Over the years, I’ve heard a lot about runaway boards: how they take companies, buildings and decision making ability away from the poor artists who created it. The recent break up at ATC and the selling off of the Greenhouse are two recent examples, but it is a far reaching problem. Usually this is blamed on the 501c3 model, the corporatization of the arts, How Theatre Failed America, or whatever the latest target of blame is.
Now, there are a lot of problems inherent with the not-for-profit model. Those problems are usually accepted as a trade-off for funding and not having to pay taxes on revenue related to the core mission and activities of the organization. Corporate and foundation grants along with the occasional government buck is how many think of funding arts organizations. You have to be a 501c3 organization to be eligible for the majority of those sources--if you want them.
Far more important, and typically more steady, are individual donors—those who have a relationship with the organization and give money in support of it. A nice side-benefit for donors is a tax write off they get for their donation. Indeed, this is such a crucial part of funding for most non-profits that charities are often the most vocal opponents to changes in the tax code that would effect write offs for charitable contributions. Their thinking is that if people don’t get a write-off, they won’t donate.
Boards are legally responsible for governing an organization. If the board is made of corporate big-wigs, the organization will eventually reflect a corporate big-wig mentality. This is how a lot of large organizations function. Art is left at the door for the sake of the institution.
But how did we get there? How can a board run an ensemble off? How can they take away a beloved space? It’s quite simple really. They control the organization and its assets. They also have the power to hire and fire the leaders of the organization. The Artistic Director and Executive Director usually serve at the behest of the board.
Conventional wisdom will tell you that artists are too dumb to know how to run a business. That’s not true, but many don’t want to learn. Conventional wisdom will also tell you that most business folks are ignorant of all things artistic. While that’s not necessarily true either--few artists I know take the time to teach what makes this art, this organization, different than all the others. The keys are handed over without instructions, so people do what they know how to do.
Now if, for the sake of argument, artists can’t run a business and business people can’t make art—why would it make sense to anyone to have no artistic representation on the board? IE: "I'm sure that a season of The Odd Couple, The Music Man and that new Sarah Ruhl play everyone else is doing might get asses in the seats, but it has nothing to do with our mission or why we've been able to build this incredibly loyal audience that supported the building of the institution. If we turn our backs them, they'll turn their backs on us, and probably stop donating too."
Why would it make sense to anyone to have no business voice in the artistic endeavors? IE: "that sounds awesome. How do we pay for it so we can ensure the company doesn't go up in a ball of flames after this great production?" Some people do things better than others, but that is no excuse for willful ignorance of half of what it takes to make an organization run.
Usually, as an organization grows the artist/founders tire of the business end of it. They bring on folks to do it for them. After a while, they’ll step farther away and wipe their hands of all of that business nonsense so they can concentrate fully on the art.
The only way to ensure that boards and organizations do not run away is for artists and ensembles to have a say. There's absolutely no reason artists can't be on boards, or that bylaws can't specify that a certain percentage of seats on the board are reserved for ensemble members. But most artists do not want that responsibility.
Normally as an organization grows, boards don’t take power. It is willingly handed to them. If artists create an organization and then abdicate all responsibility for governing that organization, I don't see how that is a problem with the NFP model. Not that there aren't problems with the NFP model, there's a lot of them; however, if the keys are handed over carte blanche, some responsibility for the car driving away needs to rest with those who handed over the keys. Abdication of responsibility will always have repercussions.