Orchestrating better times for the arts

Tuesday, 01 July 2014


    A long-time director has sound guidance for the boards who oversee our cultural institutions.

    There are likely few other people in Australia who can claim the same experience in arts directorship as Professor Margaret Seares AO FAICD. The former academic, ex-professional harpsichordist and administrator was a long-time chair of the nation’s peak arts body, The Australia Council, and she has held senior roles with numerous other creative institutions.

    The forthright Seares offers a rare insight into arts administration and the inevitable challenges of running an institution on the smell of oily rag, something that appears to have got worse as budgetary pressures bite on the nation at large.

    “I long for the days of visionary leaders such as [former Western Australian premier] Sir Charles Court, who said: ‘There are no votes in the arts, but it is important for the state that we support the arts anyway’ or words to that effect,” the Perth-based Seares says.

    Her big fear is that the cuts in arts funding revealed in the recent federal Budget will hurt small organisations and individuals most. Larger organisations will often have the protection of existing triennial funding contracts.

    “We all need to recognise that a $10 million cut to the arts will wreak real havoc. It’s probably simply the cost of a particular screw on an incredibly expensive helicopter that we simply have to have, for whatever reason, at whatever cost.

    “While I’m not advocating flying a helicopter with a screw loose, I am suggesting that, given the scale of a couple of our seemingly sacrosanct Budget items, a few small barely noticeable cuts could make the difference for the country’s entire arts infrastructure.”

    Seares has a call to arms for artists, arts administrators and others involved in the sector to make their case for decent funding even more so than previously, so that their valuable contribution to the cultural health of Australia is not lost among the populist politics that dominates today’s public agenda.

    “What is the solution? We in the arts have to work harder to make this case, which is about stimulating creativity and innovation in our community, being a voice for Australia and leaving a cultural legacy for the future,” she argues.

    “The problem is that there is an ecology to the arts. Each part — individual artist, smaller experimental organisations, mid-level and large organisations — is interconnected. And if you cut some off at the knees, you get the predictable result: a markedly diminished arts sector.”

    Seares’ long career in arts governance began in 1992 when she took a seat on the board of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra just before it was divested from the Australian Broadcast Corporation.

    She has since been a director of Opera Australia, the Art Gallery of Western Australia, the Western Australian Museum, the Australia Business Arts Foundation, the National Portrait Gallery, Perth Theatre Trust, Creative Industries Innovation Centre, the Australia International Cultural Council and the ARC Centre for Creative Industries, among others.

    Today, she sits on the boards of the Perth International Arts Festival and the Chamber for Arts and Culture.

    She has also brought her vast experience in the arts to other sectors by branching out into governance positions in medical research, research infrastructure, schools, universities and, most recently, the energy sector. She was a member of the billion-dollar Education Investment Fund until it was abolished by the federal Budget in May and remains a director of Bond University Council, as well as the Western Australian electricity corporation Synergy.

    This enormous contribution led to her being awarded the Australian Institute of Company Directors’ Gold Medal for an outstanding director in Western Australia in 2013.

    “This award reflects that Company Directors is serious in valuing directors from the not-for-profit sector and, in particular from arts and education, which in the past were sometimes overlooked for awards of this type,” she says.

    Seares believes that her mindset as an artist can only be an advantage to boards in other sectors, a rule of thumb that she applies to the contribution that creative people can make to governance generally.

    “Creators of art are, by their nature, highly innovative thinkers,” she says. “They ask the unconventional questions and come up with innovative solutions to problems. They are just the sort of people a board needs.

    “A board full of artists could be highly problematic. But a board with none lessens the chances of that board being constantly challenged to think laterally and creatively.”

    And, of course, boards who oversee organisations with tight budgets could probably give a few lessons in financial management to companies with better cash flow and far less impetus to keep a tight rein on purse strings.

    “The challenge of keeping an organisation on focus during times of real financial pressure is one that perhaps occurs more frequently and dramatically for many arts boards than it does for others,” she says.

    “This includes how to support management to achieve an awful lot with very little in terms of  staff, money, IT resources and so on,” she says. “I’ve really enjoyed the challenge of getting across new areas, new ideas and new problems.”

    As a child in Perth, Seares wanted to be a ballet dancer until she realised she couldn’t dance. Then a cricketer: ditto.  She began piano lessons when she was about nine or 10, and credits that experience and her parents’ record collection as the reason she took an interest in classical music.

    This led to a tertiary education in musicology and not, as some might have expected, in musical performance.

    “Musicology — a sort of amalgam of theory and analysis, and some music history — suited me very well,” she says.  “My honours and Master’s theses both explored aspects of French music which allowed me to use the French I’d studied and my love of history.”

    She has some firm views on the standard of arts governance in Australia, in terms of both the generally high standards and also the capacity for further improvement.

    “A lot of effort has gone into lifting the standard of arts governance around the country and I have to say that I don’t recall any great governance debacles in the sector, as opposed to some other prominent parts of the community.”

    “Succession planning for boards, management and artistic direction is also very important in an industry where there has been a bit of a tradition of longevity for a complex set of reasons — passion for the art form or organisation, and a dearth of comparable jobs to go to, being the most prominent.”

    The unique issues faced by arts bodies can be even harder to combat in locations such as Western Australia, which does not have the same community from which to draw funding and patrons as more densely populated areas.

    “It will be no surprise if I say sustaining the business financially is one of the biggest challenges for art boards and it doesn’t get any easier as time goes on and priorities change for governments, sponsors or patrons,” Seares says.

    “The pressure on the discretionary dollar has made things tough for a lot of arts companies, particularly those in smaller marketplaces, such as Perth, Adelaide or Hobart, where there isn’t the depth of population to even out the volatility.”

    The constant tension between the desire to bring new Australian work to audiences while recognising that the same audience also want to enjoy their old favourites is a challenge for administrators and their boards.

    “One of the things we notice in a city like Perth is that when Bruce Springsteen or the Rolling Stones come to town, the money is sucked out of the local companies. And this won’t change, as the ageing rockers have to supplement their dwindling earnings from CD royalties by endless travels around the world, like a bunch of ancient mariners.”

    “You can lose a lot of money on new work if it’s not promoted and presented in a way that audiences won’t find alienating. But done skilfully, it can be really energising for everyone involved.”

    She also believes that more collaboration between the back-office operations of arts organisations would help squeeze even more out of each dollar in funding that is received.

    “Arts companies can sometimes be a bit wary about sharing customer data, even when it could result in a win-win,” she says.  “This is sometimes an area where boards can gently move management to think more expansively and less territorially.”

    Seares observes that the issues most worrying boards on which she currently sits are those which are effectively out of their control, but which have significant, if not enormous, impact.  Excessive regulation is perhaps one but she is far more concerned about the process behind it.

    “Red tape reductions will, I’m sure, have some effect, but they will not solve the issues that arise when governments don’t consult widely before implementing decisions,” she argues.

    Seares spends some of her spare time on a hobby farm with a large veggie garden, small orchard, chooks and beehives.

    “In Perth, it’s the arts, some academic research and then travel, mostly where I can dust off my French and German.”

    In 10 years’ time, she hopes to be living in Albany, on the south coast of Western Australia, away from the increasing heat of Perth.

    “Anyone who doesn’t believe in climate change should come to Perth for a few summers,” she says.

    Aspiring female leaders need mentors

    Gender diversity on arts boards is “not too bad”, according to Margaret Seares, but she argues there are few women leaders in the sector relative to the number of its female employees. 

    “For example, how many of the chief executive officers of the large national and state art galleries or museums are women? Or of the major performing arts companies?,” she asks.

    “It would be worth having a look at the reasons for this, in the same way that the issue of women leaders – or lack of same – in business or government circles has been the subject of a lot of research and debate.

    “There is no magic bullet to gender and leadership diversity, as illustrated by the enormous amount of research that goes into the subject and the slow rate of change that comes out at the other end. It is no different for the arts.

    “The first step is for any arts board to consider whether the board itself has a good balance of interests and diversity and then to review the management for the same attributes.”

    Before taking on a board role, Seares advises younger emerging women directors to find a mentor who has a reputation as a good board member role model.

    “See if you can shadow that person in their own board environment for some time, looking at issues such as the level of preparation for meetings, the timing and nature of questions posed, the behaviour towards fellow board members and management and so on.

    “Then, for the first year or so, have a board buddy from the longer-serving ranks of your colleagues, who will give you feedback and advice.

    “And, always treat your board colleagues and the management with courtesy, even if that is not reciprocated.”

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