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Talking about Art - the board's role in discussing the organisation's art

BoardConnect – Arts Victoria Workshops: Session 1

Wednesday 17 November, 12.30-2.00pm
Grainger Room, Arts Victoria, Level 6, 2 Kavanagh St, Southbank
Presenter: David Fishel, Director, Positive Solutions & BoardConnect

This workshop was presented as part of the Pilot Program run by BoardConnect on behalf of Arts Victoria.  The material below represents a brief summary of issues raised by presenter and participants and is not intended to be a full guide to the topic under consideration.

Summary Dot Points:

  • Because the art is part of the organisation’s business, it is therefore part of the business of the board
  • Board needs to ensure that the art reflects the organisation’s mission and vision
  • Particularly where there is a strong artistic director, the discussion still needs to happen, but in a respectful way
  • Artistic director needs artistic independence, but also needs to recognise that she/he has a responsibility towards the organisation that is employing him/her
  • As consumers, board members are qualified to talk about the art
  • Can make themselves more informed by attending their own and other organisations’ events to keep up to date with what’s happening in the industry
  • Problem of measuring what is ‘good’ art (artistic vibrancy) vs ‘bums on seats’ & other quantitative measures
  • Danger of applying a commercial business model to an arts organisation
  • Should the artistic director be a voting member of the board?
  • Board’s responsibility to judge when a company has reached its use-by date and needs to close
  • Keep the organisation’s mission in the forefront, so as not to get trapped into satisfying funding bodies’ extra requests, especially for no extra money
  • Board needs to stay engaged with the art in order to stay engaged with the artform and therefore the organisation.


Questions posed

  • To what degree should the board be addressing discussion around art and the artform?
  • What is the legitimate involvement with the board in that process?
  • How can it have that dialogue with the staff and artistic experts in an arts organisation?

Examples of the current situation for board members

“We are in quite a good position in that the product we make is exceptional. At a board level there is not really a lot of discussion about the work she (the key artist) makes – she doesn’t come to the board and ask if she can make a type of work, and so far that’s worked quite well. But this workshop poses the question, “What would happen if she did want to do something that wasn’t quite right for the company?” At the moment there is nothing in place to stop her.”

“Whilst we don’t comment on the artistic content, we do sometimes have a strategic goal that may need a certain product to fulfil it. E.g. making a production smaller than intended to tour.”

The role of the board

  • The business of the business is the responsibility of the board. This is largely budgetary but does include other aspects.
  • The board should be stewards of the company’s vision if the artistic director and staff come and go every few years or so. However if there is a founding artistic director still in post the chemistry is different. It’s not a matter of the board abdicating its responsibilities, but it’s a more subtle relationship.
  • Important to maintain open lines of communication. 
  • The board has certain set legal responsibilities, which are a constant regardless of organisational size. However, to be an effective organisation, there is a nature and mix of leadership that is required. This is where the line between the artistic director, senior staff and the board is not clear. 
    • If there is a strong and articulate founding artistic director, for the board to be very much on the front foot in terms of discussing and/or challenging the art, could be very destructive. That’s not to say discussions about the art shouldn’t happen, but the nature of the discussion needs to be handled in a particular and respectful way.
    • During the transition to a new artistic director, if the board isn’t on the front foot it’s probably going to make some really big mistakes. It needs to engage with the company’s vision, where they want to be in 5 years, and prepare for a different type of dialogue with a new artistic director. It is this transition that is one of the areas of high risk for boards. 
  • Induction and recruitment is very important to have structures in place.  
  • The making of a good board is not whether there is an accountant, a lawyer, etc on the board. Whilst a range of skills help, it is more important that the personalities mix well, how they work as a team and that they take the role seriously.

The transition to a new artistic director

  • The recruitment process for an artistic director is of great importance and it’s important to get it right.
  • The board needs to consider how a new artistic director would work with the board before engaging them.
  • It is important that artistic director contracts aren’t too dictatorial. There needs to be some artistic independence, but also recognition that the artistic director has a responsibility towards the organisation that is engaging them.

Board’s often don’t feel qualified to talk about art. Does the board have a right to get involved in programming? If so how, and on what basis?

  • The board is qualified to have an opinion about the art as audience members/punters. It’s important to have voices from people who aren’t directly in the industry.
  • The board often provides hands-on support when it is a small company, often only one staff member and no artistic staff in paid positions. This also creates a grey area.  
  • One organisation has the artistic director submit a written artistic report before board meetings, which is then spoken to at the meeting. Board member feedback is minuted. 
  • Boards approve budgets presented by staff and artistic discussion happens within that. Boards should feel free to have artistic discussions around the table, and there should be sufficient trust built up that artistic directors don’t get ‘twitchy’ when these discussions take place, with “people who aren’t qualified, and that happen to employ them”. There is a power relationship that corrupts the discussion about art – we can’t have a neutral discussion about art because we aren’t equals in knowledge and professional experience
  • The board’s responsibility is to ensure that artistic assessment and discussion happens, but it doesn’t have to happen in the boardroom. 
  • What can the board do to help them be more qualified to have programming discussions?
    • Must attend the organisation’s events at the very least.  
    • Attend other organisations’ events and keep up to date with what’s happening in the industry.
  • Brian McMaster Review for the Arts Council of England looks at the issue of the lack of mature artistic debate or assessment on the part of funded organisations. Some officers within funding organisations were perceived to lack the competence to assess their clients’ work. There is now a peer assessment process to try and overcome this. 
  • The Canada Council has similar systems in place. The peer assessors are a particularly critical part of the process there. There are over a thousand peer assessors across Canada, who are chosen from 30,000 applicants. 
  • How do you make board members attend events?
    • Hard to have penalties for unpaid board positions. Best to outline expectations and standards in a Code of Conduct/Duty Statement e.g. 80% of meetings and performances are to be attended. It’s not law, it’s moral practice. 
    • One board has passed a resolution that at least 3 board members attend each production. Attendance is discussed in meetings and directors commit to the performances they will attend. 
    • One organisation doesn’t offer free tickets for board members. Instead, the board member will get two free tickets if they take along a prospective sponsor.

What is success? Is it bums on seats? Is it high quality art? How is this measured?

  • The issue with this is that there isn’t a way to measure artistic success in a business sense/non-financial metrics.
    • Grants, commissions and audiences often are the measures organisations use.  
  • 'Bums on seats’ is definitely a measure to use, but only teamed with consideration of artistic quality and impact on the audience/individuals
  • Measuring impacts is expensive and time consuming. It’s very easy to measure bums on seats and money in/out, but it is really hard to measure what difference it has made to somebody’s life. It takes time, money and market research. 
  • When the intangible impacts are researched, it can be transformational for the company.
  • Interesting article: McKinsey’s consulting firm: Measuring what matters in the non-profit sector. 
    • Some measures they came up with included: Outputs; Impact; and Capacity – measure the degree to which you’ve strengthened your organisation (staff training, board development, market research, etc)
  • Board needs to have measurable outcomes in order to feel as though they can make an impact. It needs hard evidence in front of it so they can have informed discussion around the boardroom table. It’s not enough just to receive reports from a highly knowledgeable artistic director and competent general manager. Why are the board there? Would the company have just done the same things and achieved the same results anyway without the board? That is not a good position for the board to be in, and equally you don’t need to move into interfering and getting involved in the wrong sorts of ways because the board is frustrated and doesn’t have a job to do.  
  • Australia Council currently provides tools for assessing artistic vibrancy, so boards and arts organisations can carry out this assessment of themselves. 
    • Australia Council’s definition of artistic vibrancy: 
      • Artistic quality or excellence
      • Audience engagement and stimulation
      • A fresh approach to the preservation or development of the art form
      • Artist development
      • Community relevance.
    • A small regional organisation which had gone through this process within a strategic planning day and found it very beneficial. 
    • There is a difference between artistic vibrancy and organisational vibrancy. There often isn’t room in the industry for mergers.

Not for profits vs the commercial world

  • Often new board members from the commercial sector try to implement a business model into an arts organisation:
    • There was good article in the Harvard Business Review 8 years ago called “If the shoe fits” specifically on the issue in the United States about business people coming onto a board. There is still much debate about this in the industry and will continue to be in the future. 
  • There is currently a discussion taking place, particularly in the United States and the UK, about new structures to support artistic vibrancy. Looks at raising capital and leveraging off assets, a different type of marketplace would exist. Potentially looking at organisations raising capital through issuing shares with capped dividends. If the funding structure doesn’t change, we will continue to face the same issues we always have, with only government funding to support organisations.

Should a paid artistic director/staff member have a place on the board?

  • Regardless of which option the organisation takes, the artistic director needs to communicate openly with the board. Programming needs to be discussed with appropriate lead time.
  • Board needs to clarify how the organisation will operate: On a hierarchical basis? On a non-hierarchical basis? Where is the power and where is decision making actually done? Is it done on a consensual basis or non-consensual basis? Whether the organisation is an inclusive or exclusive organisation with wide appeal or a more narrow market? There are many techniques and models.

General discussion

  • If an organisation would like a particular artist’s name to be associated with them to create a brand, what happens if the artist wants to step outside their usual artistic direction themselves, independent of the company?
    • Another organisation stated that they are in a similar position with their artistic director, and their artistic director has it outlined in their contract that other work can be undertaken outside of the company. However, because the artistic director’s name is also that of the organisation, what happens when they inevitably retire? How does the organisation retain the structure?
    • Try and keep the artistic director’s name out of the organisation.
    • Suggested instead using their name as a strapline under the organisation’s name. 
  • Is it bad for an organisation to reach a point where they have become irrelevant and should wind up? How does an organisation know when it’s time to finish up? 
    • This is the board’s responsibility. This is where there is a grey area, because as a board it’s the board’s fiduciary duty to protect the organisation, and therefore leads them to try and keep it going, where as the artistic side may be going in an entirely different direction and in the name of good art it might be wisest to close the company.
  • Organisations often get trapped by government funding bodies that want the company to keep doing more and diversifying more for the same level of funding. The board needs continually to go back to their mission statement to make sure they don’t sway from their mission. 
    • Need to consider funding levels and expectations of funders vs the mission of the organisation, and what the organisation needs to take on in order to maintain funding.

  Need to discuss regularly.

  At least a couple of times a year, board should consider a risk register. Even just the most significant risks. Also consider if a significant change, such as potential loss of funding or competitors entering the market, is on the horizon.

  Weight the risks: Which are most likely to happen? Which will have the most negative impact if they did happen? Multiply one by the other to find the ‘risk score’. Those with the highest scores are the risks to be most concerned about. 

  Can any of the risks be insured against? Can risk be reduced through staff training?