"Leading a theater, orchestra, or museum has many commonalities with business leadership.”

Joachim Thibblin
Head of Svenska Teatern, Artistic Director

Kuva: Jani LaukkanenLosing businesses, next scene?

Head of Svenska Teatern, Artistic Director Joachim Thibblin challenges business leaders, political decision makers and consumers alike to take a moment and consider: what would the world be like without first-hand culture experiences?

Before spring 2020, this question would have seemed dystopian – until a world-wide pandemic made it reality. 

”Oftentimes people don't fully appreciate what they have until they lose it. If there has been one single silver lining for culture organizations in the excruciatingly troublesome times marked by COVID-19, it is the hope that everyone will realize just how essential direct culture experiences are for us all,” Thibblin ponders.

Leadership boils down to presence and communication

Thibblin has been an artistic director in theaters for over 15 years. For him, communication and presence are the two most important aspects of leading a culture organization.

“A leader’s job is creating the circumstances and environment that enable work to be as fruitful as possible,” Thibblin asserts.

“A theater is an organization of experts. Empowering everyone to outdo themselves and ensuring that we all have a shared goal requires a leader who is genuinely present and always keen to listen and share,” he says.

A leader’s job is creating the circumstances and environment that enable work to be as fruitful as possible"

Thibblin explains that his background in both acting and as an entrepreneur have been pivotal in paving his way to becoming a leader.

“I would not have succeeded as an artistic director without this past. Being a trained actor has helped me tremendously. Good leadership is largely based on understanding. My background helps me communicate and understand what the theater needs in each situation,” Thibblin emphasizes.

He notes that regardless of whether you are a professional manager or an expert rising from the ranks of the organization, the key to becoming a successful leader in the field of culture is a keen understanding of the raison d'etre of the culture organization.

“Without a thorough understanding of the substance, a leader in a culture organization would have a very hard time seeing everything from perspectives that constantly take the organization forward,” Thibblin mentions.

Thibblin points out that like all culture organizations, theaters have a public service function as well. Svenska Teatern aims to provide culture for a broad audience base, and not all shows are for all people.

The Business of Culture program offers peer support

Thibblin is currently participating in Aalto EE’s Business of Culture program for leaders from the art and culture sector in Nordic countries and the Baltics.

“Leading a theater, orchestra, or museum has many commonalities with business leadership,” he says.

“The program provides a chance to reflect on my own leadership, and step outside the immediate field of culture to assess how lessons learned in business can be applied to culture organizations – and of course an excellent opportunity to exchange ideas,” Thibblin underlines.

Aalto EE’s Business of Culture program offers leaders of culture organizations new insights on how to interact with different funding bodies using a language they understand, and network with decision makers from business, foundations and politics. It also offers guidance on which aspects of culture creation can be measured in terms of quality, and peer support to come up with new forms of creating revenue.

The program provides a chance to reflect on my own leadership, and step outside the immediate field of culture to assess how lessons learned in business can be applied to culture organizations."

Thibblin affirms that leaders of culture organizations face a myriad of challenges that are unlike most any organizations have, and thus life-long learning and seeking out new ideas is vital.

“Funding is an evident example: it comes from many sources including state and municipal funding, business sponsors, foundations, and revenues from ticket sales. All of these can change, sometimes rapidly, and culture organizations strive to endure,” Thibblin says.

Culture experiences are an important part of economy

For Thibblin, spring 2020 marked the start of a new role: becoming a crisis leader.

“In crisis leadership, everything is related to survival and reorganizing. The bulk of the work is completely different from what I would do every day as the head of our theater,” he describes.

“As the coronavirus changed the world near overnight, theater performances seized immediately. Behind the closed curtains, however, fervent development work is being done. Discussions with experienced peers from around Finland and neighboring countries offer a great deal of insight on what all could possibly be achieved,” Thibblin remarks.

Digitalization is a natural leap that most all theaters are taking, Svenska Teatern included. Although streaming performances is an option, Thibblin emphasizes that streaming is a complement, not a replacement for genuine theater performances.

“For Finns, theater is self-evident. We need interaction and storytelling and we cannot survive without culture,” Thibblin highlights.

“Yet many decision makers forget this in times of recession, when culture is often the first target for cuts. This puzzles me. Perhaps we are not yet good enough at marketing ourselves and lobbying,” he contemplates.

Thibblin reminds that theaters, like all first-hand culture experiences, are an important part of economy.

“Culture organizations are huge tourist attractions. A visit to the theater creates revenue for other local businesses as well, such as hotels and restaurants,” Thibblin concludes.

Business of Culture

The support of the Art Professionals plays a key role in ensuring lifelong learning in leadership and strengthening collaboration in the Art and Cultural field. Arts and Culture professionals are supported in the first program cohort by the Jenny and Antti Wihuri Foundation, the Saastamoinen Foundation, the association Föreningen Konstsamfundet and the Kulturfonden för Sverige och Finland.