Board Games: When Trustees Need a Hand

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Every day, and several times a day, I hear from readers about what upsets and concerns them in the opera world. Whether it is the quality of productions or singers, the price of tickets, the perceived arrogance of major arts administrators, or countless other issues, these opera lovers find a lot to complain about.

Almost since the beginning of opera in 1597, people have found reasons to complain about something. This is due, in part, to the proprietary feeling we have about our local companies and treasured memories of great performances. Nothing ever seems to compare! It is also because opera lovers, bless them, are passionate. Opera singers always tell me that one of their greatest satisfactions is knowing that audiences truly care about them and the art form.

And yet, I think things really are different nowadays and something is broken. One could argue that it is the state of the world economy. But there have always been enormous economic upswings and downturns and opera kept being produced at high levels of quality. I hear many young singers with excellent raw materials who, if trained and managed properly, should be able to fill most roles in the standard operatic repertory. What many young artists are missing is culture, and all that term implies. I addressed this somewhat in a recent Letter to Aspiring Opera Singers, but this is a larger and more complex subject I will return to from different angles in future articles.

I have come to realize, when I hear the disappointments of today’s opera lovers, that they are unaware of one essential element in the big equation that gets opera produced. They usually direct their anger at administrators who decide which works should be done, who should star in them and who should design and direct them. But who hired those administrators? The answer is, in most cases, the boards that govern opera companies and provide a large part of the money that makes performances possible.

For the purposes of this article, I am talking specifically about boards in the United States. Those in Europe are different because more political figures are involved. It is common to have a mayor or state functionary in key positions on European boards, and he or she will wield considerable influence on hiring decisions. In Italy, opera houses may change from right to left (or vice versa) depending on the political affiliation of the mayor. With each electoral change, one often finds a change in the general director of a theater. This does not allow for stability and long-term planning.

Unlike Europe, in the U.S., money talks. A key way opera companies raise funds is through board memberships and the additional cash those members bring in through fundraising. Opera is expensive and securing a steady flow of cash is essential. Large opera companies often require a minimum contribution of $25,000, $50,000 or even more to join a board. The biggest institutions might expect $100,000, $250,000 or much more. 

Whether the money comes from the pockets of wealthy individuals or large corporations, many opera board members believe that membership entitles them to considerable influence on decision-making, whether those decisions are informed or not. This can get unwieldy, or become downright dysfunctional, if a board is large and does not have a strong leader. 

A former manager at a major regional opera company, with 81 people who paid at least $50,000 annually to be board members, remarked to me that “being on the board made many of them feel they had some kind of ownership and the right to call the shots in certain areas. But they often had no idea what they were talking about.”

The former chairman of the board of a leading company, who was hugely successful in business but also deeply knowledgeable about opera and how arts institutions are run, lamented to me recently that “too many gears become jammed” in the current operations of the company in question “because most board members don’t know how things work but think they do. And they have a say in important decisions in the organization’s direction.” He feels that this lack of knowledge has, in effect, enabled this opera company’s chief executive to make financial and artistic decisions that profoundly threaten the company’s long-term health.

A Real-World Perspective

I have worked for a few opera companies in permanent positions and have acted as a consultant and adviser to many more. This work has brought me into contact with board members of companies of all sizes and budgets. Often my job is to facilitate dialogue and inject realism into relations between boards and management. There are some rare cases in which the board chairman and her/his key members share a vision with the chief executive. But there are many situations in which boards and chief executives work at cross purposes, each more focused on ego satisfaction or amassing power and influence.

Some people join boards out of a sincere love and dedication to the art form they support. I know such persons and admire them deeply for their generosity of time and lucre. But I have encountered others who join purely for the social status it confers or to actively pursue business contacts. In effect, board membership becomes about serving themselves instead of the company and the art form.

Boards often have corporate figures on them. Some join because of a love for opera or a sense of civic responsibility. A senior manager at Procter & Gamble once told me that one of the reasons the company has been a long-time supporter of the Cincinnati Opera is that they consider the company a selling point when trying to recruit the best executive talent to its corporation. This is a good thing. P&G has an investment in keeping the Opera creative and secure and has, to my knowledge, almost always been an involved rather than overbearing presence.

There are situations in which, despite the best of intentions, boards have made very bad decisions with devastating effects on a company. The most conspicuous, and tragic, recent example, involves New York City Opera. With New York City Ballet, it shared what most New Yorkers still call the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, rather than the David H. Koch Theater, as it was renamed in 2008. Members of the Koch family have been active supporters of the so-called Tea Party movement and New York is, in so many ways, a coffee town.

If you search online for the New York State Theater, almost all of the top results jump to a reference to the Koch Theater. Koch's $100 million donation, spread over ten years, was designated for restoration of the theater. During that time, New York City Opera agreed to allow its seasons to be given over to the restoration work while City Ballet proceeded with its scheduled performances. In effect, City Opera went dark, cutting itself off from its subscriber base, its larger audience and, by connection, its viability.

It has never been made clear if the City Opera board that approved this decision had sought monies from the Koch donation to stay afloat financially during its long exile. If it did not, it should have made that a condition for going dark. What is clear is that the company languished, had a huge financial downturn and then saw the departure of Gerard Mortier, the arts executive whose controversial artistic choices in Brussels, Paris and Salzburg made him a tantalizing prospect for New York’s second opera company (to some observers, America’s second opera company). 

Mortier said he left because City Opera could not deliver the budget it had promised. Revenue dropped from $33 million in fiscal 2008 to $6 million the next year. While the company struggles to stay afloat (and we who love it wish it the best of artistic and financial health), it has suffered many damaging blows. It no longer resides at the State/Koch Theater, it has sold off most of its old productions, and has had a rocky relationship with its musicians' unions.

Nuts and Bolts

Following my recent conversation with Michael Kaiser at the Kennedy Center in Washington, two of the many salient points he made have remained very much in my thought. One is that he believes there are few qualified arts managers in America right now. Therefore, even board members who are dedicated and reasonable often have to settle when hiring chief executives. 

The other point is that Kaiser thinks it is very important that his board members interact not only with him, but with his staff. This is often not the case elsewhere. Many chief executives at arts institutions labor mightily to have exclusive relationships with board members, thinking that this will give them more control of policy but also prevent ambitious underlings from trying to get ahead.

If boards, and their various committees (executive search, finance, and more), understand more about the nuts and bolts of arts administration, they might become more sophisticated in the way they help their companies. I have found that providing education about opera to board members, something I do a lot of, has the effect of making them more eager to do the right things for their companies. If they want to have their say, at least this might increase the odds that they know what they are talking about. And that is good for opera, and for all of you who have something to complain about.

Programming note: Have a question on anything operatic? Call 1-347-878-1059 and perhaps I might answer it on air on a coming Saturday during WQXR's Operavore radio show. Phone lines are open all the time to record your question.