Interviews & articles

Cultural Leaders Championing their Civic Agenda

By Dr. Tehmina Goskar Director, Curatorial Research Centre

We seem to have raced to define a new thing—the civic agenda—before facing what we really need to be talking about. In my experience we should be discussing permission, trust and control in our organisations.

Who is involved in decision-making, and why? Who isn’t invited to the table? What rights do arts organisations think they have to be leading a civic agenda? There is no way we can start talking about the promotion of civic roles, still less relationships with communities, without addressing the power relations of boards themselves.

I am speaking from my point of view as curator, facilitator and change leader. I have observed how change-making completely breaks down when boards seem to run a completely different organisation to their executive and workforce. I have experienced how enforced opaqueness based on position and status and an ambiguous attitude towards ethical practice thinly veils the dodgy governance of cultural organisations who claim to be sector-leading, deserving of more public funds and worthy beneficiaries of philanthropy.

The gap needs narrowing, conversations need to be genuinely two-way and the people recruited to boards must reflect the diversity of the people they exist to serve, as well as reflecting the skills the organisation needs to maintain—or in many cases—achieve good governance.

But who is responsible for making sure this happens? Everyone is.

Change leaders need to step outside their organisations and lead beyond their authority. They need to be the facilitators of the conversations that should be taking place between cultural organisations and their beneficiaries. I spend a lot of time on the Charity Commission website. I train my Citizen Curators to do the same. To find out the purpose of their organisations and ask good questions of them to find out whether they are dispensing their charitable objects correctly and in the interests of the beneficiaries for which they exist. I also look at local authority missions. How wide is the gap between policy and practice? Let’s have a conversation about it.

Members of boards become too insular too quickly. Joining with all the best intentions, as ambassador and spokesperson, then they go silent. The same happens to many who step into organisational leadership roles. I observe this even in well-governed organisations. Only last month the weekly Twitter chat I co-organise called #MuseumHour the 10.5K-strong community complained of the lack of participation of directors and boards. I had no answers.

A desire to exert just control sometimes means that the very people we exist to serve don’t even get discussed, still less do we have regular conversations with them. How, then, can we build the trust we need to be viewed as leaders of a civic agenda?

On the permission dial, where do you sit? Do you wait for permission or take it? Where are the boundaries? Let’s talk about civicness at the same time as permission. Can we have more direct conversations – not great big soulless consultations – with the people we exist to serve?

Don’t talk about doing stuff for your community, take part in your community.

This article was published in the programme for Governance Now, 13th November 2018.

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