Museum Boards: Assets or Liabilities?

Art museum boards have recently come under significant scrutiny in many parts of the world, mainly because of their association with wealth and power, the sources of that wealth and power, as well as governance issues, such as conflict of interest breaches, intrigues, and abuse of power.

The Strike MoMA protests in NYC, for instance, have targeted certain members of MoMA’s board of trustees (which in this instance comprises key donors to the museum) over their problematic involvement in the provision of prison and border control systems, the Puerto Rican debt crisis, the troubles in Palestine, or their association with disgraced public figures such as Jeffrey Epstein. One of the changes the protesters are advocating for is the replacement of the board of trustees with a community council, which is an interesting idea, although it may not be easy to identify the rightful stakeholder communities of a museum with a strong international focus and reach.

As Hyperallergic critic Hakim Bishara puts it, the protesters “demand a ‘post-MoMA future’ wherein the interests of communities are prioritized over the desires of billionaire museum donors.” The Strike MoMA protests have also reached elsewhere, with spin-off protests for instance held in in the Dominican Republic, and the movement speaks to the broader dynamics of power, hierarchy and community in the contemporary art world and museums, and the momentous social changes the present moment calls for. As has already been recognized in the DR, the question arises how such concerns apply to the art museums of the Caribbean.

Art museum boards come in different forms, depending on the legal and financial status of the museum and the jurisdiction in which they are located. Some museums have more than one board and appointment methods vary and may or may not include donor obligations. The public museums of the Caribbean typically have a single board of directors and, depending on the specificities of their legal status, governments are usually involved directly or indirectly in their appointment. This politicizes museums in ways which are not always productive for the institutions and the inclusive mandates they are supposed to serve.

One of the negative effects of political board appointments is, for instance, a lack of continuity in policies and priorities and often also the loss of key personnel whenever governments change. At their worst, political appointments make boards near omnipotent and allow them to transgress the boundaries of their advisory, policy and accountability roles with impunity. Board micromanagement is consequently increasingly common, especially in terms of inappropriate involvement in curatorial and other technical matters, for which board members are generally not qualified, resulting in needlessly challenging work environments for management and staff. And, as the board composition of almost every museum in the region illustrates, board membership in the Caribbean is just as tied to socioeconomic power as in North America, with the peculiarities of the region’s deeply partisan state politics, entrenched systems of patronage, and postcolonial socioeconomic tensions and inequalities as additional layers.

Before we look further at some of the problems with art museum boards in the Caribbean, it is useful to look at the governance of the Tate Gallery in the UK, as this provides us is a good benchmark. Its board functions and operations are clearly outlined on its website, which includes the publication of the board minutes going back to 2007. I had to chuckle at what would happen if the minutes of some of our cultural institutions would be published, let alone retroactively, but such transparency is not the norm here.

The Tate Board of Trustees consists of fourteen members, at least three of which are artists. Appointments are generally for four years and may be renewed once, except for the artist-trustees, who are conventionally allowed to serve for only one term. Thirteen are appointed by the Prime Minister, from a pool of applicants, and one is an ex officio representative of the National Gallery. Trustee and committee vacancies are advertised publicly. The chair is elected by the board, and not appointed a priori. The functions of the Board of Trustees, and its Committees, are clearly articulated and the core functions are outlined as follows:

  • “The Board of Trustees determines policy and, together with senior Tate staff, sets the strategic direction for Tate. It oversees the management of the gallery, with the Trustees acting as guardians of the public interest.”
  • “The Board decides on major acquisitions and resource allocations. It represents Tate externally, monitors the organisation’s performance against its agreed objectives and targets and ensures the stewardship of public funds.”

A declaration of interests is submitted annually by each trustee and published with their profile on the Tate website. The Tate also has a published ethics policy and a specific conflict of interest policy for its Trustees and Committee members.

This does not mean that there have been no governance problems at the Tate. In 2006 the Tate was severely criticized for conflict of interest issues involving the acquisition of work by artist-trustees, which was spurred by the acquisition, for  600,000, of a large installation by Chris Ofili. In fact, the current policy of openness is the result of the recommendations by the Charity Commission, which oversees the Tate’s charitable status, in response to this controversy. One wonders what a similar investigation would find at some of our Caribbean art museums, as conflict of interest, of all kinds, is one of the most prevalent problems in the field. I am not suggesting that the Tate governance structure is entirely fool proof but at least the tools are in place to hold the Board of Trustees to account. Unless I have missed something, I am yet to see any such a transparency initiative from a Caribbean art museum and it is high time for that to change.

While problems and controversies will occasionally occur at even the most well-governed and -managed art museum, as this comes with the territory, a good board will always stand behind its institution and will focus on solving problems in a fair and constructive manner that moves the institution forward and is consistent with its mandate and ethical codes. It provides a supportive platform from which management and staff can do their jobs, although management of course has to be held to account. Such a board is a great asset and those museums that have them usually thrive. The term “critical friend” is sometimes used to describe the ideal relationship a museum board, and its individual members, should have with management and staff, and there should be no animosity, disrespect, intrigue, or undermining in that relationship. To be effective, boards require the support of the staff as much as the latter need to support of the board and it should be a matter of great concern if this relationship of mutual respect, trust and support is compromised.

Dysfunctional, scheming, and meddling boards, in contrast, are usually also failing boards, even more so if they undermine, disempower, and displace the qualified professionals at the museum, and they rarely achieve anything worthwhile for the institutions and mandates they are supposed to serve. Their effect on the organization is more likely to be destructive than constructive, in terms of institutional performance, the quality and consistency of management, and staff retention and morale, as well as, ultimately, public engagement, sustainability and accountability.

In recent private and public conversations with museum professionals from the region, however, board intrigue, conflict of interest, and inappropriate board interference into management and curatorial issues are constantly cited as major, and worsening problems. The stories range from the ridiculous to the nefarious and, in the worst instances, the political appointment of a new board amounts to a hostile take-over, with little or no recourse available and only limited public awareness of what is going on.

A museum board should never be omnipotent or driven by problematic political or personal agendas but held to agreed standards of conduct and performance that are consistent with the institutional mandate and published ethical guidelines. There should be significant consequences for members and boards who breach those guidelines, including suspension and removal. Our cultural institutions in the Caribbean are fragile enough as it is, operating on precariously limited resources in an uncertain climate where supporting the cultural sector is not deemed a priority, and the very least they need for there to be some stability is sound governance. Serious museum board problems should not be allowed to fester but should be identified, challenged, and addressed promptly by those to whom the boards are accountable. The long-term sustainability of our museums depends on it.

While museums are being picketed elsewhere in the world over governance issues, however, in the Caribbean the artistic community response to dysfunctional museum boards is all too often “a so it go” or “so dem stay”, as if nothing can or ought to be done about such situations, and with machinations somehow to be expected. Along with this, there are also often concerns that there may be negative consequences, in the form of victimization or vilification, for those who dare to challenge or even just to ask questions. Perhaps most important, there is a general jadedness about public matters in the Caribbean, arising from decades of disappointment with postcolonial governments and governance. With museum boards, as with any other aspect of public life in a democratic society, we however tend to get what we deserve.

There has been one hopeful exception, recently: the public uproar, in the cultural community, about the suspension of Ms Laurella Rincon, the Director of the Memorial ACTe Museum in Guadeloupe. This has taken the form of reports in the media, agitation on social media and a petition and manifesto which was initially signed by 99 members of the Guadeloupean cultural community, and which has since been signed by more than 800 other cultural practitioners, many of them high profile figures from the Caribbean and elsewhere. It can be difficult to judge from afar what exactly happens inside a museum but I do know that Ms Rincon is a highly qualified and competent museum professional, who has brought a strong vision and initiative to her position. From what has been reported in the media, it certainly appears that governance boundaries were crossed by the MACTe board (which for instance included the chairman demanding an office at the museum, which is generally inappropriate and all the more so at a time when office space is in short supply because of the pandemic). I can only hope that the petition will be successful, and that Ms Rincon will be reinstated and the governance issues substantially addressed.

We should always remember that public museum boards, and those to which they in turn report, are the servants of the people and that they are merely the temporary stewards of what belongs to all of us, collectively. As the “guardians of the public interest,” they ought to be accountable to us and, equally important, they must be held to account by us. It is time for stakeholders in the Caribbean to start asking more questions about what happens at the local museums, and to do so publicly and insistently until there is a meaningful intervention from the powers that be.

It is also time for some major structural changes to bring our museums in line with the contemporary cultural dynamics and changing public needs and expectations. Museum boards, as they have traditionally functioned, are an archaic way of governing a museum. The idea of having community councils instead is tantalizing although this would no doubt come with its own politics, for instance in terms of how the stakeholder communities are defined and who can legitimately and productively represent them, while avoiding partisan political interference at that level. With some thoughtful consideration of how to tackle these issues, it may however be possible to develop a new, more relevant and productive culture of governance that is less invested with power and socioeconomic hierarchy and more with what museums can and need to do and represent in contemporary Caribbean societies.

3 thoughts on “Museum Boards: Assets or Liabilities?

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  1. It is a very important subject and we know all too well how politics and the consequences of board appointments function in our institutions. However, more importantly, I think “personalities” is an added aspect of our politics. I guess the personal is, in fact, the political. In the jamaican art community, these forces are as such that professional artists and aspiring students are often presented with the choice of allegiances. This of course means that the professional artist is required to sit on one side of the artistic community, and for the aspiring student this could mean what lecturer to listen to and the ones to avoid. It is painful to see how folks in our community use their issues to corrupt the “young”, it’s like bad parenting from the Divorced, the child must hate one in order to please the other. I think it’s safe to say that much of our art politics in Jamaica amounts to a nasty divorce. So yes, we fight for custody and we fight for the estate and even the summer house at the Edna Manley College and while we are doing that or institutions are rotting from beneath our feet, or cultural inventory is being liquidated before or very eyes and there isn’t anything we can do about it…

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    1. It is unfortunate that what ought to be matters of principle are automatically construed as personality issues. Not saying that personalities have nothing to do with it, but I am concerned that interpreting and dismissing issues in this manner distracts from the real issues at hand and allows the artistic community not to take responsibility for them. We need to move beyond that if we indeed wish to do something about the rot. It is not a matter of taking sides but of putting in place the systems that prevent the issues from occurring in the first place. We need to remove the personal from it. This post, btw, is about what has become a pattern in the region and beyond. Would you be equally inclined to ascribe this to personalities and forced loyalties in the other instances? Why is there this pattern in the first place?

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  2. Yes, our situation is complex , however you are also correct in saying that these larger art economies, in so called first world states still come under the same fire even with all the systems in place. So it seems to me that it is a matter of enforcement. We generally have many standards on the books here, but these are not followed. Now, it is clear that we play loose with our systems in peculiar moments and that is what my original point is about. We like to throw caution to the wind when the process hinders our friends and at the same time become the enforcer when it’s our political “enemies”. Just look at our governmental system. It’s not hard to see one party blocking ideas that started under the same party’s previous government. A similar issue surrounds your other post on our new parliament building and the question of its feasibility at this time. Part of the unsaid issue in this debate in government, and elsewhere, is the fact that the community that is in danger of being gentrified is one of the largest voting block for the opposing party in that area. So this is what I meant, we prefer to keep the rot, as long as our friends get served. These unsaid issues can give the illusion that the intent in opposition is one of nobility, and though the question can be a very real one, it may be asked with all the wrong intentions.

    The artists are in a very strange position. We are forced to build our personal careers elsewhere while our own national possessions become more non-existent and our exhibitions become too, “local” if you know what I mean. So as a result many of our exhibitions have become a subtle game of, not simply who is in it, but also who is not. So, the breakage that you described in your text on our new parliament building also exists in our sense of aesthetic national pride. The efforts that we exhibit to show our work in other spaces aren’t the same efforts that so many of us give to our own local institutions. It’s insane that our nurses, let’s say, are world renowned, yet they are frightening experiences for so many Jamaicans here at home. That schizophrenia is very much apart of our consciousness, in so for as national pride is concerned and this is exhibited right across the professional demography. As a result, we the producers of these cultural objects are partly to be blamed for the decay of these institutions in question. It simply can’t be only the boards and administrators politicking for power, you and I know that artists are guilty of the same for their own self interest.

    What do we do? Of course, I think that our institutions need to be overhauled but that can’t occur if the folks in power feel as though this reorganization is revenge disguised as improvement, and let’s be honest, sometimes that suspicion could be right. The artists also need to take responsibility for their abandonment of the institutions in a bid to serve others for the single minded purpose of gain. This, I think, will start to right the ship and stop the bleeding. Many of the things that we have lost over the last few years could have been avoided and I suspect that the same is true across the region. Ever so often one can see this or that art space in our region advertising a vacancy because this or that occupant has left in a huff, or worse…..

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