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Theatre boards: what do they do, and are they fit for purpose?

Scene from Committee (A New Musical), the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee Takes Oral Evidence on Whitehall’s Relationship with Kids Company, staged at London’s Donmar Warehouse last year.. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Boards wield ultimate power at theatres, yet operate largely behind the scenes. Controversies in other sectors have highlighted the risks of such a lack of transparency. Time for a shake-up? Amber Massie-Blomfield reports

Boards have been in the public eye for all the wrong reasons of late, from the scandals at charities Oxfam and Kids Company to – closer to home – the fallout of issues at theatre companies including the Old Vic [1] and Actors Touring Company [2].

In light of recent high-profile controversies, questions have been raised in the industry about what boards and their trustees actually do – and whether the current model is suited to the challenges presented by the modern theatre industry. What is clear is that in Britain’s subsidised theatres and theatre companies they are absolutely pivotal in defining the shape of the sector.

Michael Mansfield QC, chair of Liverpool’s Everyman and Playhouse Theatres [3], says: “I don’t think enough people recognise how important it is, what trustees do and how they do it. It’s got to be made much more professional… It may be that the time has come to look at this in a different light.”

Most theatre companies that receive funding from Arts Council England are structured as registered charities, with their operations governed by the Charity Commission for England and Wales. So, trustees in subsidised theatre follow regulations set out in their charity’s governing document – its Memorandum and Articles of Association – that codify the charitable purposes of the organisation, what it can do to carry out its purposes and other regulations around how it must be run.

For Steven Atkinson, artistic director and chief executive of HighTide Theatre, this model poses challenges that the industry must address: “When you are connected to Oxfam and the third sector [in the current climate], questions about transparency and accountability become increasingly relevant.”

Read our interview with Steven Atkinson [4]

According to Emma Stenning, chief executive of Bristol Old Vic, deputy chair of Shakespeare’s Globe and chair of the Bike Shed, Exeter, a theatre’s board has three crucial responsibilities: “It appoints executive leadership, normally a chief executive and sometimes also an artistic director. Then it approves the budgets and oversees financial performance, ultimately protecting the solvency of the organisation. The last thing is to set the overarching strategy for organisations – in our industry by debating and approving a proposal by the executive.”

Emma Stenning: Leadership should be joyful and important [5]

Mansfield points out that board members need to balance a number of concerns: “You’ve got to allow for experimenting and breaking new frontiers – but on the other hand you have the financial consideration. It’s an enormous responsibility.”

In practice, trustees work with their organisations in all sorts of ways. In addition to attending mandatory board meetings, typically quarterly, they might offer advice and support to theatre staff, use their influence to lobby on behalf of the company, fundraise, attend shows and, of course, deal with crisis situations.

What makes the perfect trustee? Naresh Aggarwal, chair of Tara Arts and a senior manager at accountancy giant PricewaterhouseCoopers, says: “A great trustee finds the balance between being supportive and being challenging. They must have the interests of the company at heart.”

Stenning believes “a good trustee is someone who has enough time to do the job properly, is passionate about organisation and objectives, and is literate and animated about what the organisation is trying to do. They must have the experience, expertise and capacity to engage properly in a particular area of the organisation.”

Trustees come from a variety of backgrounds. On the board of any major theatre there is likely to be representation from the arts, the business world, law and the public sector.

Consideration must be given, too, to how the theatre’s constituencies are represented. Stenning says: “You need a balance of people who are experienced in the arts world and people who come from the community the theatre serves. Most arts organisations are incredibly complex businesses, so having sound business acumen on the board is crucial.”

HighTide artistic director Steven Atkinson, Bristol Old Vic chief Emma Stenning and Michael Mansfield QC. Photos:Richard Davenport/Geraint Lewis/Brian O’Neill [6]
HighTide artistic director Steven Atkinson, Bristol Old Vic chief Emma Stenning and Michael Mansfield QC. Photos:Richard Davenport/Geraint Lewis/Brian O’Neill

The balance can be tricky to get right [7], and because the turnover of trustees is slow – each governing document will contain its own stipulations for how long a board member can serve, but it isn’t uncommon for trustees to remain in post for a decade or more – the pace of change can take longer than elsewhere in the sector.

If there is little noise from boards when things are going well, that’s as it ought to be. Generally speaking, boards stay out of the limelight and leave the executive to get on with the job. In areas such as programming in particular, trustees are clear that it is inappropriate for the board to attempt to influence the artistic decision-making of the executive, as long as the approach is in line with agreed objectives. The challenge comes when there is an apparent failure of the executive leadership. This is when the board must step in.

Stenning says: “Usually you’re navigating the inevitable ebbs and flows of being a cultural business. But it’s appropriate that, if there is a consistent challenge to key objectives, consistent failure of leadership or consistent failure against approved budgets, then, as a board, you have to make a change. In reality that is extremely sensitive and complicated.”

For some, the recent crises in the charitable sector have thrown up questions about whether the current model is equipped to deal with a crisis situation.

Mansfield expresses concern about the fact that trustees are required to carry out such serious legal responsibilities without being paid and believes the sector may be vulnerable as a consequence. “I don’t think the public is clear that the board is made up of volunteers. It’s heavily reliant on the goodwill of a lot of good people. If someone is a volunteer there is a huge risk,” he says.

Atkinson agrees: “It’s worth asking: ‘Is it realistic with charities and theatres specifically that you’re going to get the level of engagement you need from trustees who aren’t paid?’ ”

He would like to see Arts Council England and the Charity Commission take a stronger hand in regulating the ways in which boards operate. “[They] need to put together a good governance guideline, including the fact that every trusteeship should be advertised competitively, to make it an accountable, transparent process. Now you can appoint with no public process and that’s problematic.”

Meanwhile, Tara Arts [8]’ Aggarwal highlights the need for ACE and the Charity Commission “to provide for free training on board responsibilities. It’s been a constant concern of mine that there are very few tools offering a better insight into what we do.”

Changes in the way theatre boards operate could prove crucial, not only in tackling crisis situations but also in making necessary steps towards increasing the diversity of those that sit on them. Stenning says: “We need to think about when boards meet and how those meetings are structured. I think people should get access to board meetings earlier in their careers.”

Atkinson believes stricter regulations are required around the make-up of boards: “Maybe you have to say, ‘You have to have someone under this age, someone who was the first in their family to go to university.’ There should be a stipulation that a third of the board has to retire every year.”

In spite of the challenges present in the current model, being a trustee can be a hugely rewarding experience. Aggarwal says: “The people I meet through the theatre are people I don’t usually come into contact with. It requires me to take a broader view on things I think I know the answer to. It’s enriched me because it’s given me a different viewpoint.”