Being an executive director or board member for a local arts organization is tough work.
For the board leader it is often difficult for them to know enough about the organization’s work to have informed opinions, yet feel comfortable offering opinions.
Executive directors often deal with board members who don’t know enough about the organization’s work to have informed opinions yet feel free to offer opinions anyway.
In the eyes of many arts administrators, board members many not know much about day-to-day operations or often “get in the way” of the work the organization is trying to accomplish.
Executive directors often pay lip service to the importance of the board, but in practice they do everything they can to keep the board marginalized and out of the way.
This relationship is often described as a partnership in a carefully-choreographed dance, a marriage, and like that of an orchestra and conductor.
Let’s face it-this relationship is complicated. That’s why I wanted to pass on a very good set of guidelines written by my friend Rick Moyers of the Meyer Foundation. I think these are terrific and applicable for our local arts organizations…
In the best partnerships, the executive director:
- Views the board neither as a nuisance nor as window dressing but as a legitimate governing body that is capable of adding tremendous value to the organization.
- Is able to accept appropriate criticism or push-back without becoming defensive or taking it personally.
- Takes a large measure of responsibility for helping the board do its job well—by providing good information, working with board leadership to frame the board’s agenda, scouting out potential board members, and providing administrative support to help the board function.
- Knows when to lead the board (let’s be real—sometimes the executive director is the leader of the board) and when to be quiet and respect the board’s authority and prerogatives.
And in the best partnerships, the board:
- Views itself as something more than a fan club or support group for the executive director but something less than (or at least different from) the executive director’s “Dark Overlord.”
- Recognizes that it has its own work to do, and is capable of doing it. (One commenter on an earlier post wondered whether staff members sometimes go too far in doing too much of the board’s work, and I agree that if the staff is doing all the work, the relationship is out of balance.)
- Exhibits respect for and confidence in the executive director, while at the same time maintaining the ability to offer objective counsel and constructive criticism when appropriate.
At Americans for the Arts, we have also been discussing ways that we can encourage this important dialogue and learning for board members and executive directors. So, this April we are launching our first Board and Executive Director Symposium.
This symposium is an opportunity for local arts executive directors, board chairs, and others to meet with national and field leaders who are succeeding in building and sustaining public support for the arts and creating strong relationships between them.
The symposium, combined with National Arts Advocacy Day here in the District of Columbia, offers a power-packed combination of leadership and advocacy information and skill building.
This event is just one of the first efforts by Americans for the Arts to encourage this important dialogue.
Throughout the year, we will also provide more opportunities for training and leadership in this important area so stay tuned and feel free to leave us your own challenges (anonymous is fine) in the comments below.
Arts Watch is the bi-weekly cultural policy publication of Americans for the Arts, covering news in a variety of categories. Subscribe to Arts Watch or follow @artswatch on Twitter to receive up-to-the-minute news.