Boards and governance are a bit scary and “otherworldly” for practicing artists until you’ve served in one. Unfortunately, while most in the industry recognize the need and value of diverse bodies, not all are able to express diverse voices. This has slowly changed, but it is a two-fold process.
The organization must want to involve artists in its decision making – and commit to it through their formal terms and conditions – and on the other hand artists must stand up and play their part.
But what does that look like?
Artists can be forgiven for taking the slower route, flavored in part by a sector that encourages its professional artists to contribute, often outside of their studio jobs, from donating art to fundraising for campaigning, participating in boycotts in support of issues, and mentoring.
Is sitting on boards and as fiduciary just another story of being taken advantage of while organizations disregard their credentials?
Fortunately, the answer turned out to be no. And quite the opposite. Of the artists we spoke to, all reported that they felt their board role was extremely important – that they felt valued – and that more artists should consider taking on a management role.
However, not all artists are paid in these roles — a conversation we’ll explore in more detail in a follow-up article.
So what is the benefit of being on a board as an artist or creative?
Why be on a board when you can be in the studio?
Artist Danie Mellor put it simply: “Perspective and expertise”. Mellor currently has a three-year directorship at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (which ends next year) and a two-year directorship for visual arts at Create NSW, which has just been renewed.
He continued, “Artists can offer a range of views that only come with direct experience of being a practitioner in unique spaces of research, creation, governance, and creation, and then exhibit, publish, or perform with public engagement and results. “
This view was shared by Sally Smart, who is currently a member of the National Gallery Council (NGA) and Artist Trustee (NGV). She told ArtsHub: “I believe that artist representation on the boards of arts institutions is crucial, along with gender equality and diversity of background and experience.
“It would be great to have one or more artists on the board of each arts organization in Australia as standard practice to ensure many artists share the experience.”
Smart added that along with the role’s many responsibilities, there are also “extraordinary insights.”
Read: 7 steps to building the perfect drawing board
Tony Albert said that early on he worked with the Queensland Art Gallery for eight years which contributed to his decision to take up a position with the AGNSW Trust. ‘I also understand the inner workings, [and] I believe I can work from within to do well.
He added: “I have no criticism of the outside protest – both are valid and important. You must straddle the position of what you do best.’
Albert continued: “I think it’s really important to have artists at the table, and also for me as an Aboriginal people. There has been no indigenous population(s) for 129 years [until now] through the AGNSW Trustees. It’s such a powerful advocate to have this representation at the table.’
Under the Art Gallery of New South Wales Act 1980, the art gallery board of trustees consists of 11 curators and states that “at least two of them shall have knowledge and experience of the visual arts”.
Albert is nearing the end of his first term, which expires in December, with an option for a further three + three years, bringing his commitment to a possible nine years. He was recently inducted into the trustees by artist Caroline Rothwell (January 2022), replacing Ben Quilty, who held out for that nine-year tenure.
Mellor added that there is another advantage for him. “I live in Bowral and am generally private and studio focused; Board meetings are also an opportunity to travel and connect with people.
“Part of my role at the MCA is to chair the Artist Advisory Group (AAG) with Lara Strongman, Director of Curatorial and Digital, and then provide feedback to the board from artists on a range of topics. Meeting peers and peers through boards like the AAG was an opportunity to meet artists that I might not otherwise have met, and I think this adds a significant dimension to the MCA’s appointment of an artist to the Board.’
Is this a responsibility of both small and large organizations?
While Smart, Albert and Mellor hold board positions for larger organizations, it’s also important to recognize that artists’ voices are valuable regardless of their size at the table.
Mellor said, “In my view, artist representation is critical at every level of the organization and should be a primary consideration when filling or considering positions on a board or advisory board.”
Proof that after leaving AGNSW, Ben Quilty has moved to the board of Ngununggula, a new regional gallery where he lives in the southern Highlands.
Similarly, although her career has been accelerating and international, artist Yhonnie Scarce accepted a board position at Adelaide-based contemporary art space Adelaide Contemporary Experimental (ACE) in May.
“I have worked with ACE for several years and have watched it grow through the merger of CACSA and AEAF, both of which have been significant organizations in my artistic journey,” said Scarce.
Joining the board seems like the natural next step.
Yhonnie Scarce, artist and board member
“Adelaide plays an important part in my artistic life and ACE is such an important organization supporting South Australian artists as well as working nationally,” she added.
Albert also acknowledged that an artist goes on a career journey that eventually extends beyond the studio. “It’s something I’ve thought about for a long time – it’s beyond the making – and I’m aware of what I wanted to contribute that I didn’t know 10 years ago. I think the maturity to think beyond oneself comes into play.’
Albert added: “I think all organizations should do that. No one has the right formula to run an organization – and that’s what a board does – helps get that direction right.’
Mellow believes that the presence of artists on boards “should not come at the expense of the expertise needed for structural governance and leadership. It is imperative that there be a range of voices so that what underpins discussion, forward direction or topical advice is broad and balanced enough to be heard and acted upon.’
Read: Get on board: How governance experience can help you and the industry
Mellor was also a member of the Australia Council Visual Arts Board (as it was then) and was subsequently artform Chair. ‘[That] was a great opportunity to contribute for many years and be part of the decision-making that impacted the arts nationally and internationally,” he said.
From national impact to grassroots, Albert said we just need to make room for everyone’s voices.
“We see too [a rise] of the indigenous advisory bodies, on top of the [governance] Blackboard. They are becoming increasingly important. And also smaller, more down-to-earth leaders [being included]which adds another really important layer – and it’s an opportunity to represent the local, the state and then the national, considering Sydney as a platform for the rest of the world,” Albert told ArtsHub.
How high is the commitment/expectation?
Mellor said he didn’t feel involvement in activities outside of board meetings was expected, but said “participation is important.”
“It’s important to be supportive, visible and present,” he continued. ‘In many ways it is a continuation of the pre-appointment engagement as there is usually an existing relationship and attachment to the institution or arts field.’
“From my perspective, mine [motto] is: “You do few things and you do them well”. I retired from other things because I wanted to do a very good job here,” Albert said of his appointment to AGNSW. “It’s really a big commitment; You have to realize that it’s more than just meetings, but I feel so fortunate to have had this experience.”
Albert said he thinks three years is the best board commitment.
“I can understand the extension option [with AGNSW Trustees]; Sometimes in that long-term commitment – where you outlast the employees – big changes can happen, and you can be a part of things as they develop.
It’s almost like an employee.
Tony Albert, artist and board member
“And if you haven’t done what you want in nine years, then why are you there? And if so, why are you there? Institutions work at a rapid pace, so it’s entirely possible that you won’t see things introduced in your first term until your third year,” Albert said.
“There’s definitely a benefit when board members share and feed into each other’s different areas – like even a hospital board – that it’s really beneficial to work together,” Albert told ArtsHub.
Are conflicts of interis it a problem?
When asked if he felt a conflict of interest in his role as trustee, Albert replied, “Every single day!”.
“There is nobody within the Aboriginal community that I don’t work with or don’t know personally, so yes, of course. “Conflict” [as an artist] is a strange thing; It’s not about money or scratching someone’s back, it’s about supporting and being part of a community.
“And it just expands [from community] to the art world – artists are very different from these other board members in that they went to art school together, exhibited in galleries together, share studios – that’s why it’s so important that they’re on boards because they can provide insight.
“You just have to think about that and make sure you’re being fair,” Albert said.
Mellor agreed. “I haven’t had any conflicts on organizational matters, but where they exist in funding bodies it is explained,” he said of the importance of transparency.
“My impression is that colleagues and colleagues respect the confidentiality of decisions and processes, especially when it comes to critical or sensitive issues,” he continued.
“Being involved in decisions related to funding requires a different level of awareness. I’ve had to be careful at times to ensure that co-workers’ or peers’ applications and my position as chair or board member aren’t compromised by relationships or even conversations moving into a space associated with funding requests,” Mellor told ArtsHub.
While these relationships and roles are complex, they are also essentially real, as they genuinely want to support and help shape a sector to which these artists have dedicated their life’s work.