Tony Featherstone talks to chairman Craig Dunn and executive director Libby Christie about the challenges and opportunities of leading The Australian Ballet. 

    A high governance barre

    Arts boards, it is said, can be more about fundraising than strategy and governance. They attract high-profile directors who use their business networks to open doors, and who are more attracted to the glamour of arts than the governance grind.

    That myth does a disservice to many hard-working, talented arts boards, such as The Australian Ballet. Its board, an exemplar of arts governance, is one of the reasons why this country has a ballet company on par with the world’s best.

    The Australian Ballet is no ordinary arts organisation. With less than 15 per cent of the ballet’s funding provided by government, it is highly commercial and strategic. The Melbourne-based public company wants to develop new media activities, redevelop its facilities, attract younger audiences, expand its reach in the Asia Pacific region and build a stronger international reputation in the next five years.

    It has earned the right to grow. As some prominent arts bodies struggle to break even, The Australian Ballet reported an $8.5 million surplus in 2014, including income from its $36.9 million foundation, after several years of strong performance.

    New chair Craig Dunn has big shoes to fill. The Australian Ballet appointed Dunn, a former CEO of AMP and current non-executive director of Westpac Banking Corporation, as its chairman in November 2015.

    As part of a planned succession, he replaces Jim Cousins AO, who has been on the board for six years and remains on it. “It’s an incredible honour to chair The Australian Ballet,” says Dunn. “I’m a great believer in momentum in business and this is an organisation with real momentum. We have a strong, stable board and an exceptional leadership team in Libby Christie [executive director] and David McAllister AM [artistic director]. The outlook is very encouraging.”

    The Australian Ballet has an influential board for an organisation that earned a modest $25.5 million in 2014 from its artistic program. Deputy chair Sarah Murdoch joined the board in 2006 and Dunn was appointed a director in November 2014.

    The board’s other well-known directors from business include John Ellice-Flint, the former Santos CEO; Catherine Harris AO FAICD, chair of Harris Farm Markets; Siobhan McKenna, a director of Ten Network Holdings; Penny Fowler GAICD, chair of the ,em>Herald and Weekly Times; Craig Spencer FAICD, owner of the Carter & Spencer Group; and investment bankers Bruce Parncutt and Tony Osmond. Olivia Bell, former principal dancer with the company, is the board’s dancer director.

    Dunn is grateful for the support of Cousins and the board in the process of chair transition. But it is clear that building a strong relationship with Christie and McAllister and understanding their working relationship is Dunn’s immediate priority.

    “I’m a great believer in giving management space to do their job,” says Dunn. “As an incoming chairman, you have to be confident the organisation has the right people to lead it, and the Australian Ballet has that in abundance. The board’s role is to support and challenge management and help it deliver the strategic plan.”

    The Australian Ballet board last year agreed on a new five-year strategic plan. If successful, the plan will enhance the company’s funding sources and long-term sustainability, develop digital media channels, enhance its facilities, create more productions, including ballets for children, and drive the next phase of growth for the 54-year-old organisation.

    It's our job to create a genuine career path for talented young dancers who want to realise an ambition to be part of the Australian

    Central to this plan is Christie, a former senior executive in the IT and telecommunications sectors, former CEO of the Sydney Symphony and acting CEO of the Australia Council, and one of the country’s most accomplished arts administrators. Christie was appointed executive director of The Australian Ballet in July 2013.

    She says a strategic board and directors who are always there to help the executive team when needed are valuable assets. “The Australian Ballet is fortunate to have a board that thinks very carefully about governance and long-term strategy. We have a clear plan of where we want to get to by 2020 and the board is very supportive.”

    Christie has a challenging job. She and McAllister must strike the right balance between artistic excellence, audience size and satisfaction, and organisation sustainability.

    “If we want to keep improving our financial results, we have to innovate,” says Christie. “Our dancers can only perform on so many stages and our performances are often sold out, so there are limits to our traditional revenue. We must find ways to reach new audiences and create new versions of our product through digital channels, which are yet to be proven commercially.” To that end, The Australian Ballet is developing a new website and digital channels with Telstra Corporation, its principal corporate partner for more than 30 years.

    Christie says The Australian Ballet has a broader responsibility to the arts. “More than 400,000 kids dance every week. It’s our job to create a genuine career path for talented young dancers who want to realise an ambition to be part of The Australian Ballet. We want outstanding young dancers to have the same opportunities elite young sports stars have in this country.”

    Ensuring Australian ballet is recognised on a world stage is another priority. “The Australian Ballet is increasingly recognised as one of the world’s leading national ballet companies,” says Christie. “We intend to take that leadership position to the Asia Pacific, both in terms of our performance and our collaborations with other ballet companies in the region.” Collaborations in China and with the National Ballet of Japan are recent initiatives.

    For now, Christie is introducing Dunn to key Australian Ballet stakeholders and helping the incoming chairman get up to speed. “My relationship with Craig, who has been on the board for almost 18 months, is very honest and open and not defined by formal power or structure. I find him incredibly valuable to talk with as someone who has led a much larger organisation and understands the challenges of management.”

    Dunn is pleased with the developing chairman/executive relationship. “Libby is a delight to work with. She has been very successful in the arts and has made a big difference in this role. She’s a good thinker, works very well with the board and other stakeholders, gets things done constructively and is not afraid to tell me when I need to think a bit differently. It’s so much easier as a chairman when you have real belief in the executive team.”

    Dunn and Christie have a formal meeting every two weeks and find plenty of opportunities to talk informally in between. “Nothing beats time together for a new chairman and the key executives,” says Dunn. “It’s like any human relationship: you need to get to know each other, be honest and transparent, and deeply respectful of each other’s views and work. You have to find ways to work together constructively for the good of the organisation.”

    Although they come from different worlds, Christie and Dunn share a common passion in ballet. “We continue to demonstrate to the world that Australia can produce internationally renowned dancers from the grassroots of the art form. It’s immensely satisfying to see so much of our work recognised on the global stage.”

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