The Austin Chronicle

Arts Board Love Stories

Relationships Between Artists and Their Boards Are a Lot Like Those in Romance

By C. Denby Swanson, November 3, 2000, Arts

Amparo Garcia Crow describes the end of her relationship like this: "When you're young and in love, never been kissed, you fall in love with love, the idealism of it. But after you've broken up a few times, gotten a divorce, the alimony woes, your kids are now old enough, they're criticizing you, they've got opinions, they're like, 'You're a terrible mom!' -- after you've done all that, then you're thinking, I'm never getting married again!"

She's not talking about her relationship with one person, but, in her capacity as a playwright and director, her relationship with a board of directors.

That special thing that happens between artists and boards can be a lot like a love relationship: Intimate. Fulfilling. Long-term. Working as one body. However, it can be and often is complicated, maybe spinning out into a love triangle among the board, the artistic staff, and the thing they both work to produce. Garcia Crow continues: "At some point, do you feel like you have to make a choice?"

Emily Ball Cicchini, who helped found Austin ScriptWorks, called me with a flattering offer: "We're doubling the size of our board. I want you to be on it." I agreed to come to the next meeting, hung up the phone, and strutted around like a god-blessed peacock, not a little gussy, feeling all kinds of wanted. Ooh, baby. A board is important. A board is professional. A board is ... the next morning, I woke up and realized that I had not a clue as to what a board actually does.

A theatre company might not have a board, and then suddenly it does, listed in the back of the program. Boards come out of nowhere, sort of like your body at puberty. You know what I mean. Think of that time in 10th-grade health education with the overhead projector and the popular kids giggling in the back, as if they hadn't already looked ahead and studied the pictures.

Rap those knuckles with a ruler. It's a relationship. It's not all about sex.

Sandy Duncan chairs the board of the Nonprofit Center of Austin, which provides volunteers and consultants for nonprofit organizations in order to help them "be better and do better." They provide services such as training, specialized interim management contracts, and mediation.

"Nonprofits are required to have boards of directors," Duncan says energetically. Now, if this was really, god forbid, 10th grade, Duncan is a guy you'd actually want to be coaching football and teaching economics at the same time. He has that kind of smart booster enthusiasm. "You file articles of incorporation with the Secretary of State that establish not-for-profit status," he says. "It's virtually the same as for-profit. Duties, rights, responsibilities. The board provides governance. They are fiduciaries for the corporation, legally responsible, and in charge of policy. They plan. Fundraise. Provide financial oversight.

"Boards must have at least three members," Duncan continues. "People can hold simultaneous office, but in no case may the president and secretary be the same person. The Nonprofit Center recommends the organization start out with more than three; five to seven is optimal."

On the Austin theatre scene, most companies exceed the minimum and even optimal board size. Austin ScriptWorks had seven, but recently lost two. Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre has nine. Teatro Humanidad has 11 board seats; 10 are filled. The State Theater Company counts about 20. Zachary Scott Theatre Center has 50. "It's huge. Huge," grins Ann Ciccolella, Zach's managing director. "We have a book with pictures in it to help us keep track."

In fact, Ciccolella says, "Dave [Steakley, artistic director] and I sit down with each and every potential board member. We want to know, 'Why are you interested? Have you been to see our work?'" They want to make sure of a recognizable commitment -- it's just too important to be a whim.

Here is how it gets emotional: "In a for-profit," Duncan notes, "shareholders get equity, return on investment. But in not-for-profit, boards members are there for the mission." Mission is intangible. Rewarding. Thrilling. Devastating. Disappointing.

That talk you had with your parents about the difference between sex and love: "How many people do you really want to sleep with?" That's one thing. But mission in the artistic world is more like, "How many companies do you really want to give your heart to?" And it's a similar question for artistic staff developing a board as well as a board member looking for staff.

For instance, Maria Rocha, secretary of the board for Teatro Humanidad, explained that her company is "more concerned about providing art to the community than about providing art. We're not really a theatre company that focuses on theatre, but on the Latino aspect." In contrast, Ruperto Reyes, a successful playwright and former artistic director for the company, eulogizes his Teatro experience with a declaration that "we were doing too much." The board was "writing grants for all these other things, but we just wanted to do the theatre."

Mission is obviously a difficult organizing principle, and negotiating its meaning between board and artistic staff can be painful. Teatro's board, Rocha enthuses, is "so involved, so committed. We want to be part of the play as opposed to just decisionmakers." In fact, she also serves as a sort of self-described production director for the company.

In some cases, the directness of a board's involvement feels invasive to the staff. On the one hand, Reyes notes, "We recruited a lot of people [for the board] who wanted to help, wanted to be involved, and they are good people." On the other hand, "They have a bureaucratic mindset. They wanted staff people in the office, 8am to 6pm, answering phones."

When tension arises between board and artistic director over mission, there aren't a whole lot of outs. "What frequently happens," Duncan notes somberly, "is that the board remains and the artistic director leaves." In its short life, Teatro Humanidad has been through three artistic directors: Rodney Garza, Reyes, and, most recently, Amparo Garcia Crow.

The feeling underneath conversations about Teatro is a disarming civility, like a difficult divorce in which all sides have decided to be pleasant for the sake of the children. Reyes laughs that, in terms of the community that supports Latino theatre in Austin, "It's like when the Beatles broke up. They don't want to believe there could be conflict."

Possibly, the community benefits from this fragmentation. Teatro's board recently brought on a new executive director, Victor Saenz, and is hiring artistic staff on a project-by-project basis. Reyes and his wife, Jo Ann, have a new company, Teatro Vivo. Garcia Crow has just co-founded another new company, PrismWorks, with Melba Martinez and Linda Crockett. "Why does there have to be one [Latino] theatre company?" Reyes asks. "Nobody says that about Mexican food restaurants."

"Board members are volunteers," offers Vicky Boone, artistic director of Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre. "It is extremely important for me to be respectful of that fact."

There are a couple of ways of thinking about organizations. One is driven, like Frontera, by a founder or founding collective with a very strong vision for the work and the future. This company knows what it is, and its artists seek a board specifically attracted to that identity.

As a company member, I attended meetings when Frontera struggled over what a board would mean to the company's artistic control, identity, future. Now, several years later, Boone describes her board members in refreshingly effusive terminology, such as "awesome," "remarkable," "intelligent," and "roll-up-your-sleeves types."

Part of this success springs from not only Boone's personal generosity but also a theatrical mission that activates inclusiveness. "You're inviting people to participate," Boone declares. "Of course you want them to comment. Everybody wants to express themselves." If there's a problem, she says, "Mostly it's that people don't know how to talk. They think it has to be about power. But power isn't the paradigm."

Instead, it's about partnership. You've made a commitment, a public one. "One of the challenges that can happen in the relationship," Boone says, "is that the board is a body, but it has, like, eight mouths. And the artistic director is one person. The hardship is speaking with consensus."

This is one of those instances where that "it's about trust" thing that you heard so often you wanted to scream really comes back as truth. Staff has to have faith in their board as much as a board has to have faith in the staff. A board is legally responsible for governance, Duncan reminds us. "It can't just be all about the art. They have to make sure the mission continues." Which means the board can change leadership to fulfill what its members consider the vision of the organization, as the State Theater Company's board did recently. The board found a new artistic director in Scott Kanoff, who came to Austin from the Cleveland Playhouse.

"Good boards," Kanoff says, "hire whom they trust. 'We want you to take us to a new place,'" he believes the board is saying. "That's hard for a board that's been in place for a long time. Everybody's in a really challenging place right now. They are going where they haven't been before. They need to reach out to other theatres. There's an adventuresome spirit right now. And it's my job to transmit enthusiasm."

In an organization the size of the State, "the challenge is for board members to maintain the idea of what they came in for. Boards need to look at themselves," says Kanoff. They need to ask themselves, "'Are we doing what we believe in?'"

If there is any make-or-break board meeting, it's the one for approving the organization's budget. That's the one I happened to attend, presided over by Blair Duncan, a CPA.

"Blair Duncan," John Walch, ScriptWorks' artistic director, says, "he knows what he's doing. He's good. To have that person who has this passionate eye on the books, it's really great." It was two and a half hours of eyeing, and aye-ing, and ay-yi-yi-ing. I was exhausted.

P. Paulette MacDougal, former board chair of ScriptWorks, likens board development to crossword puzzles. In working a crossword puzzle, it is the intersection, the construction of the intersection that -- when this person meets that person, and they work together -- makes more than two.

"I think that when we started out, we had a lot of playwrights on the board and that didn't look so good to funding agencies," she determines. Ironically, she's a working playwright herself. In fact, that's why she recently resigned her seat: to get back to it. But she stayed long enough, she says, "to figure out how we could best serve our members."

"The board can basically say, 'You have all these plans and the financial reality is this, and something's gotta go or something's gotta be changed around,'" Walch acknowledges. For ScriptWorks, the board "did have input in terms of saying, 'Are we a producing organization?' It's probably not the most stable way to think of ourselves." Instead of the Finer Point Production program, through which ScriptWorks produced members' plays, the board agreed to a Finer Point Production Fund, which will encourage the production of such plays rather than produce them outright. ScriptWorks will continue to produce Out of Ink, a festival of 10-minute plays that happens in the spring, but the organization will mostly concentrate on member services and development.

"I fought the battles, you know." Cicchini also recently resigned her place on the board of Austin ScriptWorks, but her departure had more to do with a conflict of interest with her job as development director at Zach Scott. "I couldn't be doing what I felt a board member should be doing, primarily raising money. It is very hard to let go, but I felt it was time."

This is where sharing the vision of the organization really gets personal. "You want a board member who will talk about you at a cocktail party and tell everybody how great you are," says Cicchini. "ScriptWorks is still serving playwrights. But it's changed so much that it's not really fully into my interests so much anymore."

My blind date with board membership didn't turn out to be long-term, either. It was a relationship I couldn't sustain and still be, as Garcia Crow succinctly put it, "totally monogamous ... tight as can be with my art."

The Nonprofit Center recommends board diversity. "Don't pick board members because of title, gender, ethnicity, or financial status. Pick people because of commitment to the mission," coaches Sandy Duncan. "That being said," he warns, "I wouldn't concentrate on geophysical engineers for a theatre board any more than I would say to theatre majors, 'Let's go drill this oil well.'"

"In new board members," muses Walch, "we're looking for people who have an interest in new work, and local work. So we're looking for people who want to vitalize the Austin artistic community by helping us devise way to fund artists who are living here -- in this case, playwrights. We're looking for people who believe that keeping artists in Austin is important."

Garcia Crow continues to be a romantic about the process. "You fall in love again," she says. "You fall in love every time. So you're foolish enough to say, 'I'll get married again.' But. You go slow. You get a pre-nup. You check it out, you go OK, did you want to act before? I mean, those are the kinds of questions I want to ask a board member. If they want to act, well then, let's act, be in my play, and then we'll be like, we'll see. end story

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