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Thinkers

 

Want to make your cultural institution world-beating? Ask Becky Schutt.

Should theatre audiences stay silent? Must art galleries be housed in impressive architecture? The arts often come with unwritten rules but Becky Schutt has spent her career questioning them.

Beautiful old theatre

Becky Schutt

Becky Schutt

Take art galleries, for example. “If you look at some of our greatest institutions, many are intimidating,” says Schutt. “Tate Britain looks like a temple. You have to walk up the steps – there’s a ritual involved.” Then there’s the matter of welcoming people once they’re inside. “It frustrates me when galleries don’t provide any context and people are just expected to get it,” she says. “You can take what you want from it, but a lot of people feel intimidated by that. There’s a feeling that you’re supposed to know something you don’t.”

Art shouldn’t be an insider’s club, Schutt realised early in her career. And she should know. The expertise Schutt brings to Cambridge Judge – into arts audiences, strategic planning, fundraising and cultural policy – has been gleaned from working in museums and from extensive experience of consulting for arts organisations, governments and funders across the globe.

Together with Jeremy Newton, she established the Cultural, Arts and Media Management concentration on the Cambridge MBA, which is now in its seventh year. Only at CJBS is arts management so deeply embedded in a general MBA course, says Schutt. “Arts administration courses have their strengths, but we bring in learning from other sectors and, in turn, other sectors learn from the arts.”

Students on the course – around a quarter of whom are drawn from the arts sector – gain invaluable insight and connections, learning from case studies written in association with leading organisations such as Sky Arts, Tate and the National Theatre. Many graduates go on to lead cultural institutions or to serve on their boards, or as investors or corporate partners.

And the students benefit from Schutt’s extensive experience. She was born in Cambridge to American parents, but moved back to the States when she was seven. As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, she studied on the Arts and Ideas major, taking in subjects including art history, philosophy and political science. It gave her a taste for the interdisciplinary atmosphere that she would later value at Cambridge.

A summer interning at the Metropolitan Museum of Art taught was followed by a job at a museum on board a train – namely the Artrain which, at the time, housed selections from NASA’s art collection and was headquartered in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Schutt was studying, as part of a three-year tour across the USA.

The 1960s’ space race inspired NASA to start the collection, commissioning works by Andy Warhol, Norman Rockwell and Robert Rauschenberg among others. Did this give her the bug for working in museums? “It gave me a bug for finding problems in them,” laughs Schutt, who then enrolled on the Cambridge MBA after a stint working at the Newark Museum, New Jersey.

Today, she says, the sector is working hard to change. “In the last decade, a lot of arts institutions have become really switched onto who their audiences are, rather than just putting on a show and expecting people to come,” she explains. “They’re trying to understand why audiences come through the door in the first place and what they’re looking for when they get there. It’s much more of a dialogue.”

Aside from teaching, Schutt is chair of Hoipolloi Theatre Company, the Cambridge-based travelling theatre company, and loves baking with her two-year-old daughter. She also works on a variety of consulting projects, often in collaboration with AEA Consulting, one of the world’s leading cultural consulting firms. At the moment, she’s devising a strategy for the State Tretyakov Gallery (the National Art Gallery of Russia) in Moscow and working with Arts Council England and UK Theatre on a review of Event Cinema, where theatre performances are broadcast live into cinemas (trail-blazed by Cambridge MBA graduate David Sabel, the founding producer of NT Live, at the National Theatre).

She is also founding chair of the Relaxed Performance Project, inspired by her family’s experiences of going to arts venues – or rather of not being able to go to them. Schutt’s brother is severely autistic and non-verbal and she remembers just one trip to the theatre as a family. “We were asked to leave because my brother was making involuntary noises,” she remembers. “This was in the ’80s when people knew almost nothing about autism.”

At a “relaxed” performance, everyone has relevant training including the performers and front of house staff – plus the lighting is adjusted, some seats are left unsold to provide more space and families are sent a visual story in advance (as it can be helpful to have an idea of what to expect and who the actors will be).

“A lot of theatres were already doing this,” says Schutt. Part of the aim was to highlight the work done so far – plus she and co-founder Kirsty Hoyle got funding for performances in eight diverse theatres across the UK. “60 per cent of the 5,000 people who came had never been to the theatre as a family. 30 per cent had never been full stop,” she remembers. The business expertise she gained at Cambridge helped hugely, “because I was trained to think strategically about how to make a maximum positive impact with limited resource.”

The project is now moving into concert halls, where Schutt says she wants to explore the culture of silence. The unspoken rules of the arts aren’t as concrete as they may seem, she notes. After all, theatre was a much more interactive event in Shakespearean times. “The rule then was that you yelled and gave feedback – and tomatoes.”