Main Menu

Talking about art - the Board's role?

Twenty arts organisations were represented across two ‘Talking About Art’ Round-table forums, hosted in November and December 2008 by Windsor Recruitment Chief Executive Officer Dylys Bertelsen. BoardConnect Project Director David Fishel facilitated discussion regarding the role of the board in supporting and reviewing the quality and viability of an arts organisation’s artistic processes and output. The following points emerged, amongst others.

What is the board’s role?

  • Boards must consider the art in relation to existing/new audiences, and in the context of funding policy and the arts company’s overall strategic direction
  • Boards are likely to undertake a more active role in program planning in companies that are young, highly dependent upon box office funding, pursuing longer term cultural change amongst audiences, or undergoing a period of operational instability

A common language:

  • Board members, especially non-arts specialists, need to build confidence to express their views about the art, as well as about their own area of specialisation
  • Building of trust amongst board members and CEO/AD creates a working relationship conducive to questioning and learning
  • A board’s overall value is created by the sum of its diverse parts – arts industry experience is of equal value to accounting knowledge in the overall governance mix

A common purpose:

  • Providing governance and moral support without discussing the product (i.e. the art) is a proposition that would just not exist in the commercial sector
  • It is important for the Board to agree upon the purpose of each artistic product (e.g. market building, income generation, artform innovation, nurturing of industry partners) in order to assess its value
  • Recent funding program developments in Queensland have resulted in re-balancing of numerous boards’ focus in relation to artistic quality considerations

Who leads the charge?

  • In some cases, a board’s arts specialists might lead artistic discussion, as well as a proactive Artistic Director
  • In other cases, a Chair champions this discussion – several Chairs present saw this as a call to action!
  • Regular, incremental board skills assessment and training processes are needed to ensure common understanding of all members’ specialisations
  • Whoever does lead the charge should be encouraged  - board members are board members specifically because they care about the artistic product

Governance vs management – who chooses the program?

  • Programming is the Artistic Director’s role, taking audience and board alike on an innovative artistic journey – the board needs to take a well informed personal view of programming in order to have a dialogue about the AD’s vision
  • A sub-committee of industry specialists may review the program prior to its presentation to the full board
  • Structured CEO/AD performance assessments are vital in maintaining effective balance between governance and management – review by a diplomatic third party may be effective if CEO/AD is willing to accept feedback
  • An understanding of the AD’s artistic imperatives is also required to inform the board’s succession planning for the company’s long term artistic direction

How do we discuss quality?

  • Board members should remain aware that clever marketing or strong artistic vision from within the company may on occasion obfuscate their appraisal of the quality of the art and the overall value of a project to the company – it is useful to consider the likely and actual responses of external stakeholders such as audiences and funding bodies in the project approval and review process
  • Board members need to develop an artistic perspective broader than the specific agenda of their arts company through attending arts events of their own and other companies, remaining aware of arts industry issues covered in nationwide press etc
  • External awareness and knowledge-seeking lessens board reliance solely on CEO/AD-provided information or the need for board members to make potentially undermining approaches to arts company staff other than the CEO/AD
  • Benchmarking or undertaking sample focus groups across targeted sections of the community  (or users) may be useful in depersonalising the discussion process

What are the indicators of quality?

  • Financial tension is central to all conversations – board members need to be well informed in relation to the level of artistic quality achievable through proposed levels of expenditure, in order to assess each project’s value in relation to the company’s overall strategic goals
  • Likewise, innovation and boundary stretch are imperative – balance within financial limits, audience capacity and funding ‘risk’ should be achieved across a varied annual artistic program
  • Some arts companies have developed ‘quality’ criteria which apply to all areas of the company i.e. primarily the art, but also communications, governance etc, as a basis for all company decisions