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"Modish, pseudo-egalitarian dedication to “creativity”- Lessons from the Boardroom

Governance of Arts Organisations

John Tusa- On Board , Bloomsbury Books , May 30, 2024
Governance of Arts Organisations by John Tusa- On Board On 16th May the new Culture Secretary, appointed 20th March, appeared before the Culture Committee in the Senedd. Lesley Griffiths:

“The first week I was in post – everywhere I go, there seem to be leaking roofs; we’ve got these iconic buildings, which are very old, etc.”

The failure to protect and maintain assets bequeathed from previous generations is significant. It represents a failure of governance. The quality of governance of arts organisations is crucial to civic life.

Much has changed over previous decades. “On Board” is, among other things, a record of the maturing quality of governance. In England.

Sir John Tusa was born in 1936 and over a full working life moved across some of the biggest cultural institutions of them all.

The subtitle of his 2020 book, his eleventh, is “the Insider’s Guide to Surviving Life in the Boardroom.” It is pithy, unstuffy, empirical and unafraid. A first reviewer added more adjectives: detailed, honest, modest, wise, fascinating. There is not a book quite like it.

His face and voice were well-known in media from BBC2's “Newsnight.” His ascent upward, or inward, to the boardroom began in 1988 with trusteeship of the National Portrait Gallery.

The list that follows is one to awe: American Public Radio in Minnesota, English National Opera, the British Museum, Wigmore Hall, the University of the Arts London, the Clore Leadership Programme and the European Union Youth Orchestra.

His experience and the interviews that he conducted for his source material yield a few clear conclusions. A strong chair gets the relationship with the artistic management right. That relationship requires trust and honesty. The structures of oversight need rigour and knowledge. In Cardiff, by contrast, a call for trustees disclaimed any need of any wisdom. “You don’t need to...even have experience of theatre or the arts.”

All institutions contain tensions. That is entirely natural. Without tension there is no dynamism. At the National Portrait Gallery governance was wholly the domain of scholars. Scholarship is vital but the museum, equally a vast building and a civic institution, required more.

Every person in every new role commences in ignorance and inexperience. The boardroom new-comer that was Tusa writes of his debt to Ken Dayton of American Public Radio, both a mentor and the best chair that he had known. Dayton's qualities were broad: a marked directness, a focus on mission, a stress on openness but also kindness.

Like the making of art itself there is no rule book to becoming a good board member.

But there are principles. Tusa recounts his own route, the challenge and industry that each institution called for. The process is a virtuous circle of observation, enactment and learning. And beneath it all is the most human of truths. Social creatures that we are we find our meanings in belonging. There is also more than a little joy in the making of arts organisations that work and flourish.

“On Board” comes rich in passages that deserve quotation.

The very first page addresses the challenge head-on.

“Throughout the world hundreds of thousands of people give their time, skills and energy to serving on a board of some kind. Many would not think of their activity in this way; many would hardly think of it all, others as a social duty, a community act.

“They do not run it; they watch over it, they supervise it. The ultimate responsibility for an organisation is theirs but they should not interfere in the way in the way it is managed. This is the central paradox of the activity of “governance.”

Tusa reports on the difference between the facts and the record of the Minutes. He saw on the ground: “The selection board was filled with turmoil, drama and a walk out.”

In America he observed governance being taken seriously:

“..Chair and CEO engaged in mutual examination in public of each other's performance...no personal point-scoring, no hidden malice, no concealed agenda, equally no evasion either.”

Boards are easily distracted. “Barely 50% thought they reviewed actual performance against the strategy.”

At the University of the Arts:

“...shocked, absolutely shocked, by the volume of paper, a splurge of mindless detail, not properly focussed. You couldn't often detect any underlying strategic intent. The quantities were designed not to illuminate, but to confuse, not to assist governors to scrutinise but to prevent them from questioning effectively, not to facilitate accountability but to prevent it. As chair I felt impotent, ineffectual and frustrated.”

Tusa points to the error of moving from Chief Executive to Chair:

“All governance principles warn against this. Innovation cannot thrive within what could be mere protection of the status quo in the name of continuity

He views the new government of 1997:

“New Labour's antipathy to the arts and their modish, pseudo-egalitarian dedication to inclusive “creativity” rather than what they rejected as “elite” achievement.”

He speaks unabashedly of archaic managements:

“In 1996 the British museum had no finance director, had no qualified accountants, it aggregated current and capital expenditure.”

He asserts the beneficiary doctrine:

“Trustees should ask who are the real beneficiaries of the institution.”

On Trustees acting as delegates rather than Board members:

“...trade union staff governor ignored my invitation to address university interests as a whole and subjected the court to extended harangues on trade union minutiae as if it were a union branch meeting.

He speaks plainly of the great and the good:

“...the worst chairman I ever served under was Marmaduke Hussey. He was arrogant and ignorant in equal measure.”

In contrast with Lord Chandos:

“You need independence of mind and spirit and intellectual rigour. Also readiness to be unpopular. Too many boards lack backbone.”

On an episode of strategy-devising:

“All organisations find it hard to devise a genuine and rigorous strategy. Instead we produced a “mission statement” but it was gibberish."

On rigour Sir John Baker:

“My experience of working with arts leaders...absolutely obsessed...they simply do not put in the hard grind of translating ideas into efficient systems which are fundamental parts of management.”

“On Board” makes for refreshing, wide-ranging, bracing and essential reading.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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