There was a piece on the Dallas Morning News website about how the boards of various Dallas arts organizations were beginning to focus on greater diversity in their membership and accountability of their staffs.
The article opens by noting that Dallas Summer Musicals parted ways with their managing director months before his contract expired and the Dallas Museum of Art appeared to have a tense parting with their director.
“In the old Dallas,” says Veletta Forsythe Lill, a former City Council member and past executive director of the Dallas Arts District, “a board would have let a guy finish his term,” as in, why not let Jenkins stay eight more months, until his contract expired?
“But we’re living in a new Dallas,” Lill says, “and the new Dallas naturally carries with it a new breed of board member. The new boards want more control and more accountability.”
Today’s artistic boards veer younger and more corporate, and although older white men continue to dominate, their once-fierce hold — some would say stranglehold — is beginning to wane. Today’s artistic boards are increasingly more diverse, with women commanding a more powerful presence than ever before.
I was happy to see that boards are starting to take their governance responsibilities seriously and are attempting to make board and staff composition more diverse and reflective of the communities they are serving.
As I was reading through the article, I wondered if the boards would possess the will to evaluate how effective they are at executing their responsibilities.
When I see that Dallas Summer Musicals has 146 board members and 40 members on their executive committee, I can’t help but be skeptical about how effective such an unwieldy arrangement can be.
Reading the following, I suspected the membership numbers are largely courtesy appointments for the purpose of fundraising:
Board giving and participation guidelines: $1,000 down payment to be a general board member, coupled with raising at least $2,000 from outside donors. Must be a season-ticket holder. Executive committee members: Must make a $2,500 down payment, raise at least $5,000 from outside sources and be season-ticket holders.
Similarly large numbers appear on the boards of AT&T Performing Arts Center whose bylaws allow up to 70 members, but currently has 55; Dallas Museum of Art which has 73 board members; and Dallas Symphony Orchestra which has 68 members, 20 of which are on the executive committee.
In January I wrote about San Diego Opera which was revived after a stakeholder revolt fought the board’s decision to cease operations. The board membership went from 53 to 24. One of the key issues they identified as having contributed to their inability to adapt to the changing economic and social environment in San Diego was the “Get, Give or Get Off” board membership policy.
The San Diego Opera was one of those organizations where having a large number of people on the board was a function of fundraising. You pay x amount of money and you’re on the board, and no one wants to alienate any of those folk with contentious conversations that cause discomfort. But that is certainly not a good modus operandi for an organization facing the whitewater of the twenty-first-century cultural organization. And, it was not only the business model that had to change but the governance model, too.
Yes, yes, I know everything is bigger in Texas. With a funding model that includes 40 executive board members bringing in $7,500 each and the other 146 board members bringing in $3000 each, Dallas Summer Musicals may not experience issues that require them to be more nimble and responsive.
For everyone else, everywhere else, it is worth considering if a move toward a leaner, more nimble board might be the best course to meet the organizations long term challenges.
For your listening pleasure, “Big D” from The Most Happy Fella.