While the details of what actually happened will likely become a ‘he said/she said’ wrangle, the very fact that the California attorney general’s office demanded recently that the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles go back to school and receive basic governance training is notable. While the wreckage has been salvaged by the generosity of Founding Chairman, Eli Broad, the charges—and the assigned training highlight again the all too familiar theme of spending down the endowment and misappropriating restricted funds.
This incident (and too many others we read about) begs the question of whether we have traded what we need from our boards for what we want from our boards. And what we need most now is good judgment.
Judgment that’s offered on behalf of the community, that at best challenges and at a minimum contextualizes the major decisions of the enterprise. The kind of judgment that executive and artistic leaders could benefit from, whether at MOCA, the Harlem School for the Arts, or an endless string of other organizations where the board apparently cared too much, and demanded too little, while letting their passion and acquiescence override their objectivity and fiduciary obligation to the public.
While it may be fiscally expedient, selling gala tables, hitting up friends for money, and shilling for our artistry and programs are poor surrogates for what we really need: a true partnership with our boards where they challenge us to innovate and adapt while asking us the hard and helpful questions that assure prudence and accountability.
So, instead of compromising such a role by asking them to ‘give, get, or get off’, what if we compensated them? An annual honorarium for service that says come to the table prepared with your best questions and keenest insights. While annual budgets may shrink a bit, such honest appraisals and straightforward engagement could contribute significantly to our sustainability, and the credibility of our field.