Interviews & articles

Joanna Rowlands - Governance Now 2019 Speaker Interview

By Cultural Governance Alliance

This year’s Governance Now conference is all about practical solutions to common problems: how to anticipate and plan for the worst whilst delivering the best for your organisation.

In the run up, we caught up with Joanna Rowlands - Chair, Heart of Glass - to hear her thoughts on the challenges and opportunities of ‘good governance’.

Joanna Rowlands
Joanna Rowlands

On the governance today and in the future

What are the most pressing governance challenges facing the culture sector today

There are lots of current challenges in governing an arts organisation, but they are reflective of, and inextricably linked to the world we’re living in at the moment. So, after 10 years of austerity there is inevitably more competition for funding, and for us at Heart of Glass that brings a more complex funding structure. With that comes a myriad of stakeholder relationships to manage, and a mammoth set of management accounts.

Like most arts organisations, we operate a voluntary board so we rely on very busy people giving up their time to govern appropriately. When it’s business as usual, it's not a big problem, but the equilibrium can easily be disturbed and suddenly it’s all hands on deck.

One of the things that is always on my mind is ensuring we can attract and retain the right board members and staff, especially at a high level. It’s vital that we ensure our governing body and staff body reflect the communities we work with. Good governance relies on an open and trusting relationship between the board and senior staff and it takes time and effort on both sides to create the best environment for the organisation to thrive.

We’re living in extraordinary times, the level of uncertainty brought about by Brexit and the surrounding political chaos is unsettling. We’re trying to build a long term future for Heart of Glass and it’s very difficult to do that when there’s such short-termism in local and national politics.

How has cultural governance changed in the last 10 years?

It seems to me that cultural governance has benefitted over the last 10 years from more formal structures, which in turn has afforded organisations more independence. A lot of hard lessons were learned in the noughties when a number of high profile lottery projects failed and the learnings from the Kids Company scandal firmly pointed to the impact poor governance can have. This put a renewed focus on cultural governance and encouraged organisations to reinvigorate their boards.

There’s so much more experience in the sector now and our networks are stronger. Liverpool and the city region really benefitted from Liverpool’s time as European Capital of Culture when, in the run up to 2008, arts organisations worked together to ensure its success. The networks set up then are still thriving now and there’s a genuine culture of collaboration.

What’s the greatest opportunity that sector-wide good governance might bring?

There is so much value in sharing experiences in the arts, it means we can avoid pitfalls and we don’t all make the same mistakes. It makes for more healthy organisations who can manage risk based on a shared body of information and previous experience.

It’s vital we have a sector-wide approach to lobbying central government for more funding provision for culture. We all need to make the case and make it well. I’m a strong believer that culture can genuinely change lives, and I’ve seen it in action both at Heart of Glass and in previous roles, but we have to be really good at telling the stories that show how we can make a difference and add value to a community.

How do you see the governance of culture evolving over the next few years, particularly with the civic role of the arts in mind?

It’s really difficult to answer this given the current state of affairs in national politics, but regardless of what happens next we will always be fighting for funding. I don’t think we’ve yet seen the real impact of years of cuts on local authorities so we will have to strive to keep culture on the agenda as they continue to face intense pressure.

The changes in education policy over the last few years to reduce, and in some case remove, the arts from the curriculum will become more and more of an issue for arts organisations. We risk only the wealthiest being able to study arts subjects, which means our sector will not be reflective of our communities, we will lose audiences for cultural activity, and we will have fewer artists, dancers, curators, producers, musicians and actors.

What can we learn from other sectors - in the UK and internationally - about good governance?

In my day job I work in a branding agency and I see a whole variety of different kinds of businesses and governance structures, but the principles are the same. High levels of trust are required to make successful leadership teams and that goes for boards too. People need to know what they are there for and their place in the bigger picture. In my opinion a board should be there to help and advise, ask the right questions and make strategic decisions when they are required to. They are not there to run the organisation.

The biggest challenge for my clients is how they keep up with the current pace of change, so we’re asking questions about how new technologies are relevant to them and their consumers, how they respond to changing audiences and consumer behaviour, and how changes to the way people work will affect them. I think the cultural sector has a bit of catching up to do in this respect.

What’s the future of cultural governance in one word?

Sanguine (definition: optimistic or positive, especially in an apparently bad or difficult situation).

On your career

Tell us about your first governance role. How did you learn the ropes?

I studied art history and desperately wanted to work in galleries when I graduated, so I worked in a variety of galleries and museums for the first ten years of my career. When I made a move out of the arts and into creative agencies I wanted to stay involved, so I applied to join the Open Eye Gallery board. It was a really fun time for the gallery because we were moving from a tiny venue on a back street to a shiny new building on Liverpool’s waterfront, which is much more befitting to the great organisation it is. We moved not long after Liverpool was European Capital of Culture and made the most of riding that wave.

What governance challenges are you facing at the moment and what are you doing to overcome them?

We have to make sure we have the right combination of people on the board. It’s important for arts organisations to reflect their audiences, but as community and collaboration are integral to everything we do at Heart of Glass it’s imperative we have people around the table that can represent the people we serve.

We’ve got a talented bunch of people on the board but they are busy, life is hectic for everyone, so ensuring we continue to be fully engaged will always be priority. I personally always feel like I could find more time to support the senior team.

What are the qualities of a good trustee?

The clue is in the name... members of the board should trust that the team can get on with the job. They need to have good judgement to know when to get involved and when to sit back. I think good trustees openly celebrate the wins and provide constructive feedback, as well as have excellent listening skills. In our last board meeting our senior team said they liked it when we asked questions, so I’m going to work on that.

What advice would you give prospective trustees/(or chairs) in the cultural sector

Make sure you can make time for it, you never know when your particular skills will be needed, so you need to be ready to jump into action.

We hope you’ll join Joanna and a host of other fantastic speakers at Governance Now 2019 — the flagship conference for culture sector trustees and professionals.

Governance Now takes place at the Friend’s Meeting House, London on 8th November 2019. Book tickets here.

arts_councilFill 42BoardFill 1 CopyFill 1Fill 42Dropdown Copy 2FacebookFinanceInstagramLinkedInMenu ToggleSearcbui-chevron-nextui-chevron-prevArtboard 4RolesSearchStructuresStudyTwitterYouTube