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Editor’s View: As theatre braces itself for challenges, it’s time to talk about boards

English National Opera, the Old Vic and Shakespeare's Globe have all faced board-level challenges. Photos: Andreas Praefcke (Coliseum)/John Wildgoose (Globe) English National Opera, the Old Vic and Shakespeare's Globe have all faced board-level challenges. Photos: Andreas Praefcke (Coliseum)/John Wildgoose (Globe)
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Whenever I talk to theatre executives, there is one topic that they tend to bring up more than any other: boards.

The quality of theatre trustees has been a regular gripe over the years, but it seems to have been cropping up in conversation with increasing regularity over the last 12 months or so.

I wonder whether this has something to do with what Matt Trueman observes in his column this week: many theatres have done an exemplary job of coping with reduced public funding over the last decade, but there is a perception that a crunch time is approaching. Or, as Trueman puts it: “Our theatres have, so far, weathered the storm. But make no mistake, they are in a right pickle.”

Matt Trueman: Austerity has left theatres in an impossible, contradictory position

When an organisation is in a right pickle, you need strong governance to see you through. Consider many of the crises (and not just in funding) that theatres have faced in recent years and, regularly, the root cause can be traced back to the board: the Old Vic’s lack of oversight of Kevin Spacey, Shakespeare’s Globe’s handling of Emma Rice’s appointment and departure, English National Opera’s ongoing financial problems. There are many more, less publicised examples around the UK.

This is not to say there aren’t some excellent theatre boards working diligently and effectively and we should not forget that trustees are giving up their time for free and are often shouldering significant responsibilities. But perhaps this is part of the problem: amateurs (and I don’t mean this in a pejorative sense) are being asked to take responsibility for increasingly commercial and complex organisations. Many do not have the expertise – or the necessary time to devote.

And what is their role? Are they donors and cheerleaders or expert advisers and supervisors, there to hold the executive to account? Or just nice names to put on the letterhead who don’t bother to turn up regularly to meetings? And how long should they serve for? How do you balance not wanting to lose effective trustees after a short term with the danger of being saddled with an incompetent board member for the long run?

As we move into what is likely to be a difficult 12 months for many arts organisations – with the effects of the forthcoming government spending review and Brexit on the horizon, not to mention the ongoing process of modernising workplace environments in light of #MeToo – now would be a good time to start finding answers to these questions. But who can lead the conversation? The arts councils? UK Theatre and the Society of London Theatre? Somebody needs to.

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