The Art of Governance

Australia’s arts boards are broken. The very ground on which our arts organisations and institutions are built is unpredictable, unsteady and (increasingly) unsafe.

Whether it manifests in low-regulated incorporated associations, more closely monitored limited companies or statutory bodies, the essence of the sector’s governance model takes a team of volunteers with low-level, tangential or (we hope) transferable skills and experience and puts them in charge of a team of paid professionals. 

At best, this is an idiosyncratic pairing: one in which free access to insights, networks and energy can act as an asset for institutions. But the conditions it creates are much more likely to be problematic, even damaging. And in a sector that is both increasingly complex and tenuous, the external pressures of politics, policies and the fight for funding have begun to shine a stage light on what this outdated governance model really looks like behind the scenes. 

It’s not a pretty sight. Nightmare chairs. Boards that don’t stay in their lane. Boards that create more work than the benefits they return. Boards that can’t manage ineffective, difficult or downright dangerous CEOs, or don’t notice the damage they cause. Boards that fail in their duty of care to the people they employ. Boards that have lost our trust.

Some boards work better than others, of course. But no board gets all of it right all of the time. Instances of board dysfunction can be attributed to a range of factors—such as high activity periods, extreme or unexpected circumstances, personality clashes and the loss of key players. But often the cause of such dysfunction can be directly traced back to the model itself. 

In this, the incorporated associations of Australia’s small-to-medium arts sector are particularly at risk. As these organisations are subject to fewer rules and regulations, problems can go unnoticed (and unaddressed) for long periods of times—if addressed at all.

Yet the sector seems stuck in a loop of continual improvement—attempting to bend an unwieldy system into shape, or investing a significant proportion of its severely limited resources in training that doesn’t last longer than a board members’ maximum term. 

Ours is a sector that has learnt how to bend without breaking. We’ve had to. But perhaps a break is what we really need—to throw the model out and start again. Or, more gently, to reflect, rethink and evolve. To create something that serves us, rather than something we have to serve. To envision a future with a radically different structure for our boards. Or a future without them entirely.

Ask a group of CEOs what their organisation needs from its board members. Ask a group of board members why they wanted to get involved. The areas of overlap are likely to be few.

Organisations will say: oversight, compliance and accountability, or free access to expert advice. They are likely to need ambassadors and advocates, people not only willing to activate their networks but to ask them for money (and then ask them again).

Board members are likely to be more attracted to what the organisation does than how it does it, or to be driven by a desire to give back in ways that don’t always align with what the organisation needs. They are more likely to prioritise their own development over the organisation’s, to want to create new networks rather than sharing their own, and to be more interested in donating their time than their money (or to ask anyone else for theirs). 

Fair enough, too. Board members aren’t the bad guys. Every single not-for-profit board member in Australia is expected to display an extraordinary level of altruism, not to mention the genuine passion and commitment that runs alongside. But the model fails them too: not making the most of their skills or their time, lacking focus and clarity, reinforcing poor practice, burning people out, and risking their reputations when things go terribly wrong.

The primary reason arts orgs need arts boards at all is because our legislation and constitutions say that’s what we need. But is that reason enough? Even when they’re working well, boards can be hard work. And when they’re not working well? Disaster. 

We’ve all heard the stories. Boards that have too much decision-making power without enough understanding of their particular situation. Boards that don’t disclose (or ignore) conflicts of interest. Boards that don’t reflect the communities they are set up to represent, or who represent their own personal interests over and above those of the board. Boards that are inaccessible, non-inclusive or actively discriminatory. Absent boards. Toxic boards. Non-diverse monocultural boards. Way too operational boards. Micromanaging chairs who make life impossible for CEOs to lead. Board members who are bullies—overbearing, shouting, not letting others be heard. Board members who don’t do the work. Board members who damage the organisation’s relationships out in the world. Board members who don’t stay (or who stay way too long). Board members only in it for themselves.

Even some of our largest, most well-funded arts institutions seem at risk of self-combusting from within, with the Black Swan Theatre Company’s board making headlines in 2019 with the decision to replace its executive director with one of its own members (temporarily, it turned out)—even though that person had no theatre management experience at the time.

All of this plays out in the context of Australia’s not-for-profit sector: a place that conflates high passion with low pay, and runs on the smell of an oil-painted rag. Now in our fifth consecutive year of significant annual funding cuts, this is also a sector that doesn’t have resources to spare. Not to mention the challenges presented by technology, climate change, a reduction in access to arts education and opportunities, and changing trends in engagement and audiences. The world isn’t changing, it’s already changed. The sector is simply not ready for the challenges it faces. 

Is what we ask of these boards unreasonable in our new and changing environment? Or was the underlying governance model always unfit for purpose? Either way, we have the opportunity to use the current crisis to reform how our arts organisations operate. To change the conversation from ‘what boards do’ to ‘what we need [boards] to do’ (which may or may not need to be done by a board). To rebuilt our trust in our arts boards or to build ourselves something else.

We already know how boards can do better in the model we have. We are well serviced by a governance industry that provides training and resources for each new generation of board members (usually for a fee). Advice ranges from addressing the (usually too high) workload boards require to service their (usually too frequent) meetings, to how present  board members are in an organisation, and how they communicate with staff and with each other. Or from implementing reviews and recruitment targets to make sure boards are both representative and have the skills the organisation needs, to trusting their staff teams to do their jobs.

But all of these strategies address the symptoms that these boards create, rather than the question of what our arts institutions need from those boards. What would we create if we had the opportunity to start again from scratch? What would we do differently if unconstrained by legal or constitutional ties? 

We could look to the governance models of different sectors or different countries, which have seen the value in installing multiple boards or committees for different tasks. Advisory boards for program ideas, for example. Fundraising boards that focus on sustainability and development. More diverse and representative boards that address the institutional biases of the past. We could look at the sector’s own predilection for hub and shared resource models, in order to avoid duplication across similar organisations. Or we could redirect our governance budget lines to outsource our compliance and oversight to external, trained professionals.

The arts are transformational. We need to transform our arts organisations too—in order to survive and thrive. And rebuild them on more solid ground.

This article was originally published in Meanjin (Autumn 2020).

Author: katelarsenkeys

Arts, Cultural & Non-Profit Consultant. Reader. Writer (Our Hybrid Future, The Relationship is the Project). Researching the art of arts governance. larsenkeys.com.au