We must place our trust in trustees

Country Life Every Week - - Athena -

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

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