09/17/2012 08:17 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2012

The Myth About Boards

Over the years I have come to a very simple conclusion: artists and their arts managers get the boards they deserve.

I do not mean by this that some artists and arts managers are bad people and deserve unproductive boards.

No, I mean that when artists or arts managers believe the board is there to serve them, do little or nothing to nurture the board members, and fail to do the institutional marketing needed to attract strong, committed board members, their boards will always disappoint them.

Too many arts leaders believe that, once a board is established, the board is simply there to serve them. While it is true that the role of the board is to support the mission of the organization, and while it is also true that the mission is manifested in the work of the artist, it is not realistic to conclude that the artist and arts manager have no responsibility for the nurturing and development of the board.

Board members, after all, are volunteers. They are giving their time, money and friendships to help the institution grow and develop. They frequently perceive that they are doing a favor for the organization and resent it deeply when they feel unappreciated or, worse, abused. They also have a far easier time leaving a board with few, if any, repercussions and can easily generate, especially today, a long list of other institutions that would welcome them into their families.

But still the myth continues, often fed by the press that misunderstands the relationship between board and staff (and all too frequently assumes a troubled organization is simply the fault of the board), that the board is responsible when resources are not developed to support the work of the artist.

When a strong board isn't developed and nurtured, the staff leadership will almost always find them deficient. Artists and arts managers alike will complain that the board is not generous.

This will lead to budget constraints, cash flow problems and worse.

In many artist-led organizations, especially, there is a tendency to expect the board to deliver any and all resources demanded by the artistic leader. Any serious analysis of the desired budget is rebuked and the loyalty and commitment to art of the offending board members is questioned. When the artists don't get what they want, they scorn the board and trouble almost always emerges.

Board members may depart or may attempt to exert their authority -- often by replacing the artistic director.

These problems are avoidable. Smart arts leaders know they must cultivate their volunteer board members if they want to get the most from them -- the most loyalty, the most financial support and the most access to their friends and associates.

And smart arts leaders also know that if the organization is not vital and exciting -- a direct result of strong programming and marketing -- they will be unable to attract the most potent board members, the ones with the greatest ability to fulfill the artistic dreams and ambitions of the institution.