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The business of art

A glimpse into the upper echelons of volunteerism

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STEVE BLAND :  serves on the board of directors for both ARTS Obispo and the SLO Symphony. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • STEVE BLAND : serves on the board of directors for both ARTS Obispo and the SLO Symphony.
A good board member is hard to find, especially for a nonprofit arts organization. A good board member understands how boards operate and the importance of boundaries between staff and board. Members are ambassadors to the community, eager to tell an organization’s story. And they help raise funds so the organization can continue providing the community with music, theater, dance, and visual art.

When board members work effectively—as is the case in many local organizations—they create an encouraging atmosphere in which the non-profit flourishes. And when they don’t—as unfortunately is the case in several local organizations—a nonprofit struggles, often with a rotating door of executive and artistic directors. Fortunately, there is an entire industry dedicated to educating and training boards of directors. But not all nonprofits capitalize on these opportunities.

“You look at the organizations that have a strong board, and that didn’t happen by accident,” said Greg Fitzgerald, founder and president of Visionwork Associates, which offers consulting for many local nonprofits.

“The job of a board member is all about service. In my opinion a nonprofit board has three primary responsibilities.” These are planning, policy, and fund development, which translates into establishing goals and a vision for an organization, creating the necessary infrastructure to accomplish these goals, and finding donors. While doing this, a board of directors must remember to respect an organization’s paid staff and not interfere with their responsibilities.

“Nowhere did I say that the board’s job is to manage. The board’s job is to lead and govern. When the boards misunderstand and they manage or micromanage, the nonprofits get into trouble.”

Fitzgerald also works with the Nonprofit Support Center teaching a certificate program about fund development for nonprofits. He’s seen some of the local arts organizations thrive in recent years. Within a small community, people are often reluctant to point out which boards of directors aren’t operating as effectively as they could, but the reality is that it’s difficult to keep acrimony a secret.

“I believe our board of directors have their hearts in the right place. I just believe they lack the leadership and initiative to take the organization in a direction that ensures longevity and financial stability,” said one director of a local arts organization anonymously. Complicating the relationship between the executive or artistic director of a nonprofit and the board of directors is the fact that the board is technically a director’s boss, making it difficult for a director to express dissent.

So who are the people among the upper crust of volunteerism? What are their backgrounds, their challenges, and motivations for committing time and money to the arts?

Music to the ears

When it comes to word of mouth, the San Luis Obispo Symphony has one of the most respected boards of directors in the arts’ community, perhaps in part because in place of the usual tension, there seems to be a love affair between the symphony staff and their board. The organization boasts 21 board members who serve three-year terms with a two-term limit. A symphony musician always holds one of the seats.

“If you look at larger symphony orchestras, their boards are people who give a big donation and they’re on the board. Our board, they are required to make a donation. But they’re still schlepping wine boxes and setting up tables at Pops,” said Patty Thayer, who recently became interim executive director after Sandi Sigurdson stepped down from the post she held since 1994. It’s the board of directors’ responsibility to appoint the new executive director, which tends to bring out differences of opinion. But the atmosphere remains professional.

Part of the credit for the board’s efficiency is due to the symphony staff, who make professional development and training a major priority.

“If you don’t have a board or staff culture, ‘I’m too busy,’ ‘that’s too expensive,’ you’re going to have a hard time moving forward,” explained Sigurdson. “Nonprofits is a major industry and there are industry standards for everything.”

“If you get a board that’s getting incestuous, they do everything. They paint all the sets and they act in all the plays—it’s not so good,” said Thayer, by way of explaining term limits. 

Past president Sandy Dunn is practically a professional board member. She’s vice chair of the French Hospital Foundation Board and a board member of the University of Santa Barbara Economic Forecast, including her responsibilities with the symphony, which include planning the symphony’s largest fundraising event—the Symphony Ball and Auction. Prior to moving to the Central Coast 12 years ago, Dunn worked in public relations and as the curator of special collections at a museum in Missouri.

“You know, I can’t play music. I don’t have that talent. But I do appreciate the beauty of it,” she explained. “A good board member doesn’t ask anyone to do anything they’re not willing to do. A good board member is out in the trenches.”

Operating deep within the symphony trenches for a dozen or so years now is Gael Brown Humphrey, who went to her first symphony concert when someone gave her free tickets and hasn’t stopped attending since. Specifically, Humphrey works with the marketing committee, although just about any time food is needed she is involved; Humphrey recently began working with caterer Maegen Loring.

Every organization needs at least one board member capable of telling the organization’s story, and Humphrey is undoubtedly that songbird.

“Asking people to support us is somewhat difficult,” she said. “But if you can change it into the story of why you love the symphony, then the whole money idea goes away. It’s not really that hard because there’s so much to love.”

Before joining any board, Humphrey insists that it’s important to know the staff. It’s the board’s responsibility to ensure that the staff is holding true to the organization’s mission statement, and conflict between the two different arms of an organization could prove fatal.

The place with art

The board members at the Art Center have their work cut out for them. Currently, the board is comprised of 19 people, following the recent resignation of one board member. They are tasked with approving a fast-approaching name change to the organization as well as managing a $10 million capital funds campaign for a new building. Executive Director Karen Kile is pleased with the way they’ve handled obstacles in the past year, citing their ability to refrain from micromanaging Art Center staff, while keeping their focus on the bigger picture.

As part of a grant the Art Center received from the James Irvine Community Foundation, the organization was able to focus some of the funds on training and strengthening the board. During workshops she attended with other nonprofits from nearby counties, Kile encountered a similar complaint.

“Consistently, people said how hard it is to find a good board member. It’s still a common problem to find that match. The hardest board member to get is the young executive,” she said, citing the 35 to 45 age bracket. “That’s an age that’s hard to recruit because they’re so busy. Typically the demographic of a board member is older, well-established.”

While the relationship between board and staff is positive, Kile acknowledges that some board members would probably like to have some control over what types of exhibits the Art Center displays. Keeping their hands out of the art programming cookie jar is a challenge, but a necessary one in order to maintain the balance of power.

“We’ll start talking about what we would call programming and we have to pull ourselves back and say that’s not our department,” acknowledged Nancy Piver, a board member who has been involved with the Art Center since the mid-90’s. “It takes time to be a good board member. There are websites; there are books on how to be a good board member. It’s one of those sub-industries.”

Piver describes herself as a polisher, someone who likes to cross t’s, dot i’s and generally ensure that the most minute of details are well cared for. She’s responsible for the Art Center’s database, works as a cashier at the annual Plein Air Festival, and serves on the marketing committee. She also makes a point of attending the Art Center’s many opening receptions.

There’s always an inherent tension between an executive director and the board, according to Piver. Their responsibilities are distinct, but they must be moving in the same direction.

“Every board is alike. And every board is different,” Piver explained the board conundrum. “The culture of every organization is different. It takes about a year as a board member to figure out what’s really going on.”

The play’s the thing

Everyone agrees that the SLO Little Theatre, also, is going through a phase of growth and change. In the past couple of years, the theatre has had three executive directors. The first, Donna Sellars, resigned in 2007. Wendy Marie Foerster then filled the position for about a year, to be replaced by Kevin Harris in 2008. Theories, and rumors, as to what’s going on at the Little Theatre abound.

“Prudence tells me to leave it at this,” said Harris, “being an executive director of any nonprofit organization going through a natural organizational evolution is extremely difficult.” The evolution he refers to is a transition from a working board of directors to a board of governance.

BRYCE ENGSTROM :  serves on the board of directors for the SLO Little Theatre. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • BRYCE ENGSTROM : serves on the board of directors for the SLO Little Theatre.
“This is a difficult but necessary transition that every nonprofit goes through after reaching a certain size,” explained Harris. “Currently board of directors members are on individual committees that focus on specific areas of the theatre. We are in the process of specifying board of directors duties to achieve a true partnership between the staff/ board of directors/ volunteers. It is a delicate balance.”

Members of the 11-person board are encouraged to make an unspecified but significant donation to the Little Theatre, though Harris describes past enforcement of this as sporadic. Currently, board education is comprised of an informational packet they receive when they join the board in addition to a board retreat.

Wilda Rosene, a past president, has been on and off the board for the past 17 years, mostly because the term is limited to four years with a mandatory break between terms. The rotarian likes to make decisions, part of the reason she enjoys serving on the board. She owned a framing store until 2006, and the board would often meet at her house or shop. She’s not on any other boards, citing it as a possible conflict of interest given that the primary responsibility of a board member is to raise money for an organization.

Over the past couple of years, Rosene has watched the board struggle to define itself and its role in relation to the executive director.

“We don’t interfere with how the employees are working. This has been something that’s come about over the year. There were all these board people running the theater. They put on the plays. They cleaned up afterward. We did make a policy some years back that boards of directors can’t direct a play because it’s just a real conflict. I think if you want to be on a board then that’s your focus.”

Additional board training would be welcome, acknowledged Rosene. She’s also keeping an eye on a drop in theater attendance, citing the economy. Another source of concern is the average age of theater attendees, which is so advanced that people have been wondering what happened to the young people. She’s hoping that Harris will strike upon a way to draw younger audiences.

At the opposite end of the experience spectrum, Bryce Engstrom estimates he has been on the Little Theatre’s board of directors for about five months. He’s been active on the building maintenance committee and has assisted with set design, playing off his professional strengths: Engstrom is an architect and general contractor.

Engstrom’s decision to join the board was partially motivated by the closure of Centerpoint Theatre Group, a SLO-based organization that existed in the late ’90s and early 2000s.

“Centerpoint was something that really captured my attention,” he explained. “When that fell apart I thought ‘jeez, something like this can go away, and I’m just sort of passive about it.’”

While Engstrom is still learning the ropes, he’s got his own set of goals for the Little Theatre. Chief among these is establishing some consistency in terms of production quality, a goal he believes the rest of the board shares.

As a first-time board member, the greatest difficulties Engstrom has encountered are those that accompany any endeavor that requires collaboration and consensus. A clash of direction and personalities may have had something to do with the departure of past executive directors, according to Engstrom.

“It’s not some secret,” he explained. “I think there wasn’t a consent. The executive director was getting a lot from a lot of different camps. The board wasn’t approaching the executive director with a set direction, and the executive director was getting burned out.”

Strapped for cash

ARTS Obispo maintains a working board comprised of anywhere between 10 and 20 people, usually hovering around 12 or 13. Rather than focusing on maintaining boundaries between staff and board, board members tend to fill in almost as staff members, according to Executive Director Marta Peluso.

“Sometimes it’s easy to lose track of what the board’s responsibilities actually are,” she said. “They’re doing things like helping to install shows. They help host Art After Dark events.”

For board members accustomed to a simple monthly meeting, this might come as a shock. But Peluso insists that ARTS Obispo makes a point of educating potential board members regarding their responsibilities, a decision made during a board retreat several years back.

The commitment for an ARTS Obispo board member is two years, and though board members aren’t required to dig into their checkbook, they are expected to contribute to fundraising in different ways.

“It’s a position of power because you have a lot of input over that nonprofit organization. You want to make sure that people have the right intentions. People come on for various kinds of reasons. But the bottom line is their commitment to local arts.”

Steve Bland is the type of person Peluso calls a “board junkie.” He’s president of the ARTS Obispo board, as well as being a member of the Symphony board of directors. Bland was also active in Atlanta, where he lived prior to moving to SLO seven years ago. Boards in SLO tend to be much more hands on, grassroots endeavors, primarily because SLO is such a small community.

In Atlanta, Bland worked for a company that organized corporate meetings, so whenever there’s a special event afoot, he’s assisting in some way. Not having a day job allows him to dedicate more time to his responsibilities as a board member.

“The two boards I’m on are very different,” said Bland. “This is a much smaller board than the symphony. I think they’re both very effective boards and both very amicable. I wouldn’t last on any board that was contentious. It wouldn’t be worth my time.”

Being a board member also means being able to make tough decisions, particularly during an economic recession. When it comes time to create a budget and decide where to cut back, it often falls to the board to make such decisions, under the advisement of the artistic or executive director. But money is always difficult to come by, whether the economy is bounding or floundering.

Mary Kay Harrington is a retired Cal Poly instructor who was looking for a way to expand her community beyond the college campus. While visiting her granddaughter’s class to teach the students about poetry, Harrington realized it was a direction she wanted to pursue but wasn’t sure how until Peluso suggested that she become active in ARTS Obispo’s Art in Education committee. At that time—three or four years ago—ARTS Obispo didn’t really have a program in place to train or educate board members, according to Harrington.

“The first year was all about trying to figure it out,” she said. “ARTS Obispo was in the process of reconfiguring itself. Everything was being re-thought, and I was in the middle of trying to understand where it was going to go. At that point the board met once a month. It was really as if it was a new organization.”

During the past couple of years, the situation has improved considerably. ARTS Obispo has a vetting process for potential board members.

Harrington wouldn’t have the first idea how to hang a piece of art. She is a poet, the organization’s literary ambassador.

“One of the hard things about being involved in the arts is that you know, especially in these economic times, how many people need all sorts of things like food and clothing and a job,” acknowledged Harrington. “The arts, in hard times, are really crucial. It’s what makes us human; making music, listening to music, reading a fabulous novel connects us to other people.”

Never enough cash to dance

Perhaps one of the nonprofits hardest hit by the recession is Civic Ballet, which eliminated its annual spring show at the PAC in 2009, reducing its annual output to a single production. Artistic Director Drew Silvaggio attempted to step into the spring vacancy with a series of pieces performed at the SLO Little Theatre, sans the usual production frills.

Civic Ballet has the smallest board at six members, five of whom are parents of company members. There are no term limits, no financial obligations, and no board training.

NANCY PIVER :  serves on the Art Center board. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • NANCY PIVER : serves on the Art Center board.
“It’s a hit the ground running situation. Every year the board does a retreat where they plan out the year and explore new ideas,” said Silvaggio.

Though Silvaggio is responsible for programming, this task is considerably simplified when budgetary shortfalls eliminate a spring production. The Company’s annual holiday production is The Nutcracker, leaving few programming decisions.

Val Lorton, a retired Cal Poly employee, has served on Civic Ballet’s board of directors for the past 14 years. She became involved at the request of a fellow board member because her daughter is a member of the ballet company. In addition to attending meetings, Lorton is responsible for costuming.

Not surprisingly, Lorton cites money as the company’s chief obstacle. So much so that her vision for Civic Ballet’s future is simply to reach a place where it is possible to stage “the two performances that we’re supposed to present to the community.”

According to Lorton, the directors do take their fundraising responsibilities seriously. Though most of them don’t donate money out of their own pockets, they recruit possible donors and host fundraisers, including an annual golf tournament and events at wineries.

But what Lorton’s really interested in—as is likely the case with all board members, given that they are parents—is the dancers.

“I am on the board because I am an advocate for the dancers. They pour their hearts onto the stage. They dance injured. It’s a world that is incredible.”

Noblesse oblige

Overall, despite the inherent tension between executive director and board of directors, the tendency of the two is to sing each other’s praises. Few volunteers exert as much power over an organization or control as large a share of the community’s wealth.

“They’re out cleaning beaches and rescuing animals and feeding homeless folks,” said Sigurdson, of board members.

“The cynical idea of that is noblesse oblige. I think they’re good-hearted people.”

“They make the world go round,” added Thayer.

Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach can be reached at aschwellenbach@newtimesslo.com.

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