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An Observation on Boards of Directors
by Francis Timlin

This discussion arises from an observation that the current Board of the National Ballet of Canada (cf., the various Kimberly Glasco/James Kudelka threads) is now comprised of twelve members. From a U.S. perspective, this would appear to be a shockingly small number of members for an organization with a multimillion dollar annual budget and a dominating arts presence on the national scene. In my U.S. derived experience, boards of midsized organizations ($1-5 million annual budget) would have, say, 25 members. Major organizations might have anywhere from 30-50 (or more) members. Twelve strikes me as a common size for an Executive Committee of a major arts organization. This observation brought a rejoinder from a non-U.S.-based person that twelve was rather a standard size for British Commonwealth boards.

This response reminded me that there are some fundamental differences in perception of the role and function of boards of directors in different cultures. Some of these differences may be driven by the forces that gave rise to the organizations in their beginnings.

In the U.S., established arts institutions (major symphony orchestras, opera companies, ballet companies) have tended to arise as the result of efforts by an individual or a group of individuals. By contrast, in Canada, arts organizations have been heavily subsidized by government entities. Now, at the turn of the 21st century, shifting sociopolitical forces are causing some paradigm shifts.

A negative consequence of the U.S. model is the popular perception that the arts are (and perhaps ought to remain) the province of the wealthy few. A recurring refrain here in Seattle anytime a need arises is "Let Bill Gates or Paul Allen pay for it." ("Don't ask us -- ask them.") There is a great deal of public resistance to the notion that the arts benefit all of society and that society as a whole should assist in their sustenance.

The converse would appear to be true in Canada, where a diminutive population covers a vast territory and former governments have determined that the arts (and a national broadcasting system) are fundamental requisites toward the provision of some sense of national identity and unity. With a healthy chunk of funding thus assured, there is less need for mammoth board development.

U.S. boards need to be large and representative of diverse interests, because the paramount activities of these boards tend to circulate around getting money in the door -- whether by earned income or contributed income. Hence, the primacy of the use of the board in development (fundraising) and marketing (drawing the ticket-buying public).

The duty of members of such U.S. arts boards is arduous. Asking people for money is always a strain. And the demand to produce significant contributed income is omnipresent. Fundraising and fundraising activities dominate meeting discussions. Most boards have minimum membership requirements. (The Seattle standards, with which I am most familiar, seem to decree a $500 minimum annual contribution per board member for a midsized organization. PNB appears to have a $1,500 minimum annual contribution, based on matching board members' names to their contribution categories in the most recent program.) For performing arts organizations, a pair of premium priced season tickets is also a part of the bargain -- although many board members are spotty in their own attendance at the actual performances.

Locally, a twelve-person board would be derided by the arts funding community as lacking sufficient prestige to ensure organizational credibility and a broad base of support. The command performance before an inquisitional funding panel -- an annual ritual familiar to those of us who have run this course -- is always peppered with questions about what the board is doing to expand its membership. (When board members are not attending to direct fundraising or marketing activities, we are expected to be making connections that will translate into new board members joining the organization.) It goes without saying that all of these activities are very time-intensive, uncompensated, and not very well appreciated or understood by the general public or -- in many cases -- the direct beneficiaries who are employed by the organizations. Burnout rates are high on these boards.

Canada (and, it would appear from current commentaries, the U.K.) is currently having a great deal of difficulty with the fact that the state support that has allowed major arts organizations to become established and to flourish to the extent that they have done, is being eliminated by a political shift toward lowered tax rates, fewer social safety nets, deficit elimination, etc. Concomitantly, there appears to be a distinct lag between recognizing the reality of declining state support and acting effectively on the need to ramp up individual and corporate support for these organizations. Numbers of individual contributors are small by U.S. standards and the amounts contributed are also comparatively small. Notwithstanding these deficits, "U.S-style fundraising" is a line that is often uttered dripping with contempt in Anglophile circles.

I want to emphasize that I am not trying to say that one system is better than another; nor do I want to provoke a discussion on the merits/demerits of state support of the arts. Rather, my purpose in this discussion is to elicit cross-cultural commentary on the role and function of governing boards in arts organizations, and how they might be made more effective.

 

Please join a discussion on this topic in our forum.

Edited by Azlan Ezaddin.

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