When should a board fire itself?

by Jini Stolk

We’ve all been reminded, following Ken Gass’s abrupt termination, that a theatre company’s board has the legal right to fire its artistic director. We’ve had less discussion about how and under what circumstances this legal right becomes the right thing to do.

Creative Trust has spent many years looking at how the best and most vibrant arts organizations really work, in order to understand what distinguishes these companies from others. It turns out that the healthiest organizations are characterized by a strong focus on leadership, vision, and healthy relationships.

In companies that thrive, the professional leaders (usually the artistic and managing directors) direct the organization; their leadership is acknowledged and supported by board and staff. Strong, complementary board leadership ensures that a well-cast board appropriately and effectively supports the organization’s raison d’être – the art. There is a clear articulation of the vision, values and mission of the work and company, clearly understood within and outside the organization. And there is a commitment to maintaining quality relationships within the organization, based on a clear understanding of the mutually supportive, collaborative roles of staff and board, and with stakeholders, audiences and community.*

Looking at Factory’s situation through this lens raises important questions, including whether the long-term health of the theatre would have been better served if at least some board members had decided to “fire” themselves rather than their artistic director.

According to the chair of Factory’s board there were no financial difficulties at the theatre, nor any concerns with Gass’s artistic choices. His artistic work was vibrant, distinctive, and strongly supported by artists, audience members and donors. Under these circumstances a board’s responsibility is to support the artistic vision; help find and contribute resources; and reach into the community for new partnerships and supporters. Given the overwhelming community support for Factory’s artistic vision, board members who were disenchanted or unsupportive of the artistic director would have made a stronger contribution to the company’s future by stepping down from the board.

The major tensions seem to have been around a specific capital project, and how it fit or didn’t fit into a multi-year renovation plan and vision. Board members were appropriately lending their experience and expertise to the development and implementation of that project. But when a board member steps out of their board role to voluntarily take on a task more commonly performed by staff – such as planning or managing a major project – it’s understood that the professional leader retains responsibility for the project’s ultimate success. This means that staff continues to be in charge of project scope, budgets, work plans, and overall coordination and supervision. When a board member steps over that line, they can be asked to step away.

Artistic succession should be the result of succession planning, an area where the board should take the leading role, and not abruptly announced “as part of revisioning for the Theatre’s future,” which is not an area where the board should take the leading role. The key word in any case is “planning” – a process of discussion and agreement that embodies a commitment to quality relationships and respect. The reason for succession planning is to ensure a smooth transition which builds support rather than alienates donors, audience members and the artistic community. Board members who cannot productively contribute to this type of transition process can be asked to recuse themselves or resign.

None of this is easy. Board and staff relationships are always complicated and – like all relationships – need hard work and honest communications to work. Surely the most important lesson to be learned from the Factory situation is how essential board relations are to the skill set and responsibilities of a managing director – and how dangerous a mistake it is for an artistic director not to accept an active and equal role in keeping the board “on board.” But when communications break down, and a board member is no longer in accord with or able to support the company’s goals or artistic vision, they should fire themselves for the good of the company.

*Many thanks to George Thorn, Nello McDaniel, and Jane Marsland of Arts Action Research for their pioneering work on the healthy arts organization framework developed through extensive work with performing arts organizations in the United States and Canada. 

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