Heads in­side the box

The ac­tual mo­tor of per­form­ing arts com­pa­nies isn’t vi­sion. It’s the board, which too of­ten en­forces the sta­tus quo.

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY ANNE MIDGETTE anne.midgette@wash­post.com

Vi­sion. We want per­form­ing arts or­ga­ni­za­tions to have it. Af­ter all, the point is to of­fer us com­pelling per­for­mances, new per­spec­tives and ideas. Or so, at least, some of us think. ¶ But for an arts ad­min­is­tra­tor, vi­sion is only one piece of a pic­ture that in­cludes a host of prac­ti­cal con­sid­er­a­tions. There are the chal­lenges of get­ting a given work on stage. There’s the ques­tion of how well it will do at the box of­fice. And there’s the au­thor­ity to which the head of an arts or­ga­ni­za­tion must ac­tu­ally an­swer. It isn’t the crit­ics; it isn’t the au­di­ence: it’s the board.

Sure, the au­di­ence buys tick­ets. But ticket rev­enue, even if you sell out ev­ery night, isn’t enough to sus­tain most op­er­a­tions. In many cases, the board rep­re­sents the eco­nomic en­gine that drives the com­pany. Fur­ther­more, it is the high­est au­thor­ity. Re­spon­si­ble for hir­ing the top ad­min­is­tra­tor, it plays a de­ci­sive role in shap­ing the di­rec­tion of a com­pany. It’s the boss. The board is sel­dom far from an artis­tic leader’s mind.

What do boards do? It varies from one com­pany to an­other. Some per­form­ing arts boards serve in a purely ad­vi­sory func­tion — vot­ing on new hires, for ex­am­ple, some­times only nom­i­nally rub­ber­stamp­ing choices made by the artis­tic staff. Other boards, though, have fidu­ciary re­spon­si­bil­ity, pro­vid­ing vi­tal fi­nan­cial sup­port to keep the doors open. Wit­ness the board of the Wash­ing­ton Na­tional Opera, which es­sen­tially had to keep the com­pany afloat, with so-called “heroic giv­ing,” for a few sea­sons be­fore the Kennedy Cen­ter stepped in and res­cued the com­pany in 2011. The boards of per­form­ing arts or­ga­ni­za­tions are, on av­er­age, twice as large as the boards of other non­prof­its, ac­cord­ing to a study pub­lished this year by the head­hunt­ing firm Rus­sell Reynolds As­so­ciates, and more than six times as large as the boards of an av­er­age For­tune 500 com­pany. You need a lot of peo­ple to keep all those mu­si­cians or dancers or ac­tors on­stage.

Yet there’s an odd dis­con­nect be­tween the size and fi­nan­cial heft of per­form­ing-arts boards and their ac­tual func­tion. Some board mem­bers would laugh at the idea that they ex­er­cise con­sid­er­able in­flu­ence on an or­ga­ni­za­tion; some, in­deed, re­sent be­ing viewed as “walk­ing check­books,” with the im­pli­ca­tion that they should pony up and shut up. Al­though board mem­bers of­ten bring con­sid­er­able busi­ness ex­per­tise to the ta­ble, the at­ti­tude of­ten pre­vails that they don’t re­ally un­der­stand art and shouldn’t sully it with mun­dane busi­ness con­sid­er­a­tions. This leads to a Catch-22, whereby board mem­bers are branded as Philistines by harp­ing on is­sues such as fi­nan­cial vi­a­bil­ity and ticket sales, but are kept at arms’ length from cre­ative man­dates — or from ex­er­cis­ing over­sight in a mean­ing­ful way.

This isn’t, of course, true of all boards: Some are in­ter­ested and in­volved, and some are in­spired by an artis­tic leader’s vi­sion. But of­ten enough, boards are in­voked, by those very lead­ers, as fig­ures of fear — par­tic­u­larly when it comes to try­ing out new things. The boards of large clas­si­cal mu­sic in­sti­tu­tions are of­ten com­mit­ted to main­tain­ing a tra­di­tional sta­tus quo, es­pe­cially when it comes to opera, where the in­cur­sion of con­tem­po­rary, prob­ing pro­duc­tions is seen as a plague by some con­ser­va­tive au­di­ences. (In 2003, the heirs of the late board mem­ber Sy­bil Har­ring­ton sued the Metropoli­tan Opera when a pro­duc­tion of “Tris­tan und Isolde” that was partly funded by her be­quest was deemed not tra­di­tional enough.)

And while the world of clas­si­cal mu­sic loves terms such as di­ver­sity and out­reach, boards are still over­whelm­ingly white and up­per­class — and to a cer­tain ex­tent, de­lib­er­ately or by de­fault, ad­min­is­tra­tors cater to their tastes. This con­trib­utes to the drag­ging pace of sub­stan­tive change when it comes to at­tract­ing new au­di­ences to the art form.

But even though it’s a fact that boards can rep­re­sent a cre­ative drag on an in­sti­tu­tion, or help to fur­ther misaligned pri­or­i­ties — by, for ex­am­ple, hir­ing the wrong artis­tic leader — the so­lu­tion doesn’t lie in abol­ish­ing boards or even ma­lign­ing the con­sid­er­able ef­forts of peo­ple who care enough about the per­form­ing arts to do­nate large amounts of time and money to keep them alive. Boards are less a prob­lem than a symp­tom of a larger, sys­temic is­sue: a per­va­sive loss of cre­ativ­ity in large per­form­ing arts in­sti­tu­tions. I’m not the only one to no­tice that our largest per­form­ing arts in­sti­tu­tions have be­come fun­da­men­tally inartis­tic bu­reau­cra­cies — or­ga­ni­za­tions in which art has be­come a com­mod­ity, and artists, the con­tent providers, have to fight hard to push through new ideas — like Alan Gilbert, the just-de­parted mu­sic di­rec­tor of the New York Phil­har­monic, who ul­ti­mately couldn’t keep swim­ming against the tide.

Last fall, I heard Matthew Shivlock, in his first sea­son as gen­eral di­rec­tor of the San Francisco Opera, de­scrib­ing a fundrais­ing trip he had made to a Sil­i­con Val­ley com­pany, where, he said (and I para­phrase), the em­ploy­ees used skate­boards, wrote with mark­ers on the win­dows, roamed around an open-floor plan and en­cour­aged off­beat ideas. Back in his own of­fice, Shivlock said, he found him­self think­ing, “I wish I worked for a cre­ative com­pany” — and then re­coiled in hor­ror at the im­pli­ca­tions of the words. He told the story pre­cisely to il­lus­trate a per­va­sive prob­lem in the per­form­ing arts: Com­pa­nies have to work so hard to main­tain their sta­tus quo, to keep the fund­ing com­ing in and the per­for­mances go­ing on, that many of them have lost sight of a truly cre­ative ap­proach. They don’t have the time or re­sources to break the mold. And if they do take a risk, and it doesn’t work, it seems to only con­firm the idea that it’s not safe to ven­ture out­side fa­mil­iar ter­rain — con­firm it, at least, to the board mem­bers who need to ap­prove it.

What is the real vi­sion that we’re look­ing for in the per­form­ing arts? Maybe it needs to go be­yond sim­ply what goes on the stage. Maybe some­one needs to bring vi­sion to the fal­lacy, al­most uni­ver­sally ac­cepted, that the only way to sus­tain the arts we love is to shore up a sys­tem of over­sized in­sti­tu­tions that no longer seem to work well in to­day’s cul­ture. Might there be a bet­ter way to recon­ceive or­ches­tras and opera houses, and to al­lo­cate the con­sid­er­able re­sources that go into the per­form­ing arts ev­ery year, while fos­ter­ing cre­ativ­ity — rather than con­vinc­ing ev­ery­one that art needs to be pack­aged in lay­ers of in­sti­tu­tional bub­ble wrap so it doesn’t get bro­ken? Maybe some­where, there’s even a non­profit board that could help an in­sti­tu­tion fig­ure out how to find it.

WASH­ING­TON POST ILLUSTRATION BASED ON ISTOCK IMAGES

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