CEOs in the green room: Should arts groups be run by corporate-style boards?

Earlier this year, one of Toronto’s leading arts organizations very nearly fell apart. Buddies in Bad Times, the world’s largest and longest-running queer theatre and a hub of the city’s Village neighbourhood, lost its entire board of directors and two veteran staff members within the span of a week.

The fault lines started to show in the fall of 2018 when the theatre’s co-founder, Sky Gilbert, published a poem called “I’m Afraid of Woke People” in response to transgender artist Vivek Shraya’s book “I’m Afraid of Men,” fuelling a contretemps that led to Gilbert severing ties with the organization.

The global racial reckoning sparked by the murder of George Floyd deepened those tensions, with the theatre facing criticisms of complicity with anti-Black racism and other forms of discrimination. Buddies’ artistic director, Evalyn Parry, stepped down in September 2020, partially in response. In January, three Buddies board members who were Black, Indigenous or people of colour, and then its four remaining board members, stepped down, followed by managing director Shawn Daudlin and bar manager Patricia Wilson.

The news rocked queer and theatre communities. But, for many observers, what happened at Buddies points to a much larger problem: the flaws in the very structure of arts groups, specifically the growing sense that their governance structures are the wrong tool for the job.

This structure — generally a volunteer board of directors that holds considerable power over staff — is based on a post-Second World War model used by the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts. In many experts’ opinions it has never fit well with the creation of art.

Calls to overhaul the model have been increasing in recent years. As performing arts organizations have laboured to stay afloat during the pandemic, rejigged their programming in lockdown after lockdown, and attempted to make their practices more inclusive and diverse, volunteer boards — whose members tend not to come from the arts — have struggled to cope.

Some observers speculate that Buddies’ board became overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task. “This idea that a board in a pandemic, who are volunteers, are going to take a lead on major organizational change in response to major societal change is just an unrealistic hopeful expectation that’s only going to lead to disappointment,” said arts consultant Kristina Lemieux about the turmoil at Buddies. “#MeToo got everyone wobbly and then the racial reckoning knocked them right over, and now boards are like, ‘Why am I volunteering?’”

The problem goes back to the board-led model, said C.E. Gatchalian, former artistic producer of Frank Theatre, a Vancouver queer company. “The funders need to ask themselves really serious, tough questions about tying their stablest forms of funding to the notion that an arts company has to be a non-profit with a board. Hopefully what’s happening at Buddies will make it really clear to them that this structure doesn’t work.”

“The (current cultural) crisis,” said Algonquin playwright and director Yvette Nolan, “is systemic, is one of philosophy. The crisis is one of inclusion and exclusion.” Members of boards of directors “are not trained for that. They’re trained for singular moments of crisis.”

Yet government funders have required arts organizations to work within a board-led structure ever since the establishment of the Canada Council for the Arts in the 1950s (and provincial councils before and after it). Not-for-profit incorporation is modelled on the for-profit sector and reflects the same values: that businesses are best overseen by a group of individuals who are not employees of the enterprise but are committed to its success and will take responsibility for its smooth running. The model reflects the postwar world view that “the world was stable and things were going to grow perpetually,” said veteran arts consultant Jane Marsland.

The flaws started to show in the 1990s, when the number of arts organizations in Canada exploded and demands on the funding system increased. There are deeper cultural differences at play as well. “A healthy artistic process is highly collaborative,” said Marsland. “An artist goes into a studio or rehearsal room with an idea and finds a team of actors or dancers or whatever, and they start a process that is iterative … and then you bring in a governance structure that’s hierarchical and growth-oriented.”

As the funding scene grew more competitive, arts boards brought in professionals who could provide services and know-how: legal training, marketing skills, HR expertise. But this has led to tensions. “How can a bank president provide the oversight that’s required for an (arts) organization that they don’t necessarily understand? They’re coming from two different worlds and working cultures … you can imagine the conflict it sets up,” said Marsland.

Another expectation is that board members contribute financially and bring elite networks with them. This led to “the recruitment of individuals to a board who come from a particular sector of society, whether it’s racial privilege or economic privilege,” said Gatchalian. Very few artists and arts workers in Canada become wealthy from their work and many struggle financially — yet another disconnect.

Many observers see a fundamental weakness in this system: that the life of an arts organization, and the livelihoods of the people working within it, depends on the goodwill of volunteers who may tune in (or not) for monthly meetings.

“The responsibility for running a healthy organization has to be on the artist, not the board,” said Marsland. But the assumption of present governance systems is that artists lack leadership and management skills.

“Having a board makes sense if the board is a community partner,” said Marsland. “It doesn’t make sense if the board thinks they need to control the artists because they are not capable of running an organization.”

There are arts boards that do function well. “Our board (has) helped us think creatively about how we support people, how we structure our organization and its leadership,” said Ravi Jain, co-artistic director of Toronto’s Why Not Theatre. “They encourage us to pay ourselves appropriately and … pay artists appropriately.”

Through programs like RISER, the theatre provides funding and support for independent artists and collectives so they can do their work without incorporating. Why Not then presents the shows in an annual festival.

It’s significant that Jain founded Why Not 15 years ago and, along with the company’s other leaders, built the board: “We didn’t inherit the board; they didn’t inherit us,” he said.

Jain’s comment points to a complex, circular situation: it is convention, though not law, that a not-for-profit board hires and fires senior management. Ontario’s Not-for-Profit Corporations Act does not prescribe how management is to be appointed and removed; having the board handle this “has been the norm and viewed as an indicator of good governance,” a lawyer with expertise in non-profit law told the Star. But the work of overseeing and sometimes assembling the board often falls to management and staff. Authority and responsibility can become muddy.

Over the years, funding agencies have come around. The Toronto and Ontario arts councils as well as the Canada Council allow individuals and ad hoc collectives to apply for project funding. Artists who do not have ambitions for their enterprise to outlive themselves can be funded on this basis.

Choreographer Michael Caldwell, the current leader of the Toronto arts incubator Generator, has relied on project grants for 15 years: “I create an intimate kind of work that is not about global reach,” said Caldwell. “I don’t personally want to be accountable to a board of directors.”

But even organizations such as the Toronto Arts Council, which does not tie incorporation to operating funding, have other requirements that serve as a de facto imperative to incorporate. And charitable status, widely seen as a valuable step for arts organizations, demands the same.

There are conversations afoot about how to make the status quo more conducive to artmaking. One strategy is to have a very small board (three members is the minimum in Ontario) focused on making sure funding is spent appropriately, and to hive off other tasks to staff or committees — a non-hierarchical worksharing approach more familiar in the social justice sector. “Organizations have a lot of freedom to experiment with alternative structures,” said Marsland.

Last year, several performing-arts companies in Toronto undertook a project exploring such experiments. For Brendan McMurtry-Howlett, a board member of Generator and now also of Buddies, interest in this area grew out of his work founding Shakespeare in the Ruff, where conflicts between a newly corporate-led board and artistic leadership nearly caused the company to fold.

“I was feeling like I needed to learn an entirely new vocabulary, a corporate vocabulary of Robert’s Rules,” said McMurtry-Howlett. He and the other artists involved were “working on $2,000 honorariums for the year … The board were putting forward all of these corporate structures that made the work impossible.”

Through a project of Generator’s known as Governance Reimaginings, McMurtry-Howlett has come to understand that “a board of directors is just one process of governance. Governance is really decision-making. Decision-making happens, whether it’s by a collective of artists, a single artist or a formalized, incorporated, non-profit arts organization,” he said. Shakespeare in the Ruff has taken on a collective leadership model with five artists sharing leadership.

“It’s always made me so mad, both kinds of mad: infuriated and also kind of crazy,” said Yvette Nolan, who is pursuing a master’s degree focusing on alternative arts governance. “My thesis is that the board of directors is a fiction … there’s a great divide between what the governance model is and what the art of the organization is.”

It is crucial, said Nolan, to reconsider corporate thinking from an artistic perspective. “Who are the stakeholders? It’s the audiences, it’s the artists, it’s the communities in which the organization sits.” Traditional structures “are all about dominance, one being in charge of someone else.”

This changing conversation can place an even heavier burden on arts groups. “So many organizations are making parallel governance structures,” said Nolan. “‘This is the way we want to be governed, this is to whom (we) are accountable.’ But they still have to go and checkbox things and file certain things. It’s like I have two sets of books.”

Lemieux acknowledged that it’s unrealistic to “expect organizations within the non-profit structure to quickly and effectively impact social change. We can’t ask a group of volunteers to change the world in six months,” she said, reflecting on current pressures put on boards to enact principles of anti-racism, anti-oppression and decolonization. But she would like to see more accountability.

“History is full of examples of people radically changing things for the better,” said Gatchalian. “Why can’t we imagine something similar for the Canadian arts sector?”

Karen Fricker is a Toronto-based theatre critic and a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @KarenFricker2 . For more on the outcomes of Generator’s Reimagining Governance project, see