Monday, June 22, 2009

Boards behaving badly

How Boards once appeared. Today the picture would be different.

While reading the Globe's recap of the collapse of the North Shore Music Theatre yesterday, I was struck by the seeming-blindness of the article's author to the spine of his own story: the theatre's Board. The North Shore, it's true, had some bad luck - a fire ravaged its stage a few years back, which led to both a costly renovation and lost income from cancelled shows. There was also tumult among the staff recently - some six (!) defections during the artistic leadership of Barry Ivans. And there was a hit taken from a misguided programming decision, among other misfortunes.

But none of this can obscure the fact that a serious financial problem was building at the theatre for years. And I mean years. The fire can only account for approximately $3 million of the theatre's $10 million debt load - a shockingly high number given that even in bad years the theatre's deficit was at most a few hundred thousand dollars.

Only if that kind of deficit lasts a decade or more, you're talking real money! Yet nowhere in the article is there a mention of an empowered business manager, or of the Board instigating a major fundraising campaign (not even after the fire!). Instead there is only a series of apologies among mentions of shockingly-high management salaries, along with finger-pointing at the artistic, rather than the business, leadership.

Now I don't intend to let either Barry Ivans or Jon Kimbell off the hook for whatever poor judgment calls they may have made; still, in the end, the Board is responsible for the theatre's financial health. If the AD is making unpopular programming decisions, they have to somehow account for that on the ledgers. Perhaps the North Shore Board didn't have deep enough pockets of its own; perhaps it, too, was split by in-fighting, as the staff seems to have been under Ivan; or perhaps it was simply asleep at the wheel (before essentially deceiving subscribers and donors into thinking there was a chance the theatre could come back from its crisis).

But whatever the reasons for this specific failure, what we're looking at, of course, is simply a reflection of our larger corporate culture. Boards everywhere have been behaving irresponsibly and betraying the public trust - this is How We Live Now. It's rather clear that the boomer corporate types who have been wrecking the economy have brought something like the same responsible attitudes and expertise to our cultural sphere. Just in the last few months, we've seen the Gardner Museum Board vote to tear down Mrs. Gardner's carriage house, despite protests from the museum's own staff, and just about anyone with a pair of eyes; the Wang Foundation a week or two ago handed a check for $1 million to the Board of CitiCenter - a crew which was recently nearly indicted for financial irregularities, and which is known for over-lining the pockets of its insider-stuffed staff; and the mess at Brandeis has been simply pathetic.

This isn't, of course, the whole story. There are also Boards that have bucked this trend, and successfully steered their organizations through very challenging times (the Ballet, the Merrimack Rep) - but then again, there are have been others that made iffy financial decisions (the MFA, the BSO) that could only be balanced on the backs of the organization's staff.

Could all this change? Could our Boards stop behaving badly? Well, perhaps - but I think they won't change their ways without a change in what we expect of them. The blindspot in the Globe's reporting on the North Shore is only too characteristic of that paper's general mindset, methinks: a general tolerance - indeed, a kind of silent cooperation with - cultural decision-making as a prerogative, rather than a responsibility, of the wealthy. Containing the power of the well-to-do is, of course, always a challenge - but we can't even begin to make them toe the line if we don't pointedly call them on the carpet when they misbehave.


  1. Barry Ivans the "Artistic Director" chose to cancel the traditional "A Christmas Carol" and substitute High School Musical. With that catestrophic decision, the theatre suffered through the Christmas Season instead of having sold out houses. Insiders tell me Ivans cared more about what he wanted than what was good for this wonderful theatre. Good riddance Mr. Ivans...sorry to see you go NSMT

  2. Hi Greg -

    I know feelings on this issue run high, but it does seem, according to the Globe's analysis, that High School Musical 2 actually did come close to matching the annual take of A Christimas Carol. The problem was that the NSMT needed a much bigger cash infusion due to its accumulated debt - they were counting on HSM 2 doing quite a bit better than A Christmas Carol, and it didn't. So even if they'd done Carol, they probably would have been looking at much the same financial crisis.

    - Tom