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Clore Leadership has held its 5th conference addressing issues of governance in the cultural sector. The theme this year was championing communities. Jonathan Mayes reports on what emerged.

Clore Leadership's Governance Now conference
Jonathan Mayes addressing this year's Governance Now conference held at Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham

Clore Leadership

The 5th edition of the Governance Now* conference finds us in a vastly different world from the last time we ran it as a face-to-face event back in 2019. That year, the theme was ‘practical solutions to common problems with top tips on how to achieve a high performing board’. That now seems like a tame premise, given the intervening years which have heightened the existential importance of decision-making at board level. 

What then for cultural governance in 2023 and beyond when business plans have been rapidly transformed, reserves have often been exhausted and our sector’s workforce has been pushed to the limit?  How to frame the debate while we continue to deal with pandemic fallout, extreme financial pressures, climate crisis and social movements which call into question fundamental beliefs and structures?

Welcoming an audience of chairs and trustees, executive teams and sector support organisations at the Midlands Arts Centre in Birmingham - online and in person - we focused on how to tackle these issues in the context of community, and on how engagement with local priorities and interventions can support the rebuilding of organisations as we seek to champion communities.

Transforming governance 

If you’re thinking that resonates with Arts Council England’s Let’s Create strategy, you’re right. The theme was informed by the fact that ACE’s Chair, Sir Nicholas Serota was our opening keynote speaker. 

As well as announcing ACE’s new ‘Transforming Governance’ initiative, Nick launched proceedings by imploring us not to take the return to face-to-face events for granted. That was reflected throughout the day at the venue, with a constant buzz of conversation across breakout rooms and networking spaces which was a joy to witness.  

A conference like Governance Now is imperfect: it lands well for some and less well for others; some sessions take off and some feel like re-treading old ground. And that’s the joy of doing things face-to-face - you pick up the mood, you get a visceral sense of what issues are critical, of what’s important for people in the here and now. In a packed programme, a few sessions really stood out.

Moving practices

The very first session we envisaged back in 2022, was ‘moving practices’, hearing about the board’s role in the move Orchestras Live made from London to Leeds. We thought it was essential to also include in this conversation the perspective of communities based in Levelling Up for Culture Places. 

That would give both sides of the levelling up coin and it was a joy to hear the quality of conversation and responses to delegate questions from our panellists, Sarah Derbyshire and Charlotte Nicol in a session chaired by AP Editor Ruth Hogarth. The importance of asking the right questions and listening carefully to local stakeholders came through strongly. 

Nicola Turner, Director of Legacy for the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games, was one of a number of speakers giving a flavour of the ways in which the cultural sector is engaging with communities in new and exciting ways. 

Showcasing this work, Nicola’s keynote inspired delegates with the possibility of transforming narratives at a local level – how Birmingham used the Games not only to shine a light on existing cultural wealth but also to create new relationships and develop long-lasting connections.  

Board diversity

Exploring board diversity, Rising Arts Agency ran a session about engaging younger people who aren’t currently signed up as trustees. Attracting those who don’t already interact with governance is a challenge for a conference with such a specific focus, but we had several sign-ups for this session so there’s definitely an appetite from trustees wanting to engage younger people. 

As Euella Jackson from Rising Arts Agency said, what was striking was “how frank and honest the conversation was”, allowing the most radical discussions of the day “about the limitations of governance as it currently stands and the ways that it (directly and indirectly) limits young people and other marginalised groups from engaging on their own terms.”

All these sessions, along with many other discussions during the day, will inform subsequent debate at a national level and, importantly, locally. Convening nationally only makes sense if it inspires ongoing conversations at a granular level and we were really pleased to see how much online discussion has been generated both on the day and subsequently.

Lessons learned

There remains a lot to pick up on; from restitution and repatriation in the museum sector to remuneration of trustees as a way of opening up governance processes. And I also have immediate reflections on what could be improved at the conference: we needed more young voices and those calling for change at the centre of the programme. 

In delivering a hybrid event, we probably tried to squeeze in too much. Hybrid is much more work than you think, so we’ve learned not to underestimate the resource it takes to deliver for face-to-face and online audiences simultaneously. And we’ll build in more time for conversation in future.

That leads me to a final thought, one I shared with delegates. Last month, I was invited to be part of a local initiative in Lancaster - In Governance We Trust - where Lancashire’s arts sector gathered for its own governance conference. 

It was a hugely uplifting and powerful experience in which the value of working at a local level and prioritising communities was abundantly clear. So, between now and our next Governance Now conference in November 2024, how can you start to implement the changes we want to see in cultural governance in your local area and what interventions can you make to build and champion your communities? 

Jonathan Mayes is Head of Strategic Partnerships and Impact at Clore Leadership.
*Governance Now is an annual conference from Clore Leadership and the Cultural Governance Alliance (CGA) for arts and culture sector professionals.

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