We must place our trust in trustees
ATHENA notes that even those who most appreciate our great cultural institutions are often unaware of how these ‘arm’slength non-departmental public bodies’ are governed. The answer is “through their trustees”, but few know who they are, what they do or how they were appointed. Government, by contrast, has been taking an unprecedented interest in them, but—to judge from the whispers that have reached Athena— not always for the right reasons.
Two vital principles condition the selection and the conduct of these trustees. They must be able to provide the professional staff, and especially the director, with advice in their areas of expertise—education, commerce, finance, law and so on. More importantly, they should monitor the security and conservation of the collection and scrutinise the accounts of the institution in the interests of the public, which owns the collection. In this case, ‘the public’ (unlike the electorate) includes future generations.
One of the strongest arguments for preserving free entry to museums is that the public should not be obliged to pay for what they already own. Indeed, a clearer recognition of public ownership might encourage public contributions and bequests.
There has always remained a tacit understanding that the trustees of these institutions should include representatives of all major political factions and possess an authority that would guarantee their independence. However, this understanding is now being challenged, with far-reaching consequences. Recent attempts to insist that the Prime Minister’s office should have more control over the appointment of trustees—athena believes—suggest a hunger for patronage rather than a concern for the institution’s welfare and appear to be motivated by a conviction that all public bodies should be bent to political interest.
Paradoxically, one motive for such interference in recent years has been the drive to ‘shrink the state’, which favours the North American model whereby trusteeship is a reward for financial support.
The boards of many museums in the USA have become inflated with trustees who have no real role and little awareness of any responsibility. Others are dominated by one or two major trustee-donors who behave as if they own the institution. Anyone who believes that this could never happen here should recall the crisis in the Tate Gallery in 1984, when the chairman-elect—a munificent sponsor and passionate collector— began to behave as if the director was merely the manager of a company he controlled.
Extraordinary gifts that museums and galleries have recently received (often from trustees themselves) would surely not have been made had the institutions been subject to political control. Any politician who advocates independence from political influence for our museums and galleries, as well as our parks and coastline, would also be rewarded with public respect—something that is now in short supply.
‘They should monitor the security and conservation of the collection