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Chairs' Roundtable Discussion with Rupert Myer AM

A report from a Roundtable for Chairs with Rupert Myer AM (Chair, National Gallery of Australia, The Myer Family Company Pty Ltd).

Thursday 18 August, 2011

Host:                 McCullough Robertson Lawyers, Level 11, 66 Eagle St, Brisbane 
Presenters:       Rupert Myer AM (Chair, National Gallery of Australia, The Myer Family Company Pty Ltd)
Facilitator:        David Fishel (Positive Solutions and BoardConnect)

The Chairs’ Roundtable was attended by 16 people from 15 organisations, as well as a representative from host company, McCullough Robertson Lawyers.

Opening presentation
Following a welcome by Malcolm McBratney of McCullough Robertson and a brief introduction by David Fishel, Rupert Myer shared his pathway to working in the non-profit sector, which arose from role models in his family, many of whom were involved in the arts as well as volunteering on arts and other non-profit boards.

He opened the discussion with some comments on the importance of governance and the real need for the sorts of programs run by BoardConnect in a time of rapid change: in regulatory frameworks; in the changing government environment; and in a time of fickle consumerism.  It is important for the board to understand exactly what the organisation is, what it does, its structure and its stakeholders.

Difference in board operation between different organisations:
The National Gallery of Australia:

  • The organisation is wholly owned by government
  • The Trustees are appointed by the Governor-General in Council (in other words, by Cabinet)
  • The relationship of the Chair is with the Minister, more usually with the Minister’s adviser, and especially with the head of the relevant Department
  • The Gallery Director also has a relationship with all these people, as well as having special obligations under the statutory government structure

The National Gallery of Victoria Foundation:

  • Quite separate from the main gallery and its assets have nothing to do with the gallery
  • The Foundation exists to help raise funds for Gallery acquisitions
  • Members of the Foundation have a different role from that of Trustees
  • They have no role in dictating art policy.

Kaldor Public Art Project:

  • A public company limited by guarantee
  • Founded by John Kaldor, a collector of international art, who decided to gift part of his collection to the Art Gallery of NSW so he could present contemporary art to the widest possible audience
  • Role of the board is very light – John Kaldor presents what he wants to do at each meeting and the board discusses/endorses it
  • There is no reporting to government


Who are you serving?

There was discussion regarding the difference between statutory bodies that are owned by and responsible to government, and arts organisations for which ownership is not always clear.  Who they serve is a vital question, whether it be members; state and federal arts ministers (with whom relationships are vital and need to be nurtured); or project partners (for example between a choir and orchestra for a particular concert).

Businesses serve their shareholders, customers and suppliers.  There are profound similarities with non-profit organisations, which need to consider the ‘owners’ and their interests in board decision-making and in communications.

Communication Strategy
Almost all arts organisations have developed a strategic plan, initially because it was a requirement for government funding, but then because they discovered that it was a good idea to know where the organisation was going.  Fewer have Marketing and Communication plans, which are valuable in ensuring that the relationship with stakeholders is planned and maintained.

What does “winning” look like?
The boards of the most successful companies are becoming more engaged and are setting out what “winning” will look like. There was discussion about the importance, and the difficulty, of measuring qualitative “impact”, as well as the usual quantitative indicators.  How do you record the profound emotional impact that a particular exhibition has on one person?  The metrics will only record her as one attendee.
It is important for board members to ask hard questions of the professional staff. 

If the atmosphere in the board room is too cosy, the organisation may not be making progress.  “The best board members are those who are comfortable ‘in the helicopter’ (taking the overview), but who are also able to take the ‘deep dive’ (into organisational detail)”.  It is important to have people associated with the organisation who can reflect the organisation back to itself, to give an objective evaluation.  Board and organisational evaluation is valuable, but it is important to avoid the danger of the board health check becoming a post mortem.

Art in the boardroom
It is hard to become involved in an arts board without some abiding passion for the artform.  However, board members are sometimes asked to ‘park their passion at the door’ in case there is encroachment on professional artistic freedom.  What role do board members have in expressing their artistic opinions? 

Example: the National Gallery has a role in developing a 10-year acquisition strategy and every potential acquisition is reviewed against the strategy, not the personal opinions of board members. 

Who takes the entrepreneurial risk in programming?  For some organisations, especially those that engage with a younger demographic, social media are providing more feedback than ever before.  It is less useful for those whose audiences are from a more mature age bracket, but there are surveys and questionnaires for providing audience feedback.  However, if too much heed is paid to surveys and audience feedback, the organisation can lose its role as a leader in the artform.

The arts are a major part of the rapid, unpredictable change that is currently taking place: changes of distribution and dissemination of the arts and changes in funding mechanisms.  Boards now need to look further ahead than ever before – to consider traditional funding sources less and the artform and market more.

Board membership
Composition of the board depends on the strategic direction of the organisation at a particular time.  It is less important to have a lawyer and an accountant than previously, and the “give, get or get off” philosophy is no longer so relevant, except for Foundations.  There is now more focus on marketing and PR skills and government relations.

It is crucial that there is not a total change-over of board members at any one time, and it is especially important that the CEO and the Chair don’t both leave at the same time.  If there is a perceived need to have young representation on the board, it is better to have two young people rather than just one, to avoid one young person becoming “the honourable member for Youth”.

It is the Chair’s role to bring toughness to the task of monitoring board members, for example attendance and reading board papers in preparation for meetings.  The Chair should be more concerned about a non-participating member than about a disruptive member.

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