I undertook because in a sector which is underfunded and as a result under resourced, we have limited capacity for critical thinking and are increasingly reliant on received ideas and models as a result.

The decline in critical thinking makes us conformist and conventional in our approach and is the polar opposite of what is needed at this time of inordinate financial pressure. Without critical thinking we are as a sector in effect dooming ourselves to decline. And this problem is exacerbated by the impacts of Imposter Syndrome which has kept us in the cage of our learned inadequacy and taught us to emulate models elsewhere, rather than to think for ourselves and challenge received ideas.

Working with BOP Consulting for six years on the ACE Catalyst and Catalyst:Evolve programmes, which represent the largest experiment ever undertaken in cultural sector philanthropy, engaging as they did more than 500 cultural organisations, evidenced this issue clearly. Initially the small to mid-scale cultural organisations tried to emulate the success of individual giving schemes of major institutions, such as Tate and the National Theatre. Of course, schemes such as these are dependent upon activity to which access is limited and are largely transactional in nature. The small to mid-scale organisations simply did not have these assets and so their schemes were doomed to failure. This led small to mid-scale cultural orgainsations experimenting with shifting from transactional fundraising, which had dominated the sector to that point and was informed by the lack of clarity around the value and impact of arts and culture, to what became ‘impact philanthropy’  and which is now considered best practise.

Looking back at the evaluation of Catalyst and Catalyst:Evolve, one theme dominates – the financial investment gave the time and capacity to experiment and think differently. At a time when our resources are under more pressure than ever it is tempting to conform, to retreat and to let our Imposter Syndrome take over. If we are to find our way through the challenges we face then as organisations and as a sector we must change our attitude to risk and not be afraid to fail. This requires us to challenge received ideas, think for ourselves and not to be afraid. In the last of these pieces, I will try to outline how we might gain the confidence to do so.

Caroline McCormick

Director, Achates