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Board games: trustees today have fallen out of love with institutions

Does the trustee system need to be reevaluated?

Alan Borg

The recent departure of director Charles Saumarez Smith from the National Gallery will be the Royal Academy’s gain, but it also highlights a deepening malaise within the National museum and gallery sector in the UK. This stems from two related factors—a decline in the quality of many trustee appointments and a growing tendency on the part of boards, especially chairs of boards, to meddle in matters that should be solely within the executive remit of the director. These factors can be traced back to the decision of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), newly formed by the Labour Government in 1997, to democratise and popularise the operation of existing boards of trustees. The trouble with this laudable intention was that it involved the virtual exclusion from the appointment process of the most important players in the game, namely the museums and galleries themselves. The views of directors and existing board members have been routinely ignored over the last decade, resulting in the appointment of numbers of politically correct “luvvies”, with little knowledge and less understanding of the institutions to which they have been appointed.

It would of course be wrong to imply that there have been no good trustee appointments in recent years; indeed, there have been some excellent ones, but this is more by luck than judgement and is balanced by a number of alarmingly bad ones. I remember the late [fashion designer] Jean Muir saying that the essential qualification for anyone involved with the V&A (where she was a trustee) was that they must love the museum with a consuming passion, but these days many trustees do not appear to love (or even be very familiar with) the institutions they serve and instead almost seem to take perverse pleasure in damaging them.

Despite a supposed new openness (eg edited board minutes posted on the internet), the way in which our great arts institutions operate is now even more opaque than it was ten years ago. Most of the key ­discussions go on behind closed doors, directors are not always party to policy decisions and the views of the senior staff are seldom ­considered.

The damage that may result was illustrated by the ill-fated Spiral project at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A). When I joined the museum in 1995, the chairman was Lord Armstrong, who has been regularly but wrongly maligned by critics of the reforms carried through by my predecessor, Elizabeth Esteve-Coll. Whatever may be said about Robert Armstrong, he is a figure of substance and influence, with a genuine love of the arts. To his great credit, he backed the selection of Daniel Libeskind to design the Spiral and through his leadership brought the entire board onside. This allowed us to go forward with confidence, obtain planning permission against the odds and raise pledges of over 50% of the funding required. The project could and should have gone ahead at that point, but Lord Armstrong’s successor, Paula Ridley, who had previously been chair of Tate Liverpool, was little known in London art circles and did not have the confidence of potential funders. Her lack of commitment to the Spiral transferred itself to the board, where the few remaining doubters now gained the upper hand. The Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), which has subsequently been blamed for not supporting the project, has an uncanny nose for sniffing out board dissension and, once they found it at the V&A, they were quite justified in turning the scheme down.

The recent decision to close the Theatre Museum would appear to be a further instance of a lack of vision and leadership on the part of the V&A board, with the HLF being used once again as the fall-guy.

The original concept of a board of trustees, operating at arm’s length from government, and made up largely of “the great and the good” has been discarded. The old system had its faults, but on the whole it worked extremely well and, on the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”, principle should have been left alone. What has replaced it is certainly no better. Today, too many trustees regard sitting on or chairing a board as a way of enhancing their own reputation, ignoring the fact that their role should be a non-executive one.

One specific advantage of the old system was that the trustees themselves normally appointed a chairman from within their own ranks. In some institutions, notably the British Museum and the Imperial War Museum, this right is enshrined in the founding constitution, and so has survived attempts by DCMS to usurp it. The method has the advantage that potential chairmen can first be appointed as trustees, allowing their judgement and quality to be assessed before they are elected to a position of leadership. Unless we get back to something like this system, properly qualified candidates with the necessary range of skills, combined with the passion for the place that Jean Muir rightly identified as essential, are likely to become the exception rather than the rule for those who aspire to govern our great national arts institutions.

The writer was director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, from 1995 to 2001 and is currently chairman of the Foundling Museum, London.