Leading Roles – 50 Questions Every Arts Board Should Ask
– by Michael M. Kaiser, Brandeis University Press, ISBN 978-1-58465-906-8
– a book review by Paul Inksetter
Paul Inksetter has been the General Manager of the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra and the Executive Director of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. He is currently the Chair of the Board of the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra.
Read this book. Have all the members of your Board read this book. Have your General Manager/Executive Director read this book. This book offers the most concise, most cogent, most penetrating analysis of arts organizations, how they function and how the role of the Board of Directors is crucial to the organization’s health, that ever I have read.
I began with yellow marker in hand to highlight the most salient points as I read. I gave this up early on, as I was painting the whole book yellow. So I started over, this time highlighting only those really really major essential important points, and still wound up with two or three on most pages.
The author’s basic point is that the board – engaged, aware, focused, knowledgeable, accountable – is vital to the health of any arts organization. Examples are drawn from the worlds of symphony, theatre, ballet, opera, art – each with its own unique challenges, but each able to use the same essential principles to guide the organization through various stages in its evolution, and to steer it through the inevitable occasional crisis. The essential commonality is an unwavering focus on the mission of the organization, and that organizations thrive when their mission is clearly stated and consistently implemented, and they produce great art.
You will see yourself, your colleagues and your staff in this book. You will encounter examples that remind you of your own organization. You will have flashbacks to board meetings and planning retreats you have attended. And you will not find any silver bullet, any magic formula that will make your many challenges disappear. What you will find is a logical, sensible, structured set of procedures you can follow to analyze your organization, assess its strengths and weaknesses, and plan a way forward that augments and builds on your strengths and minimizes the impact of your weaknesses.
The book is structured as a series of 50 questions, grouped into twelve themes, with one to twelve questions per theme. The section on Board Governance has twelve, addressing everything from term limits to new member recruitment, with interesting observations on both; the section on Boards in Crisis has but one, explaining clearly why you cannot cut and save your way out of your crisis, and how you must incrementally work your way through it, without compromising your artistic mission.
This thematic approach keeps you focused on one topic at a time. Most questions begin with an analysis of a problem or situation, which you will, I assure you, recognize. The author then proceeds to analyze several typical approaches to the given situation – once again, you will recognize these – and explains why so many approaches are doomed to exacerbate the situation. He then proceeds to logically and systematically put together an approach that is more likely to succeed. What many of the answers have in common are: a relentless focus on organizational mission, an insistence on rigorous, logical planning, and a firm conviction that great art, great programming and great marketing are the keys to organizational success. What you will take with you from this book is a much clearer understanding of the role of the board and staff, and how in working together they can keep your organization vital and healthy, both artistically and financially.
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