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Learning from and with One Another

Arts and culture have the potential to transcend countries and languages by bringing people together. Through reading books, watching theatre performances, or visiting art exhibitions, we share moments in which we laugh, cry, learn, wonder, and contemplate.

Laura Hirvi, 27.11.2020



To ensure that such platforms continue to exist in the future, it’s important to have strong structures that support the wellbeing of arts and culture and allow them to thrive in society. This includes institutions that enable artistic productions and disseminate their content, such as museums, theaters, or, as in my case, the Finnish Cultural and Academic Institutes. In order to flourish, such institutions need skilled experts in their team, including leaders who are trained to deal with the challenges and issues that arise in the business of culture.

Current and future times raise questions such as: How can we cope with the limited resources at hand? How can we make the business of culture more sustainable? What opportunities arise from digitalization? How can we lead a team through moments of change?

The Aalto EE Business of Culture program offers leaders an excellent chance to prepare themselves for dealing with the kind of questions outlined above. Leadership is, after all, not a skill someone is born with, but something that can be learned in an ongoing process. Changing old habits and learning new ones takes time and practice − as I myself realized once more over the course of the program − but it’s a rewarding exercise that pays off in the long run.

Learning from and with one another

Prior to participating in the Business of Culture program, I had already taken part in several leadership trainings, which usually lasted for a day or two. What is special about the Aalto program in comparison is its length. By extending over a period of several months, the program allows for a much deeper learning experience as there is time to digest, reflect, and also put the acquired knowledge into practice in between sessions.

In addition, the group constellation in the program is very special, because all participants come from the field of culture and arts. We all share the same passion and, in many regards, similar challenges. Studying in this kind of environment not only results in many fruitful discussions that get straight to the point, but also produces unofficial moments in which peers share their insights with one other over a cup of coffee or during the lunch break. In this sense, the participants not only learn with but also from one another.

Reminder to breathe

The sessions with an external business coach are, in my opinion, another valuable module in the Business of Culture program. As leaders, we’re used talking about thoughts and challenges related to working life with fellow leaders who share similar experiences. If lucky, we might have mentors whom we can consult on urgent matters. Spouses also function as the occasional sparring partner, though this might not always be the healthiest option for relationships in the long run.

But the prospect of discussing work-related issues with a person who is trained to listen and ask the right kind of questions felt very different and exciting. Already after my first online coaching session, I felt rather “stripped to the core” to be honest. Never before had I experienced such a thorough and intense discussion linked to the perceptions I had in relation to myself and my role as a leader. Why did I want to lead? What kind of a leadership style was right for me? In between, the coach reminded me again and again to breathe in deeply: a reminder that I still carry with me.

The importance of communication

A deep breath is also what carried me through the past months. In 2020 the pandemic forced societies around the globe into a lockdown. This was a huge challenge for most people, since no one had experienced a situation like this before. The lockdown not only had consequences for our private lives but also for our professional lives. In both cases we needed to find ways to make it through those new “normal” times and to adjust to the changes that came along with it.

At the Finnish Institutes, the year was marked by cancellations, postponements, adjustments, and transferring content from the offline to the online world. Such procedures resulted in many moments of frustration and disappointment when, for example, projects that had been planned for a year could not be realized after all. In addition, there was the constant feeling of uncertainty hanging in the air and no clear or predictable end in sight.

As I had learned in the Aalto EE program, acknowledging this sense of uncertainty was important for our team. What a company culture needs is transparency of information: What is going on as far as we can tell? What might happen next, and how could we prepare for it? What do we know, and what do we not know? In this context, it was also crucial to define a common goal: We will steer together through these challenging times, and we will come up with creative ways to fulfill our purpose. Regular team meetings and phone calls as well as individual meetings helped in this regard and were beneficial for everyone’s wellbeing while all of us worked alone at home.

We cannot know what the future will bring. But what we can do is prepare ourselves and our teams for the challenges that we anticipate. Therefore, we should work together to develop creative and forward-thinking solutions − so that in the long run our cultural and academic institutions (as well as those who are active within them) not only survive but thrive for the wellbeing of society.

Dr. Laura Hirvi has been the director of the Finnish Institute in Germany since 2015. After receiving her Ph.D. in Ethnology at Jyväskylä University, she worked as a researcher and visiting researcher at the University of Santa Barbara in the USA. Hirvi grew up in a Finnish-German family, and It is her calling to improve cross-border dialogue through her work at the Finnish Institute.

Dr. Laura Hirvi participated in the Business of Culture program in 2019–2020 with the support of the Saastamoinen Foundation.

The Saastamoinen Foundation has firmly anchored itself in Finnish society by promoting the work of actors in science and art and networking both in Finland and internationally. Foundation supports Finnish working life and organizations' ongoing development, along with internationalism, in cooperation with Aalto University Executive Education.

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 2019–2020 by the Jenny and Antti Wihuri Foundation, the Saastamoinen Foundation, the association Föreningen Konstsamfundet and the Kulturfonden för Sverige och Finland.

The Business of Culture leadership development program is responding to current challenges all leaders are facing in the cultural industry. The cultural sector, like any other sector, is facing challenges because of social, economic, and technological trends and their impact on customer behavior. It will put even higher pressure on the cultural sector's need for leadership development and organizations to reorganize the business with the latest tools and methods. The usual structures of financing are drastically changing at the latest now. New forms of action must be actively sought. As necessary is to grow the international and both cross-industrial, and professional networks to serve societal challenges and citizens. The program is tailored to answer these needs, and it is now more important than ever.


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