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Ruth Rentschler: Arts Governance: People, Passion and Performance Australia Council Chair Rupert Myer AM

Speeches and Opinions
Dec 04, 2014

Thank you Jane den Hollander, Vice Chancellor, Deakin University.

Professor Rentschler, Andrew Abbott, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

I would also like to acknowledge that we meet on the land of the Kulin Nations and I pay respects to elders past and present.

I am delighted to have been invited to launch this splendid publication on arts governance.

Some months ago, Ruth invited me to contribute a Foreword for the book, which I did gladly. Similarly I did not hesitate to accept her invitation to be here to today.

Those responses reflect my feelings about the importance that I attach to the issue of good governance in the arts.

And my respect and admiration for the scholarly yet practical work that Ruth has undertaken, culminating in this book Arts Governance: People, Passion and Performance.

Additionally, I should also add that it is a rare event to launch a publication that requires the reader to encounter two Ruperts before the acknowledgements section: the artist, Rupert Betheras, whose work “Singing Lor Lor Lor” is the book’s cover image and my foreword.  My every day includes my own encounter with a work of Rupert’s and I couldn’t have been more delighted that to have encountered his work here as well.

There was a time when we rarely used the term ‘governance’.  It became part of the language of business and politics in the 90’s.   It might once have simply been said that a business or organisation with high standards conduct was ‘well run’.

We live in more complex times and we demand more precision in our language that is perhaps less poetic and more prosaic.  We also expect higher standards in all aspects of organisational performance whether we are talking about governments, businesses or not-for-profits.

And we need research, analysis and guidance to help us define and meet those standards.   In other words we need Ruth’s book!

Readers of this book can expect, and will get, an unrivalled insight into the history, contemporaneous practice and future direction of arts governance.  They will also get an enjoyable read and plenty of good stories.

Among its many deeply considered and eminently useful aspects Ruth’s work encompasses:

how board members ‘do’ governance;

what people bring to the arts board;

the role of the chair and leadership;

the role of passion;

how to measure performance;

how to create balanced and effective strategy;

and ultimately, reinventing arts governance.

It is a book to be read and to be consulted. I have enjoyed dipping into parts of it in a fairly un-methodical fashion and have found myself reading on, recognising the issues she raises and nodding in agreement with her wise conclusions.  In her chapter on the Roots of arts governance and the journey from ‘Early visionaries’ to professionalisation, I was both reminded and amused to read:

It was not uncommon for arts board members to serve between 17 and 30 years; a few simply retired from office, however, many were forced out by exasperated colleagues or even died in office. They overrode CEO decisions on purchase of art, made ‘partisan’ artistic decisions, were prejudiced and narrow-minded in their taste, which they sought to impose on the institution… In some instances, arts board members regarded the collection as ‘their personal property.

Now I am sure none of us here have ever witnessed such goings on.  It’s all in the past.  Isn’t it?

Ruth’s book is very timely and perhaps with regard specifically to the arts sector, overdue.  In saying that, I don’t wish to imply that arts organisations are poorly led or badly administered, or even especially in need of their own close examination.

My observation is that they are extremely mindful of the complex environment in which they operate and are keenly aware of their responsibilities to audiences, staff, artists, funders and the wider community, in other words, their stakeholders, that other a la mode expression.  Often they are constrained due to their vast range of activities and resources.

Most are distinguished by the dedication and passion of their boards and staff, an issue to which Ruth has devoted a whole chapter.

However, what has been overdue until now and is Ruth’s great contribution, is the research and documentation of the experience and lessons of arts sector governance that this publication represents.

As Ruth has noted in the book, ‘In the arts, governance is an emerging and changing concept, not fully examined empirically or grasped in practice.’

It goes a long way towards filling that void in our knowledge.

In a similar vein Ruth has noted the lack of study of arts leadership.  She has said, ‘Leadership is often considered a conundrum. So much has been written on it in the management literature, although curiously, less has been written on it in the arts.’

Leadership is no less important in arts organisations than elsewhere.

I find it interesting that the organisation and administration of the arts, particularly at a policy level, has drawn some of the outstanding thinkers and leaders of their times.

In the mid 20th century, my hero, John Maynard Keynes gained his outstanding reputation not only for economic policy but also for championing the Arts Council in Great Britain.

He took an organization established during the Second World War to employ artists and organize morale-boosting tours of the performing and visual arts, and oversaw its development into the Arts Council of Great Britain. As he put it

I do not believe it is yet realized what an important thing has happened. State patronage of the arts has crept in. It has happened in a very English, informal, unostentatious way –half-baked if you like. A semi-independent body is provided with modest funds to stimulate, comfort and support any societies or bodies brought together on private or local initiative which are striving with serious purpose and a reasonable prospect of success to present for public enjoyment the arts of drama, music and painting.

‘Striving with serious purpose and a reasonable prospect of success’.  If only we could describe our grant criteria these days with such elegant simplicity!   There’s a whole cultural policy in that last sentence.

In Australia, it was Nugget Coombes, who played a similar role and was Chairman of the Australia Council.  Both Keynes and Coombes, who deeply understood the importance of economic and financial policy amongst other tenets of good governance, put the arts at the centre of their respective nations.

We are privileged today that the governance of so many of Australia’s best arts organisations has developed from this perspective and has engaged some of the nation’s best thinkers from differing backgrounds, passionate about our cultural and intellectual heritage, working alongside professionally trained administrators and, of course, those who are truly central to our cultural life, the artists.

A couple of years ago, I was asked to speak on governance and creativity at the presentation of a series of significant accounting awards.

As you would imagine, I made the obvious quip that the expression formed from the combination of the words ‘creative’ and ‘accounting’ seems to have become a defined term with its very own meaning and I explained that it had not been my purpose to explore that any further.

I am minded to refer to it because Ruth has said in her book that

The best board members are not necessarily those who know the most about opera or dance or country music, but those who can apply their knowledge of conformance and performance in a strategic sense to the business of the arts. This is new territory for many in the arts. Board members cannot perform their role alone. Their work is part of inputs only. It does not happen unless others combine their efforts and their work for the benefit of the organisation.

In my address at the awards, I said that I passionately believe that the creative sector, defined as it is by the role of artists and the organisations that support their practice across the visual arts, dance, literature, theatre, music and the myriad of cross art forms that defy categorisation, benefits from sound financial knowledge, discipline, advice and planning.

For whilst the arts encourages and promotes imagination, spontaneity, curiosity and visceral emotive experiences, in order to be certain that these outcomes will occur, considered, careful and thoughtful planning is so often a necessary pre-condition.  Of course chaos occasionally produces genius too, but even that ends up requiring some process to maximise its impact.

The creative outcomes of our performing arts companies, our galleries and museums, our contemporary art spaces and the entire eco-system of cultural organisations that serves our community are enhanced by a broad range of skills and disciplines, and to that earlier audience specifically, accounting. The same message would have been true if the occasion had been for any other professionals

I also happen to think that those who are most successful in their professions are those that bring imagination and curiosity, spontaneity and visceral emotive responses to their everyday roles and professional advice as well.

But it is not just the professionals whose roles need to stand out in a discussion of arts governance.  I share the view that Wesley Enoch expressed recently on cultural leadership.

He said that artists ‘synthesise the ephemeral into something tangible for a society and as such are often at the edge of societal change. Cultural leaders are those who can imagine this future and bring others together to support their vision.’

In addressing his comments to fellow artists, he said that artists need to step up ‘for what we believe is important and show it through work. Cultural leadership starts with artists being leaders’.

Leadership, accountability, transparency, sustainability, solvency, edginess and social change: Ruth has said governance in arts organisations is quite complex.  The levels of complexity now ensure that arts boards are not ‘party places’. Of all organisations in the public domain in receipt of public funds, I submit that it is arts organisations that are often singled out for extreme versions of scrutiny and debate.  The extreme pressure that arts organisations are under to demonstrate their contribution to the broader community and to justify the public investment they receive is an everyday reality.

So what can we expect of arts governance in the future?  Ruth has written that:

In an environment of disruptive change, new perspectives are sought on governance challenges and opportunities. Arts organisations are affected by disruptive change and renewal, affecting how they are governed, in an environment in which globalisation and technological revolution collide.

At the Australia Council we are endeavouring not only to help artists and arts organisations to manage change but with regard to international engagement, to engender pride in the fact that Australia is a culturally ambitious nation, and can be even more present in the global cultural community.

At a practical level the Australia Council can hopefully complement Ruth’s important work with our own support of many organisations playing roles in arts governance like Arts Law and NAVA.  The Council’s own publication, Essential Governance Principles for Arts Organisations, has been adapted from the ASX Corporate Governance Principles and Recommendations for use specifically for the Major Performing Arts organisations and has wider application.

These remarks have focussed on the arts sector’s own governance.  Wouldn’t it be an interesting development if all corporations were required to produce reports that provided not only their financial performance, environmental and social impacts as most do now, but their cultural impact as well.  Maybe that is one for the panel?

If we were to head in such a direction, my hunch is that many might turn to Ruth’s important work to see what she has written that could help us navigate that matter or any other tricky channels that we cannot foresee for now.  What a great contribution to the literature and ideas to promote the ‘well run’, and what a wonderful contribution to the arts.  From all of us, thank you.

It gives me great pleasure to now officially launch Arts Governance: People, Passion and Performance

Rupert Myer AM


Australia Council for the Arts