Sarah Martin is a leader who has gone from the performing arts sector to global sports entertainment and back again. She spent a decade establishing the WOMAD arts festival in Asia before entering Formula 1 as Director of Operations for the Singapore Grand Prix. She is now CEO of the The Arts House, a globally-influential network of venues committed to enriching lives through the arts. She spoke with Helen Soulsby, SRI’s Head of APAC.
Sport → Entertainment
Who would you say has been very influential in your work?
My parents have been there for me throughout my entire career. A lot of people had faith in me and allowed me to experiment. Thomas Brooman, the artistic director of WOMAD, let a 24-year-old run a company on his behalf and be a festival director in Singapore in a time and place where we were completely ahead of the field.
What has been your steepest learning curve, and what specific lessons did you take from that?
Taking WOMAD not only to Singapore for 10 years but also to Korea and to Sri Lanka – those were all steep learning curves. Because you’re dealing with a whole range of multiple stakeholders; you’re dealing with different governments; you’re dealing with different partners; you’re dealing with different teams; you’re dealing with different methodologies of work.
How did [the F1] opportunity come about?
Through a coffee! (Singapore Grand Prix Executive Director) Michael (Roche) basically approached me, asking if I could do a WOMAD stage at Formula 1 (Singapore Grand Prix). Before the race happened, he asked if I would like to be the Director of Operations. I said: “Why don’t we have this discussion after the race?” But Michael was very keen for me to sign before the Grand Prix and the rest is history.
Let’s look at the roles from WOMAD and then into F1. What’s the important thing that you think you’ve taken from each of those roles into the next one?
The ability to negotiate conflict has been one of the most important lessons in all those roles. I say conflict from a strategic point of view, from an operational point of view, from a people point of view, because you’re constantly juggling multiple balls.
When you were looking at the WOMAD opportunity, at the F1 opportunity, and then The Arts House, were there specific criteria that you needed when you were considering the roles?
The ability to build something. I (must) have the bandwidth to create something, lay the foundations, or build on the foundations. I also have a tendency to like to fix things, and I need that because it gives me the appropriate level of challenge; my greatest fear is boredom.
How is the landscape changing? How did you see it changing in sports? How are you seeing it changing in arts?
The audience is changing. We used to have huge live participation where people wanted
to be there and be in the thick of the action. But in this new digital age there are multiple screens, whether it’s your phone, whether it’s your laptop, people see things through another lens.
How is having that breadth of experience in your career before joining The Arts House now benefiting you?
It’s given me a level of resilience and perseverance.
How do you think consumer demands are going to change?
They are going to get more demanding. You’re going to have to be more adaptive, and you’re going to have to be faster, but the challenge is you’ve got to make sure you don’t lose the plot. Don’t lose your agenda, don’t lose your objective.
What do you want your legacy to be?
Well, for this (Arts House) stint, I would like to make arts a lifestyle choice. I think it’s doable. At the end of my career I would like my legacy to be: “Look, she built things!”