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Is the US trustee system good for museums?

28 January 2019

Are volunteer board members a useful source of good will and money, or do they tie museums to the whims of the wealthy?

Bill Arning

In the museum world, one of the standard ways of ensuring you are maintaining proper relationships with your trustees is asking them to fill out a self-evaluation form indicating the level of their engagement, including how much they give, their achievements, board and committee meetings attended. While those are sometimes awkward matters to discuss, there is usually a question that is even more awkward: ‘Please list your top three philanthropic causes.’ Received wisdom is that if you are not in their top three they should be eased off the board. It feels so much like asking someone you have started dating, ‘Do you see this going anywhere long-term?’; and has a similar potential to wreck what might be a valuable relationship.

The American system of museum trustees has much to recommend it. High-net-worth individuals support worthy art projects with amounts of money that any reasonable foundation or governmental funding agency would blanch at. In return, the patrons get to share their passions in a dramatic and very public way, including names on walls and being toasted at events attended by all their friends. Curators are expected to identify which museum trustees are likely to be enthusiastic about a particular artist’s project and to go along with development staff to make the formal request for support: when that process works well, the trustee becomes emotionally involved in the project and can serve as an impassioned ambassador for the museum’s exhibition.

American museum professionals – unlike our European colleagues, or our colleagues in the university and foundation communities – are reared in this system, and it is hard to see any other way of connecting financial resources to art projects at this level. But all systems of cultural support have systemic biases that almost invisibly influence museum decision-making, and museum professionals spend a lot of mental energy finding ‘design-arounds’ to compensate for problems inherent in the system.

While most directors are pledged to support curatorial and scholarly independence and keep the art brainpower at a remove from funders’ desires, the system all but guarantees that, like a dog learning to look cute to get a treat, curators will learn to pitch shows that will attract larger budgets and museum acreage.

We have seen museums make the same mistakes repeatedly, hiring a type of director who appeals to a group of trustees and alienates the wisest staff. Boards get most fired up when hiring or firing directors (their main concern is, officially, governance rather than art per se). This is when the expertise and opinions of staff are likely to be significantly more valuable than those of the trustees, but also when staff are least likely to be heard and considered. Still worse can be board leadership that has had significant success in the for-profit business world and starts trying to use the same processes in the museum world, generously reallocating their donations to hire marketing and management consultants – a policy I have never seen improve a museum’s situation. It is often easy to second-guess the flaws of a board’s leadership decision-making, but deflecting the worst impulses of big donors without alienating those donors is harder. Museums are investing heavily in trustee training weekends with outside advisers, on the theory (so far unproven) that trustees are more likely to listen to paid experts than to staff telling them how to be better trustees.

What drives a lot of the burnout among museum professionals is the over-personalisation of the trustee relationships with curators and directors. As a director, taking donors to the Venice Biennale or Documenta will often be very enjoyable – nothing cements a donor relationship better than an exquisite summer meal on Giudecca. Still, after one has been through a few divorces, rehabs and other life events with folk who are essentially your bosses – and most museum directors live with 30-plus such bosses – the exhaustion can be extreme. But the alternative – lower funding levels allocated in a less personal and passionate manner – is unappealing as well. The idea of exporting our chaotic model internationally needs to be considered thoroughly, with both the pluses and the problems discussed.

Bill Arning was the director of the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, from 2009–18. He is now a curator and artist liaison for special projects at Nancy Littlejohn Fine Art.

Mary Baily Wieler

As Alexis de Tocqueville observed in Democracy in America, the United States is a nation of volunteers. Our trustee-led museums reflect this commitment and can-do attitude, and when executed properly can support effective institutions.

According to the Institute of Museum and Library Services, there are over 35,000 museums in the United States, from large, encyclopaedic institutions to small, historic house museums. Regardless of size, all non-profit US museums rely on governance structures with volunteer trustees who give their time and funds. This approach means that institutions must be governed by individuals who are mission-driven. Voluntary support allows museums to ensure they are guided by people motivated by the success of the institution rather than personal gain. (The vast majority of museums in the US are created and governed as charitable organisations under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code: created for the benefit of public interests, museums cannot use their earnings to benefit private individuals or shareholders, or try to influence legislation as part of their activities.)

The system sounds ideal: who wouldn’t want free help from someone whose only desire is to advance the museum’s mission? In reality, the trustee system requires significant effort and commitment to function properly. In Museum Governance: Mission, Ethics, Policy (1994), the former Smithsonian Institution counsel and expert on museum law Marie C. Malaro says: ‘Simply put, it is not enough to bring to board service a good heart; there must also be an informed mind.’

The US trustee system can take many forms. Some museums are led by a single board of directors which can make financial and governance decisions, while others are affiliated with universities, supported by separate non-profits made up of museum friends, or led by advisory boards without fiduciary decision-making powers. With any of these structures, trustees must be attuned to the museum’s operations, aware of all moving parts: programming, financials, public opinion, and the care of collections.

The system requires self-reflection, strategic planning, and good governance. A healthy board is one that constantly reassesses itself – the Museum Trustee Association (MTA) recommends an annual self-assessment of each board member and of the board as a whole. Trustees must be able to look inward so that they can adjust to reflect the museum’s community. Loyalties to the museum’s governing documents and to the public must be balanced and a thoughtful approach taken to the wishes and perspectives of their audience.

And for the system to work, boards must avoid stagnation. Setting term limits allows boards to undergo healthy rejuvenation. Trustees must also have clear guidelines for their roles and responsibilities to ensure that essential tasks are regularly considered and tended to. Mutual support, respect, and understanding between board members and staff are important in keeping the machine well oiled. Senior staff play an essential role. Staff leadership, in partnership with board leadership, must help to identify characteristics of a strong board member. To reflect on and identify strong trustees, I like to use the Four Ws: willingness to work, wisdom about the field, wealth to support the museum, and wallop – the ability to mobilise quickly and effectively. MTA advocates that museums in the United States adopt a matrix to evaluate the composition of the board, recording – for example – skill sets, demographics, professional backgrounds, and cultural criteria for current trustees and candidates.

Trustees must know and understand their three legal duties: duty of care, duty of loyalty, and duty of obedience. A duty of care ensures that board members are committed to participate and make thoughtful decisions. A duty of loyalty requires trustees to state conflicts of interest and to uphold confidentiality of board proceedings. The duty of obedience centres on the museum’s mission and the public’s trust: actions as a trustee must be taken with the highest consideration of the museum’s goals, governing documents, and laws.

The overriding truth is that the US trustee system is successful only with the contributions of dedicated and hard-working volunteers. But with adherence to the museum’s mission and committed trustees, the US trustee system can embody good governance and effective museum operations.

Mary Baily Wieler is the president of the Museum Trustee Association, and a trustee at both the Walters Art Museum in Maryland and the Park City Museum in Utah.

From the February 2019 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.