Do we need more artists on boards?

Slowly, visual arts organisations have been including practicing artists on their boards and councils. What does that look like?

Boards and governance are a bit scary and ‘other worldy’ for practicing artists, until you have served on one. While most in the sector recognise the necessity and value of diverse boards, sadly not all are successful in giving agency to diverse voices. This has been changing slowly, but it is a two-fold process.

The organisation must want to embed artists in its decision making – and commit to that through its formal terms of operation – and on the other hand, artists need to step up and play their role.

But what does that look like?

Artists can be forgiven for taking the slower path, seasoned in part by a sector that calls on its professional artists to contribute often outside of their jobs in the studio – from donating art, to fundraising for campaigns, joining boycotts to support issues, and mentoring.

Is sitting on boards and councils and as trustees just another story of being taken advantage of, while organisations get to flout their credentials?

Hearteningly, the answer has proven to be no. And quite the contrary. Of the artists we spoke to, all reported that they felt that their board role was an extremely important one – that they felt valued – and that more artists should consider playing a role in governance.

However, not all artists are being paid in these roles – a conversation we will pick up in more detail in a follow-up article.

So what then is the advantage of being on a board as an artist or creative?

Why be on a board when you can be in the studio?

Artist Danie Mellor put it simply: ‘Perspective and expertise.’ Mellor is currently into a three year board commitment with the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (finishing next year), and a two-year Visual Arts Board appointment with Create NSW, which has just been renewed.

He continued: ‘Artists can offer a range of views that come only with the direct experience of being a practitioner in unique spaces of researching, creating, managing and making, and then exhibiting, publishing or performing with public engagement and outcomes.’

It was a view shared by Sally Smart, who is currently a National Gallery Council member (NGA), and has been an artist Trustee (NGV). She told ArtsHub: ‘I believe artist representation on art institution boards is critical, along with gender equity and diversity of background and experience. 

‘It would be great to have as standard practice an artist(s) on every arts organisation board in Australia, ensuring many artists share the experience.’

Smart added that along with the many responsibilities of the role, there are also ‘extraordinary learnings too.’ 

Read: 7 steps to building the perfect arts board

Tony Albert said that early on, he worked with Queensland Art Gallery for eight years, which helped his decision to accept a position onto the AGNSW Trust. ‘I understand the inside workings too, [and] I believe I can work from the inside to do well.’

He added: ‘I don’t have any critique about protesting from the outside – both of those are valid and important. You have got to straddle the position of what best you can do.’  

Albert continued: ‘I think it really is important for artists to be at the table, and for me as an Aboriginal person also. There hasn’t been an Indigenous people/s in 129 years [until now] on the AGNSW Trustees. It is such a strong advocate position, having that representation at the table.’

Under the Art Gallery of New South Wales Act 1980, the Art Gallery’s Board of Trustees is made up of 11 trustees, and states ‘at least two of whom shall be knowledgeable and experienced in the visual arts’.

Albert is nearing the end of his first trimester, expiring in December, with an option of a further three + three years, taking his commitment to potentially nine years. He was recently joined on the Trustees by artist Caroline Rothwell (January 2022), replacing Ben Quilty, who stuck it out for that nine year term.

Mellor added that there is a further advantage for him. ‘I live in Bowral and am generally private and focussed on working in the studio; Board appointments are also an opportunity to travel and connect with people.

‘Part of my role at the MCA is Chairing the Artist Advisory Group (AAG) with Lara Strongman, Director of Curatorial and Digital, and then providing artists’ feedback across a range of issues to the Board. Meeting with colleagues and peers through committees such as the AAG has been a way to get to know artists I may not otherwise have met, and I feel that adds a significant dimension to the MCA’s appointment of an artist to the Board.’

Is this a responsibility of both small and large orgs?

While Smart, Albert and Mellor hold board positions for larger organisations, it is also important to recognise that, regardless of scale, artists’ voices are valuable at the table.

Mellor said: ‘Artist representation, in my view, is critically important at any scale of organisation and should be a primary consideration when populating or contemplating positions on a Board or advisory committee.’

Testament to that scope, upon finishing his tenure with AGNSW, Ben Quilty moved on to the board of Ngununggula, a new regional gallery where he lives in the Southern Highlands.

Similarly, despite her career becoming more fast paced and international, artist Yhonnie Scarce accepted a board role with the Adelaide based contemporary art space, Adelaide Contemporary Experimental (ACE), in May.

‘I have been working with ACE over several years and have watched it grow from the amalgamation of CACSA and AEAF, which were both significant organisations in my artistic journey,’ said Scarce.

Joining the board seems like the natural next step.

Yhonnie Scarce, artist and board member

‘Adelaide plays an important part in my artistic life and ACE is such an important organisation that both supports South Australian artists and works at a national level,’ she added.

Albert also acknowledged that an artist goes on a career journey, which at some point moves beyond the studio. ‘It is something that I took a long time to consider doing – it comes beyond the emerging – and I as aware of what I wanted to bring to it, which I did not know 10 years ago. It think that maturity to think beyond the self comes into play.’

Albert added: ‘I think it is something all organisations should be doing. No one has the formula correct in running an organisation – and that is what a board does – help get that direction right.’

Mellow believes that the presences of artists on boards, ‘shouldn’t come at the cost of expertise needed for structural governance and leadership. There absolutely should be a range of voices so that what underpins discussions, forward direction or current advice is inclusive and balanced enough to be listened to and acted on.’  

Read: Get on Board: how governance experience can help you and the sector

Mellor has also sat on the Australia Council Visual Arts Board (as it then was), and was subsequently an artform Chair. ‘[That] was a great avenue to contribute for many years and be part of decision making that had impact on national and international levels in the arts,’ he said.

From national impact to grass roots, Albert said that we need to do is make space for all voices.

‘We are also seeing [a rise] of Indigenous Advisory Boards, on top of the [governance] board. They are becoming more important. And smaller, more grass roots leaders as well [being included], which adds another really important level – and it’s an opportunity to represent the local, the state and then the national, when you consider Sydney as a platform for the rest of the world,’ Albert told ArtsHub.

What is the level of commitment / expectation?

Mellor said he hadn’t felt there was an expectation to be involved in activities outside of Board meetings, but said that ‘participation is important.’

‘It is important to be supportive, visible and present,’ he continued. ‘In many respects it is a continuation of involvement prior to appointment, as there is usually an existing relationship and commitment to the institution or artform area.’ 

‘From my perspective, my [motto] is, “you do few things, and you do them well”. I stood down form other things because I wanted to do a very good job at this,’ said Albert of his AGNSW appointment. ‘It really is a big commitment; you have to realise it is above and beyond just meetings, but I feel so fortunate that I have had this experience.’

Albert said he thought the optimal board commitment was three years.

‘I can understand the option to renew [with AGNSW Trustees]; sometimes that long term commitment – where you outlast staff – is where big changes can happen, and you can be part of things as they evolve.

It is almost like being an employee.

Tony Albert, artist and board member

‘And if you haven’t done what you want in nine years, then why you there? And if you have, then why are you there? Institutions work at a glacial pace, so it is quite possible that things you put in place in your first term you won’t see until your third year in,’ Albert said.

‘There is definitely something beneficial when board members cross over and feed into each other’s variant fields – such as being on a hospital board as well – that enganglement is really beneficial,’ Albert told ArtsHub.

Are conflicts of interest an issue?

When asked whether he felt a conflict of interest in his Trustee role, Albert said: ‘Every single day!’

‘Within the Aboriginal community there is no one I don’t work with, or that I do not personally know, so yes of course. “Conflict” [as an artist] is a weird thing; it’s not about money or scratching someone’s back but more about supporting and being part of a community.

‘And it just extends [from community] to the art world – artists are very different to those other board members, in that they went to art school with each other, show in galleries together, share studios – it is why it is so necessary they are on boards because they can give that insight.

‘You just have to be mindful of that, and ensure that you are fair,’ said Albert.

Mellor agreed. ‘I haven’t had conflicts in organisational matters, but where they exist on funding boards, it is declared,’ he said of the importance of transparency.

‘My impression is that colleagues and peers respect the confidentially around decisions and processes, particularly if there are critical or sensitive issues being managed,’ he continued.

‘Being involved with decisions around funding needs a different level of awareness. I have at times needed to be mindful so that colleagues or peers’ applications, and my position as Chair or Board member, aren’t compromised through relationship, or even conversations that move into a space connected with applications for funding,’ Mellor told ArtsHub.

While these relationships and roles are complex, they are also genuine in essence, in truly wanting to support and help shape a sector where these artists have given their life’s work to.  

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina