Museum Boards of Trustees: Should We Just “Trust” Them? 

Somewhat paradoxically, it is wheader-icon1hen non-profit Boards of Trustees become dominated by people who cynically perceive everything through the optic of money that their non-profit enterprises essentially devolve into social clubs that are financially unsustainable. By contrast, it is when nn-profits are led by individuals who are sincerely in
tellectually and ethically motivate
d by the mission of the institution, that the money then tends to follow. As with any enterprise, the quality of character and appropriate expertise of its leadership are critical to its success. 

As recent events indicate, without accountability in leadership, there is no way to ensure the prolonged health of these vital cultural organizations. At the Corcoran’s Gallery of A
rt, formerly one of the most illustrious museums in this nation’s capital, its Trustees were presumably all eager to accrue the social prestige that an appointment to Washington’s oldest art museum board afforded them. But now, after the widely reported dissolution of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and subsequent dismantling of its legendary collections, there is virtually universal consensus that successive Boards of Trustees at the Corcoran were comprised of individuals who utterly neglected to fulfill their fiduciary obligations resulting in a catastrophic failure and the ultimate demise of a beloved century old institution. It is extremely unlikely, however, that a corresponding shame and social stigma will actually follow these malfeasant individuals into their community thus resulting in an appropriate demise of their personal social status. It personally cost the Trustees no money to abdicate their fiduciary responsibilities and these shameless social climbers will likely experience no significant negative social consequence for failing their “community”. Much like with the “too big to fail bankers”, the museum “Trustees” inevitably personally accrue the social profits when they succeed and pass the community’s cultural losses onto the citizenry when the Trustees fail.

It is self-evident to everyone that for-profit corporations would fail at even higher rates if their Boards of Directors were not required to own stock and accrue risk as well as opportunity. Even then, these for-profit corporate leaders are legally required to regularly report to shareholders, provide detailed information to industry analysts as well as to ostensibly legions of government regulators. By stark contrast, non-profit leadership typically requires little to no financial risk to Board Trustees, no accountability whatsoever to stakeholders in their communities, little to no transparency in their deliberations and virtually no regulatory oversight at all. Is it any wonder then that these self-appointed, self-perpetuating, self-regulating community assets are tending to decline into little more than unaccountable social fiefdoms?

In an earlier era, museum Boards of Trustees were primarily comprised of people who in many cases had already reached the apogee of social standing in their communities rather than by people merely aspiring to accrue as yet unattained social status. These individuals may have indeed been social and business Titans in their cities but for this previous generation of leaders, being on a museum Board of Trustees was perceived as a form of penance, an essential obligation, if they intended to secure not only their social reputations in the present, but more importantly, the “legacy” of the reputation of their families for future generations. These elder philanthropists understood the meaning of the term “philanthropy” and tended to posses sincere enthusiasm for the fulfillment of the missions of the institutions they founded, gently guided and generously financially supported. Hence, we once had the now sadly antiquated expression, “Nobles Oblige”, or the “Obligation of the Nobility”.

But in the current era, museum Boards of Trustees tend to be primarily comprised of people who have little to no sense of “obligation” and instead are prone to posses an incredulous sense of “entitlement”. As often as not, the contemporary museum Trustee is a corporate manager who is just passing through seeking to pad their résumé with community “service” credentials. Usually, they mistakenly fancy that the most significant contribution they can make is to ostensibly bring the metrics of the for-profit corporate world to what they condescendingly presume is a naively inefficient non-profit community. Mind you, these “corporate culturalists” are none too eager to bring those risk taking, capital investing, accountability to stakeholders and transparency to regulators aspects of for-profit corporate metrics to their style of non-profit administration. Instead, they tend to believe that the very appellation of “non-profit Trustee” entitles them to all the power and privilege of a “corporate Director” without the corresponding risk and responsibility. Lecture one of these “Trustees” on their obligations and you will quickly be scolded for your lack of appreciation for their alleged “volunteerism” and, by implication, their corresponding lack of “obligation” of any kind. Ask any museum director in the country if they would characterize the demeanor of most of their “Trustees” as that of “servants” and the director’s response will invariably be predictable amusement at the preposterous suggestion.

With the concept of “legacy” now essentially a naively quaint but antiquated notion, and the idea of community “service” little more than a chance to colonize the cultural institutions of the community in order to accrue social prestige and seek business opportunity in the present, then one must seriously question whether the model of non-profit corporations conceived in a previous era needs to be entirely re-examined by society.

We must ask ourselves if in a world of perverse incentives in which: the paragon of metrics is the quarterly profit report … where expansion and growth are presumed self-evident priorities over quality and intrinsic value … where celebrity trumps cultural importance and intellectual integrity … where “infotainment” supersedes bonafide edification of the community … where naming rights to public facilities are bought and sold with all the permanence of a commercial billboard … in an alleged “philanthropic” environment where “sponsorship” is little more than a euphemism for corporate branding … and in a cultural context in which leaders widely cynically presume the ethos that “he who dies with the most toys wins”… whether the concepts of “philanthropy” and “legacy” are any longer sufficient to actually sustain community organizations, especially museums? Is the non-profit organization in its current state even any longer the optimum administrative model for such institutions?

Frohawk_DodoOr, are non-profit museums destined to suffer the extinction of the dodo as their essential cultural prerequisites of philanthropy, legacy and obligation have evidently expired?

Our museums are far too important to the cultural life of our cities and the quality of life in our communities for citizens to continue to be resigned to their de facto disenfranchisement in the status quo. As responsible citizens, we can no longer afford to leave our most cherished cultural assets, and often substantial tax resources, in the unaccountable hands of a cohort of people who expect us to continue to just “trust” them without being willing to actually demonstrably earn that trust. This situation is exceptionally critical when members of that elite social cohort are evidently immune to suffering the appropriate mortifying shame that violation of the public trust should inherently entail.