Cultural constitutions for the 21st century – the Edinburgh Fringe journey

You can take a horse to water....from Therapist's Flickr photo stream

Today’s reports on the results of the survey on the future governance arrangements for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society show that the the majority of the 2000 or so respondents want fundamental change.  And that change is not rocket science.  Its more simply a recognition that the Fringe would benefit from complying with standard good practice in its governance and in particular in making sure that the right skills are on the board.

The fact that the Fringe Society had to wait for a crisis before undertaking a review of governance is symptomatic of a kind of inertia in the subsidised arts sector, which tends to wait for management and governance arrangements to be broken before they are fixed.   The trouble is, that while there is lots of good advice available to the boards of charities, the boards of voluntary organisations and arts boards, many chose not to take the advice.   Good practice guides overwhelmingly recommend:

  • limited terms of service for all board members, usually 2 terms of 3 years or maximum 4 years
  • a diversity of board members based on skills

Good guidance is provided by the Scottish Arts Council in its publication, Care Diligence and Skill

If the constitution does not provide for retirement of board members after a maximum period of six years, consideration should be given to altering this or to introducing a standing order which has this effect.If members of organisations fail to apply these tests when electing or re-electing new board members, they have only themselves to blame if the organisation begins to falter,fail or be less vital.

You can take a horse to water but you cant make it drink.

Public bodies are governed by clear regulations including a restriction on the length of service; private companies are accountable to their shareholders which keeps the paid executive board members on their toes and charities generally are accountable to all their members.  But arts boards are bespoke organisations which can chose to maintain ancient constitutions and forms which keep them as closed shops or ruled by a self-perpetuating oligarchy.  Many started in different times, as membership  clubs or artists cooperatives or, like the Fringe, as membership societies, when these structures made sense.  But whilst many arts organisations have reformed their constitutions, some have hung to the comfort of the old and so some board members and Chairs, who may be excellent, assume it best to stay in the job rather than allow refreshment and renewal.

A more fundamental issue arising from the Fringe consultation is the question of who really constitutes the community of ownership of the Fringe . The Festival Fringe Society has currently a cap of  100 members under its current constitution, drawn up in 1969.  One proposal is to allow membership to be open to everyone.  The key will be to ensure that the Fringe really is accountable to its community, a challenge that besets all arts organisations where subsidy is involved.   That will mean more than a change to the length of service of board members, and could even mean a more radical reform of the corporate structure.  A Community Interest Company might be more fit for purpose, offering a more transparent and accountable structure which also supports entrepreneurship.

1 comment
  1. Janet Mundy said:

    Hello Anne, saw your name on Twitter so followed the link! Arts organisations sound as if they have the same problems as many voluntary organisations in that it’s not always easy to get the founders to let go of the reins.

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