?Non-professionals who interfere too much with the senior management, who are supposed to be the professionals and must be given the chance to get on with the job.? This was the definition of Royal Opera House Board members provided by Musical Director Bernard Haitink at the height of that company?s difficulties in 1997, writes Ken Bennett-Hunter.
In the same week criticism of the Board of Scottish Ballet was backed up by the threat of removal of the company?s funding.
Five years on the word ?governance? appears with ever increasing regularity in Arts-speak to cover issues concerning Boards of management. In one definition it is the ?action or manner of directing, guiding or regulating?. The Boards of funded arts organisations have the same responsibilities as the directors of any limited company but since the organisation usually has charitable status they are also trustees of the charity. Because of this they are unpaid and, in the absence of shareholders, it is often not entirely clear to whom they are responsible.
The system dates back to a time when the main duty of a Board was to appoint an artistic director every few years. In between it sometimes seemed that the their duties consisted of little more than turning up at first nights. Giving time to an arts organisation was seen as more interesting way of making a contribution to society than spending a few hours in an Oxfam shop on Saturday morning.
Since then sources of funding have proliferated; margins for error have reduced; co-productions and commercial development have become essential components of the arts economy. Heath and Safety and Employment legislation is much more rigorous with ultimate responsibility resting firmly with the directors of the company. In this climate Boards have to take a more positive role. But how should they strike the balance between interfering in day-to-day management and discharging their responsibilities to funding bodies, employees and the public? Should they direct, guide or regulate? How should they do it? Is it acceptable that they are, by and large, self-selecting?
There are some Boards who get this difficult balance right and if you talk to their Chief Executives the chances are that they will tell you that they get on very well with their Chairs. It is almost impossible for a Board of volunteers to have the time to understand the complexities of running a business of which they may have no experience. They may have useful things to say about the balance sheet or the fundraising policy or the company?s employment practice but they will inevitably find it hard to prioritise the issues facing their organisation.
The only solution is for the Chair to spend the time necessary to understand these priorities and to agree them with the senior management. Only then can they lead the board discussion in the most constructive direction and ensure that precious and limited time is not spent on matters which are neither relevant nor urgent. A committed Chair can also brief specialist Board members between meetings or take advantage of their expertise.
Even so the most important function of a Board of management is still the appointment of senior staff. These days there are likely to be two, or even three, senior appointments which are made directly by the board and at least one of them will be a management rather than an artistic post. The increased awareness of legal responsibilities has made boards wary of simply letting these executives get on with it, yet they are seldom in a position to engage in informed debate.
Bernard Haitink was referring to a very particular case but since then there have been too many arts organisations which appear to have sacrificed one or more talented senior staff for reasons that would seem to have more to do with directing rather than guiding or regulating. The rather suspect habit of paying off these employees in return for what is colloquially known as a ?gagging clause? seems strangely at odds with the transparency which might be expected of those responsible for large sums of public money. By definition we do not know the details of these cases but there have been enough for it to be reasonably inferred that in many of them it was the board taking the easy way out following a difference of opinion between two senior executives or between the Chief Executive and the Board itself.
This culture is a damaging one when it is already hard enough to make senior appointments. Potential artistic directors find the international freelance life more congenial and lucrative and many of the most talent managers and producers have been attracted by the clearer ground-rules of the commercial world.
Advertising for Board members is a welcome development to break the narrow boundaries of self-selection. A further logical step would be the payment of Chairs as would be the case in a commercial environment. But while this remains incompatible with charitable status we will have to continue to depend on those who have the time to discharge their considerable responsibilities and the humility to give their executives ?the chance to get on with the job?.
A.K. Bennett-Hunter is a freelance consultant and producer and a former president of the Theatrical Management Association. He has served on and chaired a number of Boards of management and run seminars for the Chairs of theatre Boards. e: firstname.lastname@example.org