Theatre in Wales

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Boards and Call for National Debate in Wales

Governance of Arts Organisations

An Algonquin-Irish Theatre Director-Writer Speaks , Governance of Theatre Companies , February 8, 2024
Governance of Arts Organisations by An Algonquin-Irish Theatre Director-Writer Speaks [A guide to the sequence on governance in the arts can be read on the first link below.]

Nation Cymru headed a story on 21st January:

“Arts Council chief calls for ‘national debate’ on value of the arts with funding cut looming.”

But there can be no national debate. It requires two elements. A debate requires a place of forum. And it requires participants. It is the nature of power in Cardiff that it does declaration. It does not do debate.

2023 saw boardroom disorder across sport , media and the arts of Wales on a scale without equivalence elsewhere. See “My Year of Theatre” below 3rd January.

The boards are packed with nominees from the government of Wales. But to become a trustee of a cultural organisation is to be Thomas a Beckett. Accept the role and you cease to be servant to the king.

To manage culture in the interests of culture is very difficult.

Yvette Nolan, born 1961, is a Canadian playwright and director from Saskatchewan. Her parents were Algonquin and Irish and she is a leading force behind the creation and performance of indigenous theatre in Canada.

In September 2020 an article that she wrote was widely read and discussed. It was titled “Governance Structures for Theatres, by Theatres: What I Wish Existed.” Its length was 2537 words. The whole article can be read at the link given below.

In essence:

“Theatres are what James Q Wilson calls coping organisations, “agencies (that) can observe neither the outputs nor the outcomes of their key operators” Wilson offers as examples teachers, police officers and diplomats, people whose work is ephemeral and largely immeasurable; one cannot measure precisely what and how a child learns, what crimes are not committed, or what conversations result in favourable foreign policy. In the same way, the work that theatre makers do is difficult to measure.”

[Commentary: “ephemeral” is an adjective that is questionable.]

* * * *

“Box office numbers are just one measurement, but do not take into consideration how a theatre enriches a community or creates dialogue in a population. The board of directors of a theatre then faces a challenging task, in that they are being asked to create both the means of assessing the success of their theatre, as well as defining what that success might look like.”

* * * *

“The board is often comprised of people who are not connected to the art. People may be recruited for the board because they have certain skill sets (lawyer, accountant), certain connections (civic leaders, business people), or certain other attributes (wealth, profile). But the qualities for which they were recruited do not necessarily make them good bosses of artists and artmakers: how do they measure success?”

* * * *

“The most important job that the board holds – the hiring and sometimes firing of the Artistic Director – is often farmed out to a headhunter (or Executive search firm) because the board does not have enough knowledge about the art or connection to the artistic community to confidently accomplish the task.”

* * * *

“They do not know what their role is. Governance means setting policy and ensuring that the organisation executes those policies. Even that statement raises questions. What kind of policies does a board of business people create for a theatre? How does that translate? Make good theatre? What is good theatre? Get bums in seats? How is that compatible with good theatre?”

* * * *

“General managers spend inordinate amounts of time managing their boards, getting them the information they need to read before board meetings, interpreting financial documents, coordinating meetings, hoping that there will be quorum, enough board members that the theatre can fulfil its commitment to x number of meetings a year.”

* * * *

“The stories that my colleagues have told me about their challenges with their boards run the gamut from micromanaging to complete indifference. I know these stories, I have been that board member. A chair of a theatre recently told me that she had no idea what the board was doing ninety per cent of the time.”

* * * *

“The board is completely disconnected from the community of artists the theatre serves. This is no one’s fault. It is the structure...This is not to say that directors do not work. No one joins a board to be dead weight. People join out of a genuine desire to serve, because they believe in the theatre, in the work the theatre does, in the artists who make the work.”

* * * *

“Board members are often recruited to boards with the promise of only four meetings a year. Depending on the length of those quarterly meetings, that could be a four – sixteen hour commitment. How are board members supposed to provide oversight in that length of time?”

* * * *

“Even great boards are not great. Colleagues have told me “I have a great board.” When I ask them what constitutes a great board, they tell me the board is easy to manage, or does what it is told, or have done a massive amount of work to create manuals and policies that will ensure the health of the organisation.”

* * * *

“Great boards are often one bad apple away from becoming a bad board. One micromanager, one artistic wannabe, one bottom-line belligerent joining a great board can upset the balance, driving “good” board members away, and leaving the rest to choose to fight, flee or freeze. I have seen a great board that had invested a year creating a policy manual devolve into chaos and ignore the manual within two years of its creation.”

* * * *

“Which raises the other question of who gets to say who is on the board of directors? Board membership is by invitation only...perpetuating a similar makeup of directors who look like each other, travel in similar circles, and share the same beliefs.”

* * * *

“A great board that stays out of the way, that rubber-stamps the decisions of the Artistic Director and/or General Manager, is not doing the job it purports to do: oversight. A great board that is in everybody’s business, asking questions about budget lines and programming is also not doing the job it purports to do.”

* * * *

There is more in the full article can be read at:

https://massculture.ca/2020/09/governance-structures-for-theatres-by-theatres-by-yvette-nolan/

Yvette Nolan has knowledge of depth of Canada. Maybe there is an overlap. Maybe not. What is notable that no article of this kind has appeared in the public discourse of Wales.

A journey starts with a first step. If the managers of culture want a debate let it start.

Members of boards and councils are free to add, amend, correct, diverge via editorial@theatre-wales.co.uk.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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