How to sit on a third sector board | Martin Kemp, Former Trustee of the National Galleries of Scotland, The Victoria and Albert Museum, and the British Museum
Susan Boster, CEO of Boster Group, talks with Martin Kemp about the unique challenges of sitting on a third sector board within the arts sector and how those challenges evolve throughout board-level careers.
Martin Kemp is Emeritus Professor of History of Art at Oxford University and a world-renowned expert on Leonardo da Vinci. He has written over thirty books and published and broadcast extensively on images in art and science. He wrote regularly for ‘Nature’, the essays for which have been published as ‘Visualizations’ and developed in ‘Seen and Unseen’, in which his concept of “structural intuitions” is explored.
His latest book is ‘Visions of Heaven. Dante and the Art of Divine Light’ for 2021, the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. He has curated and co-curated a series of exhibitions on Leonardo and other themes at the National Gallery in Washington, Hayward Gallery, Victoria and Albert Museum and Barbican Art Gallery, and has served on numerous boards across the cultural sector. He is now speaking, writing and broadcasting.
What boards, private and third sector, do you currently sit on, and which have you sat on in the past?
I have sat on boards for over 40 years; I was a Trustee of the National Galleries of Scotland, The Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Museum and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Charitable Trust. I have also served on the boards of the Scottish Museums Council, the Museum Training Institute, and the Louise T Blouin Institute, among others. I have chaired the Association of Art Historians and the board of the Graeme Murray Gallery in Edinburgh.
What are the key qualities of a good board member in the arts sector?
The key quality in my mind is to create a balance between the organisation that you are serving and the public interest. The quality of a good board member is to bring expertise to bear but to also stand back and see the bigger picture so that you are not always intervening or being active in a certain area. When I have been on the public boards of museums and galleries, I always considered it my job to support an idea that I believed in rather than push a factional interest.
When you are dealing with challenging issues, do you address them inside or outside of board meetings?
Challenging issues should be addressed inside the board meeting, as everything within the board meeting is confidential unless there is a reason otherwise. Meeting minutes are an official record, not a direct record of everything that is said and felt. The results of debates and the decisions taken are minuted and particular opinions are recorded along the way, but a lot of debate goes on when you are feeling your way into an issue. You certainly don’t break ranks; if you are on a public board and you have lost a properly formulated argument, you must accept that decision.
Likewise, in the leadership of anything, you need to identify what is in the common interest. Even if a member of staff doesn’t agree with a particular decision, they should recognise that the overall good of the organisation and its staff is being promoted.
When have you gotten it wrong, and what did you learn?
There was, of course, the big crisis when I resigned from the board of a major national museum, which had been criticised for having numerous works from the collection not on display. A group of three or four trustees were taking all the decisions in response to pressure from the government department and decided to sack six senior curators for a variety of reasons. I resigned from the board partly because what was happening was terrible, but above all, because I wasn’t accountable for it. Major decisions were being taken and not coming through the board; they were being taken by the civil service on behalf of the government, which should not have been happening.
Similarly, when I was on the board of a major national institution, the director at the time wasn’t well favoured by the civil service and they parachuted in a co-director, to get over this “problem.” That again is improper; the board itself should not be kowtowing to its host department in the government, nor to the government. If you are on a trustee board, you are expected and trusted to be independent. Successive governments have increasingly used the annual financial settlement to control what the museums do. You have to submit your annual plans to the host department and those plans have to be approved before you get your annual grant-in-aid. That is a mechanism by which they can exert control and provides potential for the government or civil service on behalf of the government to exert leverage upon policy.
Not opposing very strongly to the parachuting in of a co-director was one of my mistakes. Looking back, I have realised it is possible to get caught up in the “clubbishness” of the board and become guided into a position which you later regret.
What is your advice to someone looking to become a chair in any sector?
My advice for chairing is to be incredibly well prepared; get all the briefs, arguments, and papers organised. As a general board member, you pick up things that you’re interested in and can coast through the others. As a chair, you have to do your homework and take soundings if necessary. Preparation is crucial.
The best chair of any board I ever served on was Lord Carrington at the V&A - he prepared incredibly well. He was a big figure and became the Secretary-General of NATO. In a sense, he didn’t have much time, but he was always immaculately prepared for everything he handled.
What are the specific challenges and learnings of being a chairperson, compared to a trustee?
As a trustee, when going through papers for the board meeting, there are ones which you have a greater understanding of and bearing on than others. You get great reams of paper and you’re probably not going to read every page, concentrating on areas where you feel you have some competence. The chair can’t have that luxury and has to be briefed on everything. When we elect people to positions of leadership, we expect them to have the ability to master the papers and be aware of as many of the facts as possible. It is alarming to see how some world leaders are failing at this, at the moment.
The second key requisite is managing the board meetings, a number of which have too many members. The quality of the papers put before the board is crucial. They should lucidly set out major issues on which decisions need to be taken. In this respect, the interface of the chair with the executive is very important. In the meeting itself, it is very difficult to give all members what they would regard as adequate time to express their views. It is prudent to turn first to members of the board who have particularly relevant experience of the issue being debated. The framework should be that each board member should only speak once on an issue unless there is a genuinely new dimension that has not been considered. The chair needs to be alert to cabals and factions who are pushing in a certain direction. (I have chaired committees from a different place each time to loosen the tendency of people with similar views to cluster together.)
Above all the trustees and chair should identify totally with the mission of the organisation and be seen to support staff to that end.
Susan Boster is the Founder and CEO of Boster Group Ltd. an independent marketing consultancy that creates innovative brand partnerships for global corporations and cultural institutions to achieve business and social impact goals. Current and recent clients include BNP Paribas, Montblanc, Insight Investment, Moët Hennessy, AMEX, Gap Inc., Credit Suisse, Bacardi, EY and Disney. Boster Group shapes partnerships on the basis of shared values, untapped assets and complementary capabilities. Distinctly, Boster Group measures return on investment for its clients and is focused on the impact of the creative campaigns it develops. Previously a CMO for News International, Susan is currently on the boards of English National Ballet, Donmar Warehouse, The Representation Project, and serves on the Enterprise Committee at The Design Museum.
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