One or two boards of performing arts organisations seem to be getting a lot of attention at the moment. Usually, the spotlight falls on boards only when there is a problem and not if things are running smoothly. That is as it should be.
However, given that boards have responsibility for financial oversight, compliance with legislation, selecting an artistic director, agreeing the direction of travel, helping raise money, challenging the executive team, and keeping their heads while all about may be losing theirs, we need to think about what board behaviour may be necessary in a changing world.
I work with a lot of boards in the not-forprofit arts sector. I have been on the board of directors of a number of performing arts organisations. My day job is consultancy, where I often work on recruiting trustees and chairs, as well as artistic and executive directors.
I have met many dedicated, hardworking and skilled board members from diverse backgrounds, and boards that are working effectively and deserving of respect. I have also come across others, which, frankly, are dysfunctional, and some individuals who are poorly prepared or unclear about the difference between governing and managing, which is the job of staff.
Many boards could do with more artists, to bring their unique perspective to the debate and play a key role in the recruitment of artistic directors. On the other hand, not all artists on boards understand that their responsibility goes beyond the art. Having theatremakers involved means accepting they may not be able to attend every meeting, as they might be in rehearsal or on tour. I chair a board where more than half the members are practising artists, which is challenging but very exciting.
Board members need to experience the work their organisations do that doesn’t take place on main stages. They should try to see work by other companies and other artistic directors, and sit among different audiences.
Boards need to get the balance right between retaining organisational knowledge and renewal. Members need to know when to move on. Succession planning, whether of themselves or their executives, is key. All too often it is done in a rush when a vacancy occurs.
If boards are going to reflect the make-up of their companies’ communities, they may need to be open to people who don’t have previous experience and will need support from colleagues. There are lots of good reasons that many trustees are white, middle-aged and able-bodied – not least the difficulty of getting younger people to find the time while they are establishing careers or raising families. But with commitment, it is possible to attract, recruit and support a wider range of people, thereby benefiting from new perspectives.
Serving on a board is a significant responsibility, but can be enormously rewarding. In a changing world, the performing arts sector needs leadership that is fit for purpose, and that has to start with boards.
This article appeared in The Stage 17 November 2016