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Art in the Boardroom: International Webinar

The Chairs and Artistic Director/CEOs of Southbank Centre, London and Queensland Performing Arts Complex talk about the board's role in conversations about art.

Monday 5 September, 2011

BoardConnect Limited
Rick Haythornthwaite (Chair) and Jude Kelly (Artistic Director), South Bank Centre, London
Henry Smerdon (Chair) and John Kotzas (Chief Executive), Queensland Performing Arts Centre
David Fishel (Positive Solutions and BoardConnect)

The International Webinar was attended by 19 people from 18 organisations, connected via internet technology, Webex. A recording is available to purchase for $10.00.

David Fishel welcomed participants and set out the structure of the webinar, before introducing the speakers, Jude Kelly and Rick Haythornthwaite first. 

South Bank Centre, London
Jude Kelly presented the perspective of the Artistic Director, whose challenge is on the one hand that:

  • their reason for being is bound up in ‘making art’ – it is deeply vocational and therefore deeply personal
  • this passion and commitment is unusual for board members who are not experienced in the arts
  • the board must have a strong vision for the company but this cannot exist without the strong commitment of the Artistic Director

On the other hand:

  • the Artistic Director cannot be over-invested or proprietorial regarding the vision
  • the vision must be vested in the board to ensure longevity beyond the life of a particular Artistic Director
  • the Artistic Director must work with the board to shape a shared vision

What the Artistic Director needs from the Chair is a matched investment in the direction the company is trying to take.  The vision exists in a space that they share and they can then articulate that vision for others.  The relationship will not work if the Artistic Director is caricatured as only having marvellous ‘flights of fancy’ but the Chair constantly holds her/his feet on the ground.  Both Chair and Artistic Director need to be excited by the imagined possibilities and share the debate about how to make the vision practical, but they must not cross into the areas of the other’s responsibility.

Question: A high level of trust is essential between Artistic Director and Chair: how can you build that trust, especially when the Chair comes in after the Artistic Director is appointed?

Jude: That situation is similar to an arranged marriage.  The love (trust) has to be assumed as a matter of course, in the belief that it will develop as a reality over time.  The Artistic Director is responsible for setting out the vision, while the Chair has the responsibility of working with the Artistic Director to hone in on the strategy to make that vision possible.  This then frees the Artistic Director to be very expansive.

Winning trust entails spending time with each other and enjoying each other’s complementary skills.  The Artistic Director can sometimes feel as though she/he is in a constant audition with the Chair, and thus try to “be” everything.  It’s important for the Artistic Director to recognise and appreciate the fact that the Chair provides something that the Artistic Director doesn’t have.

Rick: As Chair, he had to build trust between himself, the Artistic Director and the board.  When he took on the role of Chair of the South Bank Centre, there was an urgent need for trust – it was assumed to be there, but it was conditional.  There were some “no go” areas and establishing the basis of the relationship involved each being absolutely truthful with the other.  Each made promises to the other on the areas that they would deal with.

As Chair, he had to sort out:

  • How much trust could he ask of the board on behalf of the Artistic Director?  Do they understand the strategic context for what she is doing?
  • Keeping in mind the standing of the organisation with stakeholders, how far could the boundaries be pushed (in terms of direction)?
  • Within the board, what is the reservoir of trust in the standing of the Artistic Director?

When Rick took over as Chair, it was important to get the strategy right, to build the relationship with the Artistic Director through the early conversations and to expand the trust as quickly as possible.  He also felt that it was important to change the composition of the board to suit the Artistic Director, a process that had to be undertaken step by step.  The South Bank Centre has just completed a very successful Festival of Britain and it was notable that the board stopped questioning Jude about risk and other details and just gave her their trust.

Jude: The Chair is there for the board, but he is also there for the Artistic Director.  He needs to take the board and the stakeholders along on the journey with him, as well as motivating and coaching the Artistic Director in the needs of the board and the stakeholders.  It is also important that stakeholders see that the Chair has trust in the Artistic Director.

If the Chair/AD relationship is not working, the Chair has to be capable of pulling out. 

Rick: The Chair is to some extent an ambassador for the Artistic Director and must advocate on her behalf.  That helps the strength of the whole team.

Question: What is the nature of the debate over the ‘art’ in the South Bank Centre’s boardroom and is there a role for the Artistic Director in educating or building the knowledge of board members?

Rick: It is still legitimate to have a board comprising experts with broad experience, especially in the UK environment where the “give or get off” philosophy does not apply in the way that it does elsewhere.  The South Bank Centre can recruit board members who have a love and knowledge of the arts, so they don’t usually need educating.  However, board members do need to participate in the conversation, of which there are two parts:

1 - by listening to the Artistic Director and making judgements about whether the risks have been considered and the objectives are consistent with the organisation’s strategic direction; and
2 - by encouraging the Artistic Director to enjoy the discussion, although as Chair, he has to be careful to maintain control of the conversation, especially if there are board members who have artistic experience and strong opinions.  Their role is not to influence the program or the aesthetic.

Jude: The composition of the board is carefully crafted, with a love of the arts as a given.  Sometimes there are board members who have a political agenda that is anti-elite or anti-“arty-farty”, who focus on “bums on seats, as opposed to eyes on stalks”.  It is not ideal to have representatives on the board who are there to check that you are not doing certain things.  There is a role for the Artistic Director to inform them as to what audiences are currently enjoying and what role the South Bank Centre plays in innovation and diversity of programming. 

Rick: This is sometimes a difficult conversation in the boardroom.  It can be confusing for board members to go from discussing current programming action to future possibilities - it is the role of the Chair to make that differentiation between possibility and action very clear.

Question: There is evidently very effective communication and clarity of roles between Jude and Rick.  What are the sources of friction that you have encountered in your past experience, other than through South Bank Centre?

Jude: Has seen a situation where both Chair and Artistic Director had strong personalities and ‘vanity’ caused tension between them.  It can be overcome by clarifying each of their roles.  The Artistic Director is hired to be a leader whom the Chair must support, but the Artistic Director must recognise that the Chair is also a leader.  Their leadership styles are often very different and both leadership styles need space.  If the Chair tries to keep the Artistic Director “in line” (which is patronising to the artist), then communication can be damaged as the Artistic Director will have to subvert the communication with the board, going past or around the Chair.

Putting time into building a personal relationship is vital.  The situation is untenable if the Artistic Director cannot talk through issues as they arise.  Without this personal connection, the Artistic Director may be wary of asking for advice, for fear of looking as though she/he doesn’t know what they are doing, and if she doesn’t confide in the Chair, he can feel excluded and the organisation suffers.

Rick: The board needs to see the Artistic Director as part of the senior management ‘ecology’ and to put effort into making sure that the relationships among the senior management staff are working well.  Success comes from understanding the necessary balance between imagination, execution and cash – these three are fundamental to creating great art.

It is also vital that there be only one conversation – not one in the boardroom and another outside.  Any discrepancy or lack of integrity must be recognised and resolved by the Chair.

Jude: Previously she has faced a situation where the Chair played the Artistic Director off against the other members of her team.  Such a situation is untenable – there was no way to win because confronting it was inevitably seen as an aggressive act.  It is very destructive to divide and rule. 

Queensland Performing Arts Centre
Henry Smerdon gave some background to the history of the senior executive position at QPAC.  It started 26 years ago with a single person combining the roles of CEO and Artistic Director.  Then for a variety of good reasons, the roles were separated in 2001.  However, the roles were combined again three or four years ago when the CEO left and John Kotzas took over the dual role.

Relationships start in the boardroom. QPAC is different from South Bank Centre in that all QPAC board members are appointed by government and one of the Chair’s roles is to convince government of the skills that are needed.  The board, which comprises 10 people with a broad range of experience, sets the strategic direction of the organisation.  This entails trying to fill all four theatres as much as possible, as well as trying to raise the Centre’s international profile. 

The relationship with the CEO is multi-faceted: it is professional but also involves friendship and mentoring.  John brings his artistic experience to the board and needs to have all board members on side and the board now has complete trust in the CEO.  There is no programming committee, but there is a risk management committee.  John discusses ideas with the Chair in order to shape them in the best way to ensure a positive response from the board.  Board members are brought onside through informed and consistent communication and don’t feel left out.

John: He has multiple conversations about programming, including capability, imagination and cash.  The relationship between Chair and CEO is the principal one on which everything else is based.  The senior leadership role in a large organisation can be lonely and having the support of the Chair is paramount.  John’s and Henry’s relationship has been built through spending lots of time together, including during national and international travel.

Henry: All board members have a strong passion for the performing arts and the relationship between board and management is founded on that passion, with all parties travelling in the same direction.
Question: As for the South Bank Centre, what have been the points of friction between board and CEO?

John: Because he had been in the organisation for so long when he applied for the CEO position, there were initial difficulties in convincing board members that he was up to the task.  Then, when he was acting in the role, his developing relationship with the Chair was made more difficult because there was a perception that he was running a campaign to get the Chair onside so he would get the appointment.

Henry: The greatest asset that the Chair can provide to the CEO is the assurance that comments are made from a professional not a personal perspective.  Board members are encouraged to attend events at QPAC and to give feedback, although that feedback is given as much but no more weight than anyone else’s.  Their views are those of patrons – they can be different from the CEO’s views but that doesn’t affect the relationship.

John: The strategic direction of QPAC is t have a substantial portfolio of commercial investment, particularly in Broadway musicals.  The board now has passionate discussions about content but dispassionate discussions about direction.  It is not about the CEO or the Chair, but about the audience.

Question: How does Jude handle personal opinions from board members?

Jude: Managing opinions is challenging - board members are the public, they have views and must be allowed to criticise.  The Artistic Director has to be as un-defensive as possible and cannot pretend that everything always works.  She must be able to talk to the board when she recognises that a program is not up to an acceptable standard.  It’s different if a board member runs a vendetta about a particular programming issue – it’s a waste of meeting time and must be controlled by the Chair.  Those things can be dealt with outside meetings, usually in a phone conversation.

Question from participant: In setting strategic direction, what is the interaction between the roles of the board and the AD/CEO?

South Bank Centre - Jude: It is important to make the distinction between programming and policy.  When she started at the South Bank Centre, there was a building program and a commercial development program, but no artistic policy.  There was a strategy for the cultural direction of the place, but that was different from an artistic programming policy.  Does the board agree that the Artistic Director has the right hunch or feeling for a vision?  If they do agree, what commitment are they going to bring in order to reach that vision?  The Artistic Director can’t just have an idea and then expect the board to bring it to fruition – that is how an individual artist would operate.  An Artistic Director is a very particular person who has to think across the whole organisation.  The board must work with the Artistic Director and the vision to build staff, stakeholders, funding and strategy.  They can’t just focus on the business.  Their strategy is the make the vision possible.  It needs another webinar to deal with the relationship between the Artistic Director and CEO, but this works best when all are working to the same vision.  It is driven by the Artistic Director, but must be in line with Board strategy.

Question:  What freedom do boards have to pursue strategy outside government and other outside influences, especially where all board members are appointed by government (as at QPAC)?

South Bank Centre – Jude: her board is not as close to government as is QPAC: it doesn’t represent the state and government is not involved in what the Centre does (although the Arts Council does have some involvement).

As large centres, SBC and QPAC must be innovative, creative and leaders in the field and they must convince the politicians, stakeholders and the audience that that’s their job. They must also convince stakeholders that you can’t have innovation without risk.  (Governments are often more nervous than individual board members about risk.)  The South Bank Centre board recognises that it is publicly accountable, but it is not representing just government or council.

QPAC – John: He has to have a strong, passionate view and clear vision when setting strategic direction.  He also works closely with individual board members before their Strategic Planning day.  Je feels that the board has developed a great deal over the past seven years.  Previously the board was seen as quite separate from the organisation, patriarchal, almost parental; now it is an essential part of the team.  It is the most effective tool in articulating the vision and securing the resources to achieve QPAC’s long-term purpose and the Chair is the primary partner.

Henry: Strategic issues are the first item on the board meeting agenda, so they are discussed throughout the year and there are no surprises when it comes to the annual Strategic Planning day.

Question: What does the board need from the CEO?

Henry: The Chair needs commitment and passion as a given.  It is essential to have complete honesty - he can’t lead the board otherwise.

Question: What does the CEO need from the board?

John: The CEO needs trust from the board and brutal honesty.  There has to be an honest conversation in the boardroom and throughout the whole organisation, so that everyone gets the same story.

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