Development priorities

Tony Heaton: joining the national network

by Kim Evans

Tony Heaton is the Chief Executive of Shape, a national disability-led arts organisation. After working in Dorset where he’d led the creation of a disability arts centre, Tony moved to London to take up his new post.  He’s now in a role where he can influence at a national level and has taken part in CLP initiatives such Beyond the CEO, and Leading Through Change which have supported him in doing what he loves - helping to create opportunities for disabled artists.

Tony Heaton became the Chief Executive of Shape, a national disability-led arts organisation based in London in 2008.  When he moved to London to take up his new post, he decided he wanted to take advantage of some of the opportunities the Cultural Leadership Programme was offering. Tony had played a leadership role in the arts and voluntary sectors in the North West and in Dorset where he’d led the creation of a disability arts centre.  Now he’s in a role where he can influence at a national level. 

The work he is doing with the Cultural Leadership Programme is connecting him to a group of national peers and networks. 

It’s helping me deliver the vision for Shape and initiate ambitious collaborations and new opportunities for disabled artists and arts practitioners across the country.  It’s also helping me make sure that I keep some space for reflection and my own creative work as a sculptor.

Tony Heaton has a row of fossils on the windowsill of his office and an almost transparent sculpture in Carrara marble that he made for a man who is losing his sight.  Next to the sculpture are some shards of white stone, to remind him of his role as artist and the commission in his studio waiting to be finished.

He sees connections between his leadership role and artistic practice. ‘It’s the same process of generating ideas and putting ideas into practice. Artists can see things in a different way and creative thinking is vital for developing organisations.’ Both as a leader and an artist, he values collaboration. He believes that his ability to build creative alliances will serve him well at Shape, working with mainstream organisations to get the best possible deal for disabled artists and audiences.

When Tony was appointed CEO of Shape in 2008, he knew he would need to build new national networks and alliances.  ‘I’d spent 10 years in Dorset.  It was lovely but it was a bit white and a bit green.  I wanted the challenge of living and working in London.  But I didn’t know many people here. ‘

The first thing he did was a Clore Leadership Short Course.  It was an intensive residential two weeks.  At the end, each participant had to write a postcard to themselves, saying what they were going to do.  Three months later the organisers sent it to them as a reminder.  Tony still carries his battered postcard with him and he’s acting on the priorities he wrote on it.

Tony enjoys playing the role of a maverick.  He says he likes ‘seat of the pants leadership’. But when pushed, he is happy to admit that he is engaged by leadership theory. ‘I’m curious about leadership.  It’s like a great book that I didn’t understand at the time.  Now I am doing the job, I do understand it.  It’s like maps. They don’t mean very much until you get to the area where you need them.’

Each stage of the leadership journey presents new challenges and opportunities.  The Cultural Leadership Programme recognises the importance of connecting people to new and relevant networks.  These become particularly important when a leader takes on their first Chief Executive role.  It runs a number of programmes that have proved valuable for those taking on new roles and a series of one-off events under the banner title Beyond the CEO has brought together new and experienced CEOs for debate and informal discussion.

When Tony arrived in London, he was invited to these events.  The first one he went to was Polly Toynbee’s session on The Leader and Society.  The discussion was useful in its own right and for a natural entrepreneur like Tony, it was a valuable networking event, connecting him to a new group of national peers.  He was just about to install an exhibition of portraits in Shape’s new headquarters.  Spotting Sandy Nairne, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, at the event, he cornered him – ‘it’s hard to walk round a guy in a wheelchair’ – and persuaded him to come and open the exhibition.

Tony’s belief that artists have transferable skills was reinforced when he heard the artist Grayson Perry speak at a Clore Leadership Programme seminar.  ‘That was a quality discussion.  It reminded me that artists don’t get hung up about making mistakes; they use them. That’s useful learning for leaders.’

He thinks that disabled people also have transferable leadership skills.

As a wheelchair user, I am used to seeing the look of surprise or disbelief when people realise I lead an organisation.  Even though I have been doing this in one shape or form for 12 years.  Many of the disabled people I know are creative, flexible and lateral problem solvers. Just getting around often requires real tenacity.

Tony is currently taking part in Leading Through Change, the national leadership network for leaders of arts organisations that focus on disability.  The nine-month project is supported by the Cultural Leadership Programme. It focuses on creating the conditions for sustainability and sector growth by developing transferable tools and processes; good communications and shared learning.  It is also developing a strong evidence base for the organisations’ work.  The network is tackling a number of leadership challenges through action research, shared learning and dissemination.  This approach involves three key areas: participation, partnership and promotion.

Tony was attracted by the proactive approach the programme was taking.  ‘We’ve got to open up the arts to disabled people, we’ve got to create more opportunities, and we’ve got to convince the mainstream to take more risks.’  Ambition, collaboration and concern with accessibility are at the heart of his vision for Shape.  He wants to ensure that disabled people are fully involved in the arts at all levels, from audience participation, working as artists, being on the boards of organisations, through to working in cultural industries.

Tony is keen that there isn’t a ghetto for disabled leaders.  So he is also taking part in a more general leadership programme, Leadership Advance.  This is a bespoke programme designed and run for the Cultural Leadership Programme by Lola Young and Nima Poovaya-Smith.  It provides space for intellectual debate as well as explorations of how this translates into active practice.  The participants meet for individual and group sessions and workshops, with international residencies, shadowing and mentoring programmes as additional options.  Tony has particularly benefited from the emphasis on taking short periods of time out with peers. 

The programme has strengthened Tony’s belief that a leader needs distance, the opportunity to take time away from the minutiae of running an organisation in order to build a clear vision of where they want their organisation to be.

I’m really learning and developing as a leader now.  I want to stay in the disability sector.  I love helping to create opportunities for disabled artists.  Thirty years ago disabled artists couldn’t get into colleges, never mind find studio space that worked for them.  Now we’ve got a disabled artist into Camden Arts Centre, Spike Island, Bluecoat in Liverpool, and now Baltic in Gateshead.  My job is to get Shape and the artists it supports into the very best place.  You can’t stand still as a leader.

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