December 14, 2015


I’ve been really gratified over the last week by the positive responses from people who have started reading The A to Z of Arts Management. Whether it’s young arts managers or people who have been doing it for years, people seem to be getting some inspiration or confirmation about their work from the book.

The listings for the letter B include Boards, Buildings and Bullying and this week, I’ll give you a snippet from the long section on Boards. This section is called “who are they?”

 “The people on arts Boards are “the men and women who operate in an emotionally laden space, requiring them to raise funds, advocate for the organisation, liaise at the highest levels of government, and remain loyal beyond reason, all predominantly pro bono” (Rentscheler 2015,p.9).

Whilst Artistic Director Ralph Myers(2014,3) Believes that theatre boards in Australia mainly consist of ‘suits’ i.e. wealthy white men (and the occasional woman) , Rentschler’s (2015) research on a broader range of arts organisations in Australia concludes that gender diversity is pushing 50% with ethnic diversity up to 25%. She notes that this is very different from the corporate world where boards are “often monocultural and monochrome”. The irony of this result is that she didn’t uncover any hard evidence that “diversity of and by itself leads to better board performance” (p.100). Some other qualities which she found presumably do have a more direct linkage to effective performance such as expertise in the areas of law, finance, marketing, management, research and fundraising  (p.101).

Having noted that passion or interest in the arts isn’t generally one of the selection criterion for boards, Rentschler says that “passion is a driving force in people’s appointment to an arts boards” , noting at the same time that this passion can occasionally be a destructive for arts organisations (Rentschler 2015, p.119). “Without passion“ she says  “there would be little to attract capable people to the hard grind of serving on an arts board” (p.120). I don’t necessarily agree with this point. I’ve joined boards because I was asked to help rather than because I particularly cared or knew much about the art form. I’ve seen people join arts boards because of a desire for status and  power, a commitment to volunteerism or community, a desire to fill in retirement hours,  peer pressure, a call from help from a friend, career development as well as because they care about the art form. A commitment to shared values about the general importance of the arts and to effective governance  may be all that’s required in addition to pragmatic skills such as those listed above.

The expertise of Board Members is particularly important for small to medium sized arts organisations that may not have such skill in-house or even be able to afford to buy it such as legal or financial advice. The challenge in these situations is to get the balance between governance and management right when board members end up doing what is actually the work of staff. While it may be necessary in the most under-resourced arts company, it is often a difficulty for board members with specific expertise when organisations have professional staff. I have seen the frustration of both board and staff members when the board person who has been appointed (amongst other things) for their marketing kudos expresses opinions that don’t fit within the strategic plan of the marketing director. When the board member’s expertise is a specialisation that the company doesn’t have such as the law, the application of the board members skill is much easier.

Fishel (2003, p. 15) makes a good point when he says “[t]he paradox is that the board needs to get a close-up understanding of the operation in order to be able to stand back and play a productive role at a higher level….But the closer the board gets to the operations, the more anxious the senior staff become about unwelcome interference.”  He describes the process of getting involved in the detail as “seductive”.  However, I think there is a more prosaic reason behind this problematic outcome. Most arts board members are managers and professionals in their own right.  In fact, funding organisations in Australia for example, have pushed for this set of skills on boards. Board members are more likely to know more about managing companies than creating art so they fall back on commenting on the things they know best.

As well as ensuring that you have a range of skills on your board, Rentschler (2015, p.141) suggests that you have a range of strategic types including the mission driven, the commanding (political and connected), the shape shifting (catalyst for change) and community minded. Whilst it’s easy to do a matrix and get your collection of skills and diversity right, it’s not quite so easy to determine what personality types you’ll end up with.

Another challenge for boards is how much arts expertise there needs to be amongst their members. At the beginning of the life of many arts companies, the board will consist of friends and peers. The pattern usually goes like this: an artist works on a volunteer basis and then receives a modest project grant or donation. This may mean that another organisation has to auspice the grant and if the artist wants more in the future, they need to establish a legal entity of some form which will require a board. The initial board members will often be friends, family or fellow artists who all share a passion for the work. Over time, there will be a need to bring some specialist knowledge to the board such as finance or marketing or legal skills. The new board members will have in interest in the art form but not usually the same passion as the original members. Their interest will be more about organisational effectiveness and governance than necessarily the art. The new board will want more policies and reports than the old board. And finally, there will be the moment when the Chair challenges the Artistic Director on why a certain project is being undertaken, the Artistic Director looks around and realises that there it’s turned from a room full of mates to a room full of strangers.

At this point, there are three choices:

  1. Bring some artists onto the Board
  2. Spend more time educating the board about the art
  3. The Artistic Director and the Chair spend some reflection time together to develop a new relationship.

It might be also be indicative that the founder Artistic Director may need to contemplate their own future and whether they have achieved all they need to with this particular organisation.

There isn’t agreement about  whether artists should be on Boards of arts organisations.  An artist/CEO,  Richard Mills (2003, p. 15) said “artists can be a damn nuisance on boards” . MTC hasn’t had an artist on the board for years because Artistic Directors have said that they don’t want to spend their lives being second guessed by people who wanted to work for the company. I’ve heard of examples where this has indeed been the result with conflict between Artistic Director and artist board members over the direction of the company and choice of repertoire. My sense is that the Artistic CEO has been appointed to provide the vision for the company and that’s the vision that should be heard most clearly.

However, I should also offer a contrary view. Artistic Director Ralph Myers  wants more artists, maybe even a majority of artists, on Boards. He’s particularly concerned because of the lack of the artists’ voice when it comes to choosing the artistic leader (see below for more discussion).   Summerton & Hutchins (2005) point out that when the company is artist-led and a vehicle for the artist’s talents, a Board without artistic expertise may not feel able to challenge artistic matters. Whether having more artists on boards would actually change that situation or just make it more complex is moot.

In summary, the qualities that arts organisations look for in board members include:

  • Business experience of some sort e.g. specialisation in marketing or law
  • Ability to judge whether the organisation is achieving its mission
  • Capacity to read financial statements
  • Time to be able to attend not only Board meetings but sub-committees and opening nights and fundraisers
  • Donation – moving towards an US model where Board members are expected to donate (or open doors).

As an arts manager, what I want from a Board is:

  • A Chair who listens, can run a meeting, is available when I need them
  • Board members who give of their expertise when asked but don’t try to tell my staff how to do their job
  • A Board that’s prepared to take the hard decision when an Executive has to be fired
  • People who will donate when we need it and if they can’t afford to, solicit people who can
  • People who can through mentorship and leadership teach me how to be a better manager
  • Being able to have discussions in confidence with the Chair (about future ideas, other management staff, performance of the board, personal directions)
  • Board members who can give time and ideas when needed
  • People who will resign when they realise that they can’t contribute enough.”

There’s lot’s more in the book on Boards because they are such an important part of the operations of any arts and cultural organisation.


Fishel, D 2003, The Book of The Board, Federation Press, Sydney, 2003

Mills, R 2003, The Australian, 4 July, p. 15

Myers, R 2014, ‘The Artistic Director: On the Way to Extinction’ 2014 Philip Parsons Memorial Lecture http://belvoir.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/2014-Philip-Parsons-Memorial-Lecture-by-Ralph-Myers.pdf  [Accessed 9 January 2015

Rentschler, R 2015, Arts Governance: People, passion performance, Routledge, Abingdon, Oxon