Governance structures for theatres, by theatres

What I Wish Existed...

Yvette Nolan speaks about her experience of theatre governance structures and what changes she envisions for their future to ensure the continued success of the theatre.

This blog post aligns with Mass Culture’s Future of Arts Work research in partnership with LeSage Arts Management. You can find out more by checking out the dedicated page, or the Study Date-related webpage and blog post

September 28, 2020

I am a theatre rat. I have spent the last twenty-five years in theatres, as a creator, as an administrator, as an artistic director. The challenges of a life in the theatre are myriad; there is never enough money to do the work, never enough time, never enough engagement with the audience with whom you wish to be in dialogue. But one perpetual challenge is the relationship between the board of directors and the theatre that it purportedly oversees.  

I have served on boards of directors, I currently sit on two boards in Saskatchewan where I live, and one national board. I have been president of the board of a large national arts organisation and worked closely with the Executive Director to make the organisation better, stronger, and more functional. I have been the artistic director of a theatre company and worked closely with my chair to make our theatre better, stronger and more functional. But still I do not believe in the structure. In fact, twenty-five years of working in theatre has served to convince me that the board of directors is actually a fiction. There is no there there. 

Three years ago, I went back to school to do research on governance models, pursuing a Masters in Public Policy. When my colleagues heard what my research was, many of them  contacted me to tell me their own experiences as artistic directors and administrators. It seems just as every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, every dysfunctional board is dysfunctional in its own way. 

Here are some of the challenges

One

The model was lifted from the corporate sector, when public funders determined they needed some kind of oversight over artists who were being given money to make theatre. But the corporate world has stakeholders for whom profit is the major, often the only, measure of success, whereas theatre is not-for-profit, and the stakeholders are artists, audiences, communities at large, all of whom often have competing ideas of success. Theatres are what James Q Wilson calls coping organisations, “agencies (that) can observe neither the outputs nor the outcomes of their key operators” (1989, p.168). 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. 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.  

Two

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? An accountant measures money, a lawyer may measure risk or risk mitigation. 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. 

Three.  

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? 

An entire industry has grown up around developing the board of directors. There are consultants who make a better living doing board development – teaching theatres how to find, recruit, train, and retain board members – than the artists who work in those theatres.  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 fulfill 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. When the theatre was in some kind of crisis, she suddenly knew too much about the inner workings of the theatre, but it was too late. 

Four

Board members are volunteers, and therefore not really responsible. In moments of crisis, and there have been many of those recently, rising out of the #metoo movement, out of the COVID-19 crisis, out of the new civil rights movement, the board of directors can walk away. There are often calls for the board to resign, as if the board should have known what was happening in the house they oversee.  Perhaps they should have known, but who was going to tell them? Artistic directors and general managers are the only staff who attend board meetings, they are the only conduit of communication to the board. What gets reported to the board are financials, funding outcomes, ticket sales. The board is completely disconnected from the community of artists the theatre serves. 

This is no one’s fault. It is the structure. The model insists that a board of directors be constituted, someone appointed President or Chair, someone Vice, a Treasurer, a Secretary. Whether the members have the skills to serve in those positions is irrelevant, what matters is that there are names attached to them on the paperwork that goes to the government, to the funders, to the foundations. 

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. But good intentions are stymied by the structure, both of the board and of the organisation, and exacerbated by the fact that the directors are volunteers, with lives and jobs and other commitments. 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?

Five

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.  What I hear in these assertions is that the staff spends or has spent an inordinate amount of time developing the board it needs. Which is great, until it isn’t. 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? Many theatres do not have general membership, so board membership is by invitation only, which can mean business people inviting other business people, perpetuating a similar makeup of directors who look like each other, travel in similar circles, and share the same beliefs. Theatres who do have members often struggle to get their membership engaged enough in the business of the theatre to attend Annual General Meetings where boards are elected. 

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. 

Great boards of both kinds have been blindsided by financial improprieties, sexual harassment suits, charges of racism and toxic environments. 

I have, on various boards of directors, used my power to make change in the organisation. I knew how to do it, I knew how to work the system, how to manipulate the players involved to get what I believe was the right thing for the organisation. Still, I am exquisitely aware that I could just as easily have been working for something that was wrong for the organisation. 

What do I wish for?

I wish for theatres to have the freedom to create the governance models that will actually work for them.  I wish for theatres to be released from performing a relationship that does not actually exist, the managers and staff performing obeisance, the board of directors performing the role of boss. The staff has taught the board how to perform that role, from recruitment to development, from the reading of financials to the interpretation of programming choices.

Theatres have been saddled with this particular governance model because the funders demanded some kind of oversight. Once the model was imposed, everything grew up in response to it. In “The Iron Cage Revisited,” DiMaggio and Powell track the ways in which institutional isomorphism transforms a field, first by imposing a model that confers legitimacy, engenders structures, and encourages homogenization. Soon all organisations in the field are mimicking the behaviour of the first, desiring the legitimacy and perceived professionalism the model confers. But the model has failed, and in these COVID times, these #metoo times, these Black Lives Matter times, this new civil rights movement time, the failures become even more obvious. 

But these times also create the opportunity for change, and so now is the moment for transformation within our theatres as well. The model has failed to protect, much less elevate, women and people of colour. During this time of reckoning, it would be so easy to create governance structures that are actually connected to the theatres they purport to govern. What are they?  There must be as many as there are theatres. One-size-fits-all does not fit anyone, and has created a culture that allows dysfunction to hide behind a structure that gives the appearance of legitimacy, the illusion of oversight. 

Much of the work is already done. Theatres have been creating workarounds for years, trying to find models that will better serve them and their communities. Indigenous theatres have created circles of elders and knowledge keepers in an effort to make their organisations reflect their realities; unfortunately, the circle keeps bumping up against the extant structure. Many non-Indigenous theatres have created artistic advisories and working groups that serve to guide and advise, although they too have to negotiate power and control with the structure that exists. 

What will ultimately break the log-jam will be the relinquishment of the need for the structure from the funders and governmental bodies. This is beginning to happen. The Canada Council, which is largely responsible for the entrenchment of the model, has in recent years become more flexible in the need for the board of directors, allowing for ad hoc groups with ad hoc governance models to access funding. 

Theatres’ artistic successes are already assessed against their own mandates, mandates created by the theatres themselves. Why can’t their governance models be similarly assessed? This is how we will be governed, this is to whom we will answer, this is how we will proceed in the event of a), b), or c).  How is that working? 

It surely cannot be worse than the way the system is working now.

Meet the Author

Yvette Nolan (Algonquin) is a playwright, director and dramaturg. Her works include the plays The Unplugging, the dance-opera Bearing, and the libretto Shanawdithit. She co-created, with Joel Bernbaum and Lancelot Knight, the verbatim play Reasonable Doubt, about relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in Saskatchewan. Upcoming, Tapwewin  – Her Inquiry (with Maria Campbell, Marilyn Poitras and Cheryl Troupe), Katharsis (online at PTE, October 2020). From 2003-2011, she served as Artistic Director of Native Earth Performing Arts. Her book, Medicine Shows, about Indigenous performance in Canada was published by Playwrights Canada Press in 2015, and Performing Indigeneity, which she co-edited with Ric Knowles, in 2016. An Artistic Associate with Signal Theatre, she is currently pursuing her Masters in Public Policy at Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy.

MC MINDS ON THE EDGE – Alternative Federal Budget Chapter

Alternative Federal Budget Chapter – Arts & Culture

Alternative Federal Budget Chapter – Arts & Culture By Cate Proctor and Bridget MacIntosh From September 2020, Cate’s book Leverage the Arts Ecosystem to Influence Local Prosperity will be available…
Graphic Recording on Arts Impact by Devon Kerslake

Mass One Study Date: Civic Impact Frameworks

Civic Impact Frameworks • Mass One Study Date In the Zoom Where It Happened By Julie McIsaac Exploring Opera.ca‘s Arts Impact Kernel, and re-contextualizing it to track recovery and resilience.…
Future of Work_Study Date

Mass One Study Date: The Future of Work

THE FUTURE OF WORK • Mass One Study Date In the Zoom Where it Happened By Samantha Staresincic Looking at the “now” to think about the Future of Arts Work in…
MC MINDS ON THE EDGE – Introducing MC Minds

Introducing MC Minds: On the Edge

INTRODUCING MC MINDS: ON THE EDGE From Inside the MC Office By Jasmine Spei & Meg Shannon Now in its fifth year, Mass Culture has grown from an idea shared…

‘Governance structures for theatres, by theatres’ by Yvette Nolan