Expert view: What makes arts groups so special?

They should get together with the rest of the voluntary sector and work on their governance.

Until the past few years, governance progress in the arts has been slow compared with the rest of the voluntary sector. In 2007, a survey of more than 100 chief executives and chairs of arts organisations by Mission Models Money, the national action research programme for the cultural sector, revealed that 34 per cent of them had never used any governance resources. Of those that had, the Charity Commission website was the most frequently used.

Furthermore, only 33 per cent had heard of the NCVO, less than half were aware of the Governance Hub and only one organisation had made use of the Code of Good Governance. There was a general feeling that voluntary sector resources would not be relevant to the issues of governance in the arts.

This raises two questions: first, are the issues of governance in the arts different from those in the wider voluntary sector? Second, why is there so little interaction between arts organisations and the rest of the voluntary sector?

Research indicates that there is just one significant governance issue that is unique to the arts: artistic policy and risk. Unsurprisingly, all other board-related issues will be familiar to any mission-led organisation: time, relationships, legal structures, skills and so on.

So why don't arts organisations make more use of sector-wide resources? Thanks to an investment from the Treasury, a number of national governance initiatives are being developed in the cultural sector.

For instance, I am co-facilitating a series of team-development days, being run by the Clore Leadership Programme, for the boards and senior executives of 12 arts organisations. In my next three columns, I will report back on these workshops, which will run until May.

To date, key themes have included staff and board relationships, governance as leadership, board size reduction and exploring alternative legal structures - nothing new when it comes to good governance. Part of our work involves signposting participants to existing resources within the wider sector.

It is vital that the momentum from the wave of national governance initiatives in the arts continues beyond their short lifespan. As a poorly funded arm of the third sector, the arts have precious little spare cash to generate ongoing bespoke governance resources. But they shouldn't need to: let's finally quash the historical assumption that arts organisations are unique and engage in some serious joined-up working with the rest of the sector. Might I suggest that the chief executives of the Arts Council, the NCVO and Acevo meet for lunch?

- Sara Robinson is a freelance arts researcher and facilitator.

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