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What is an effective Chair of an arts organisation

Eight arts organisations were represented on Monday night 29th September at the first Round-table forum for Chairs, held at QUT The Australian Centre for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies. Host Myles McGregor Lowndes and Anne Overell from the Centre commenced with an outline of the Centre's activities including their recent governance survey and a forthcoming survey for chairs.

David Fishel facilitated discussion across a range of topics related to the role of Chair of an arts organisation. David initiated discussion with examples of two chairs of theatre companies for whom he worked, and their very diverse techniques for leading their boards. From these two completely different leadership styles David commented that these experiences led him to believe that chairs are made not born, and that any board member can enhance their chairing skills. From discussion about activities that can enhance board effectiveness, the following points emerged, amongst others.

The Chairs Leadership

  • the importance of time outside the formal meetings for building an effective board team both through planning sessions and through social activity
  • the need for succession planning to avoid the Chair being selected in haste because no strong candidates have been cultivated
    the importance of strategic and operational plans in setting clear direction, and in focusing the purpose of the board (to work with the CEO to ensure the plans are delivered)
  • linking the agenda items and board papers explicitly to elements of the strategic plan to keep the board focused on priorities
    the value which the Chair can add through forward thinking and motivating others
  • the use of sub-committees to augment the boards expertise and knowledge, including arts industry knowledge
  • the challenge of quarantining governance and strategic thinking in a small organisation, where the board are also hands-on volunteers, compensating for the absence of staff functions


Board meetings

  • board papers must be circulated a week ahead of the meeting
  • the board has to be willing to take the tough decisions, but is also there to generate options
  • small boards are desirable (5 - 8 people), but the precise number depends upon organisational needs
  • fixed terms for board members are important to maintain the infusion of new thinking into the organisation
  • many boards meet monthly, do they need to ? What is the best frequency ? Cultural change in organisations requires time and efforts difficult when meetings are too far apart
  • allow some social time, it defuses the tensions, and builds awareness of each others skills and knowledge