Over the past year or so, the art world has witnessed a range of board related leadership controversies from nefarious business connections to sociopolitical divisiveness at museums, non-profits and more. Do they really matter? The answer lies in the ongoing global trust crisis.
TEXT: Reena Devi
IMAGES: Courtesy of various
One of the most noteworthy art world scandals this year involves Leon Black, the former Chair of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). At the end of March, facing growing backlash from artists and activists for his damningly close ties with Jeffrey Epstein, the New York Times reported that the former Apollo Global Management chief executive was no longer seeking re-election as chair of MoMA’s board of trustees after 1 July.
Black, who has been on MoMA’s board since 1997 and was elected board chairman in 2018, reportedly continues to serve on the board, despite being currently embroiled in a civil law suit alleging sexual violence and defamation. He even appointed an ally to the boards of both his former private equity firm and MoMA. Let’s not forget there is also Glenn Dubin, another MoMA trustee, with Epstein connections.
It is worth nothing that in today’s socially divisive and politically tense climate, board misbehaviour, and even appointments, have taken on a whole new tenor.
In January, Ohio Arts Council board member stepped down after making “incendiary comments” about US Vice President Kamala Harris and the attack on the US Capitol. Forbes also detailed the trustees at MoMA and Frick Collection who donated “significant sums” to former US President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign.
Across the pond, former UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne’s appointment as chair of the British Museum trustees in June was not favourably received by the arts community due to his cuts to cultural spending following the banking crisis. A month earlier, Sir Charles Dunstone resigned as Chair from the Royal Museums Greenwich board after the UK Secretary of Culture did not re-appoint trustee Dr. Aminul Hoque, an academic at Goldsmiths, University of London, who supported a “decolonising” curriculum.
However, controversial board members and appointments are not problems exclusive to museums. In fact, the institutional power structure of museums may not even be the primary catalyst behind such governance issues. After all, small arts non-profits face their own leadership challenges when it comes to boards.
Closer to home, Singapore’s oldest independent art space The Substation announced its closure in March due to funding constraints, inciting an outcry from the local arts community. Subsequently, its Chairperson, Chew Kheng Chuan, also known as one of the “city-state’s masters in fundraising”, revealed in an interview that he “frankly never did serious fundraising for The Substation until one-and-a-half years ago” when things seemed critical. Only then, he “allocated one day a week when I would think about and do this, as opposed to always being at the back of my mind and never doing anything about it.” At the end of July, The Substation announced it would return as an arts company with a new board and Chair.
Furthermore, with small nonprofits, inexperienced board members and little oversight could inadvertently lead to “mismanagement behind the scenes”. Like in the case of Light Work, a photography non-profit affiliated with Syracuse University, New York. The board president released a statement to the school calling for the executive director’s resignation. The University investigated his conduct but almost a year later, nearly half the board have left but the director remains.
While all this sounds dismal, it is only the tip of the iceberg. On one hand, we have to acknowledge that boards are increasingly being held accountable, such as detailed reporting in 2019 on the mutually beneficial, financially driven relationship between US museums and trustees. However, up till now, aside from specific people relinquishing their titles, board leadership controversies have mostly enforced the various echo chambers across the art world. There is little discourse on the social malaise being engendered by misbehaving, negligent or politically divisive boards—the trust crisis.
Even before the pandemic, in 2019, economist and professor at Harvard Business School, Sandra Sucher, and researcher Shalene Gupta, wrote about the trust crisis, highlighting how huge firms such as Facebook and Boeing were “losing the public’s faith”.
Fast forward to the current year of the pandemic and the Edelman Trust Barometer 2021 indicates that trust has dropped to historic lows globally, across various institutions and industries. Axios stated that the trust deficit has gotten so bad people do not seem to know who or what to believe anymore.
Even so, in an increasingly financialised art world, is trust really that important for museums and non-profits looking to remain fiscally sustainable? Why should it even matter to the boards at their helm?
Firstly, trust is far from intangible. In fact, it is a real and concrete critical asset. After all, a break in trust could incite fiscal loss. A Deloitte Canada analysis showed that three large global companies, each with a market cap of more than US$10 billion, lost a total of US$70 billion, upon breaching stakeholders’ trust.
Secondly, boards are usually seen as responsible for “overseeing trust as a corporate asset”.
According to Sucher: “Great boards lead when it comes to creating an atmosphere and philosophy of trust. Directors serve as a critical link between the management inside an organisation and those stakeholders on the outside. Fundamentally, trust in an organisation is built on both competence and intent―specifically the perception of an organisation’s motives, means and impact. An effective board will cultivate trust within the board, and relationships in and outside the organisation to ensure that trust is nurtured and maintained.”
It is clear that board negligence and misconduct in the art world has fiscal consequences, but more importantly, it will cost us in myriad ways socially. A breach of trust between the uber powerful and wealthy leading an arts organisation and its stakeholders, when merely superficially repaired, could create an irreparable chasm in these socially vulnerable times, eroding our art system.