In Conversation with Francie Ostrower



Francie Ostrower
Photo courtesy the author

An interview with the author of Trustees of Culture: Power, Wealth, and Status on Elite Arts Boards

Amanda MacBlane: I wanted to start by asking you if you could give a little bit of background on the field of philanthropy research that you’ve been involved in, particularly what led to this book.

Francie Ostrower: Sure. I think one of the issues in the area of philanthropy research is that sometimes people are either painted as saints or villains and one thing that is really important for me is that in reality there are multiple motives, there are mixed motives, and I really wanted for these different things come through in this book. To go back to what led to this book, what had happened was that I had done research on philanthropy among affluent donors for a book that I wrote previously called Why the Wealthy Give and in that book I was looking at how philanthropy and giving really form a part of the culture of these affluent donors. And one of the things I found out as I was going around speaking with people is that service on boards was enormously important and intimately connected to their giving. Now, of course I had known that people who give also serve on boards, but what surprised me was just how closely they were connected and how often conversations about giving money turned into conversations about serving on boards. Also, it turned out that there was a hierarchy that people saw among boards—certain boards were seen as more prestigious than others. People would make kind of a career of it, too. They would have in mind certain boards that they wanted to serve on in the future. Some people would go to great lengths to get on the boards of particular organizations and it was something that was very important to them both because of, in many cases, their passion for the organization and what it does, but also because there was clearly a class-related prestige associated with serving on boards and some more than others. In fact, some people would speak about how for some boards you could almost rank them by the dollar amount you had to contribute to get on them and for some of these boards, far from having difficulty recruiting members (and some boards do have difficulty), the more prestigious boards have a lot of people vying to give, doing whatever they have to to get onto them. So what I found in that book was the importance of serving on boards in terms of people’s overall philanthropy and the meaning to them and how it influenced their giving. It was very clear that one—and I stress one—motive for giving was to be on the board. And one other thing that I like to add was that it also became very clear that arts organizations were among the most prestigious types of boards to serve on. So one question that that raised that I couldn’t answer in that book was, ok, serving on these boards has some kind of class-related meaning, a kind of prestige for these individuals, and I’ve seen how that affects their giving, but what does that mean in terms of what they actually do once they’re on the board? What’s the affect on the organizations? Does it influence the way they act as trustees? And that led me to go on to this book that we are talking about now, Trustees of Culture. To answer these questions, I focused on 4 boards in 2 different cities, rather than in the former book where I selected individuals who were donors and trustees of all different kinds of organizations. In this case, I selected two opera companies and two museums and went to examine—as I said, I started out with this question—whether and how these class-related meanings influenced what they do on the boards.

Amanda MacBlane: Right and I know that one of the major themes of the book is this tension that exists between the organizational needs and the more status-related benefits of serving on these boards. And while the board’s primary functions tend to be in more of a business or fundraising role and they don’t usually become involved with artistic activities, they do select the professional staff that then does make these decisions. So what exactly is their role in creating an aesthetic image of the institution?

Francie Ostrower: That’s a big question and I guess I would almost like to also preface that by saying that I could do a whole other book to answer this question.

Amanda MacBlane: I’m sure!

Francie Ostrower: Absolutely. But it’s complicated because if you speak with these trustees, they will all say that it is not appropriate for the board to become involved in artistic decision-making. They’ll all say that, but it’s also clearly the case that they hire the professionals and so obviously they are setting certain parameters within which things are going to function. In other words, there are different levels. One level might be particular decisions: what singer are you going to hire for a particular production, for instance. But there is also the issue of the overall range of things that are going to be presented and what’s seen as part of the core mission, and that clearly has artistic implications and there, of course, the board plays a major role. The other thing is that the board would say, of course, that financial matters are very much within their purview, but the boundary line between financial matters and artistic decisions is not always clear. So with respect to the budget, they may have some impact as well. I think, in the case of museums—and I think this is one of the interesting differences between museums and performing arts organizations—is the whole issue of personal collections and contributing collections as a donor. It is an important issue for boards because they are often an important source of where the museum is actually getting very valued artwork.

Amanda MacBlane: Well, we are an organization that represents composers, a smaller, more marginalized community than large art museums and operas. And you mention in the conclusion (which probably also means that it could be an area to study in another book) that this system is not necessarily successful for smaller organizations, particularly ones that are presenting more experimental artwork. Could you maybe explain where some of these discrepancies would come in?

Francie Ostrower: OK, maybe it would be helpful to talk about the question that you had asked in your e-mail to me last week: Why do these boards and organizations seem to be resistant to doing more innovative and experimental work?

Amanda MacBlane: And how does this resistance in elite organizations affect the rest of the art world?

Francie Ostrower: There are two sides to it. These boards all exist in an American system that has really put an emphasis on private support. Arts organizations, for instance, rely on private donations really to a much larger extent than a lot of other kinds of nonprofit organizations. And within all this, the elite—by which I mean affluent people, who also may be elite in terms of their occupational position or maybe they’re in a certain social status—have founded these organizations, contributed to them, and without their donations it is very clear that the organizations in this study certainly would be very different and might not even exist at all. So on the one hand, much of the status and prestige that I’ve spoken about has acted as a very powerful force for attracting donations because there’s kind of an exchange. They are expected to give money to be a part of this system. And wealthy people themselves are very straightforward about this because they themselves are fundraisers and they will use this to try to attract money from others. But, of course, the flip side of this reliance on private money is that if you’re an organization that doesn’t have a tie-in or an attraction to people who give, you’re not going to get similar resources. Now in the case of these organizations, I think the ways in which people choose the kinds of art to present (there are many, many different reasons), but what I can speak to that came out in this book is where the board has some impact there and I think here there are multiple issues. Let’s talk about opera because that’s really more performing arts. I think the thing that has to be kept in mind is that, in general, these boards are business people, financially oriented people. The people who serve on these boards have great respect for the institution. They like art, but they are all the first to tell you that they’re not there because they are experts on art. Generally, you don’t see people who have great artistic knowledge on these boards if they don’t have wealth. This is a business-oriented board, so when they look at the organization, they’re very, very oriented toward finance, numbers. And many of them will say that they don’t like to do these innovative different kinds of operas because they don’t bring in the same amount of money at the box office. They’ll give a financial reason for it. That’s one reason that’s a barrier—that they lose money on them. The other thing is that, the truth be told, they personally don’t care for more innovative or unusual kinds of things. The third thing is that basically the way that they describe and understand their mission is a conservative one—that they’re there to keep the organization true to its mission and tradition. So all of these things taken together kind of work against bringing in new things. Now, the example that I wanted to give was that in one of the organizations, one of the opera companies, the professional staff member has brought the board around to doing somewhat more innovative things in a very interesting way and I can talk about how that happened.

Amanda MacBlane: That would be great.

Francie Ostrower: It was a very, very interesting strategy for doing it, but let me back up a little. Even in these organizations, this is a very typical kind of tension between the more aesthetically oriented priorities of the professional staff and the business-orientation of the trustees. So this is common at many different kinds of organizations in the arts. Now, what is interesting though is that even though these boards are very financially oriented, they are not interested in just the budget. They want these organizations to represent what they consider the absolute pinnacle of excellence. They want the organizations to be elite. They want them to be prestigious and recognized and that might also be yet another reason that they lean towards presenting things that have already established themselves. So this professional staff member, who very much wanted them to do more kinds of unusual, innovative things, appealed to his board not on artistic grounds that they should be doing more unusual things, but basically appealed to that sense in their minds that the organizations should be recognized by everyone as being the best. And what he did is he said, “If you want to be seen that way, you have to do these kinds of more innovative or unusual things.” So the board did not want to do more innovative operas, but he was very successful because he really understood how much the trustees desired preeminence. He wanted to do more innovative operas and they didn’t. This is a very common disagreement again. The trustees objected to the innovative operas because they didn’t sell as well and again, they didn’t personally like them. But by understanding that the board had this idea for organizational preeminence, he was able to sway some very powerful trustees. He didn’t talk about artistic merits. He said that to be a great opera company and to attract great singers, they had to do some innovative pieces, even though they are costly. And it was interesting because one of the board members was talking about that and he said that he used to oppose operas that he said “only the avant people like,” but the administrator convinced him that “we wouldn’t be a number one opera company if that’s what we did—just do the old war horses and people look at you like that. You have to do these ‘avant’ things, although they’re expensive, as a part of expanding the art and showing you can do things.” So it was very interesting, and he did bring around some of these people. Another trustee, actually on the same board—and now this is a trustee who was a little bit unusual in that he was one who was on the professional staff side and wanted to do more innovative works and was also quite knowledgeable about music—also said, “Well, you know, the trustees as they serve become more knowledgeable about the art form.” And he thought that that had made them more open, too. But I think that that’s kind of a lesser point, that the major thing is how important the role of professional staff can be and how important it is that the people who work with these boards understand the point of view of the board, which may really be a different than their own. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they agree with it, that’s not what I mean, but that they understand it so that when they try to do something or talk to the board, they can do it from that kind of framework. And in this case, the person succeeded exactly because he understood their desire for organizational preeminence and in this case, when trustees are enhancing the prestige of the organization, they’re also enhancing the board’s prestige. So there is an example of how that happens. Again, how far could that go? Would these kinds of boards, although they may do some of those kinds of things, would they go to a drastically different kind of program? No, probably not.

Amanda MacBlane: I doubt it.

Francie Ostrower: I don’t think they would. So, again, it is that kind of balance. How far would they go before they say, “No, this isn’t really for us?” So one of the issues that you get to is that at the same time they’re supporting these organizations and in some ways using all kinds of resources to help them, on the other hand, they also do come with particular understanding, definition, and boundaries considering art outside of which it’s not clear how far the organization could go before they would lose support.

Amanda MacBlane: Right.

Francie Ostrower: They certainly may say, “Well, that’s fine for another organization to do, but not us.”

Amanda MacBlane: I didn’t even realize how important it is for the professional staff to think about the organization the way that the board is thinking in order to interact and communicate with them in a way that actually allows things to get accomplished.

Francie Ostrower: Well, I think it’s critical. And I’ll give you two other kinds of examples. One’s an example of what happened when a professional got into a disagreement with the board and didn’t understand their point of view and then another when they did. One of the things that the trustees really believe is their role—as something that they can do and others can’t do—is in the fundraising area. They really think that they are best equipped to raise money from other people such as themselves. They say they know what other wealthy people want and they say that wealthy people are going to give a little more willingly or readily when they’re asked by someone who is a peer. Now, in one case, an administrator did not understand their point of view of giving and raising money as a central board role and their particular view of their own qualifications here. He wound up engendering a conflict with his board that he could not hope to win. Here’s what happened: The board had planned a fundraising gala, organized around the opening, and the professional staff chose the opera that was going to be performed. Now the trustees objected to the chosen opera because they said the opera was too long and it would interfere with the evening’s social purpose. They complained that, “It would’ve started at one in the morning and for an opening night performance, people don’t want it to be an overnight.” Now in this case, the board prevailed and a shorter and more popular piece was selected. One trustee said that, “the professional just didn’t understand the social raising of money.” The trustees did not define the opening night as an artistic occasion; they defined it as a social and a fundraising occasion and therefore falling in their domain. Now, although they deferred to the professional’s artistic authority at other times, in this case, they challenged his decision, so not only was the administrator unsuccessful, but he also reinforced thoughts the trustees had about his financial acumen and left the board feeling more justified about intervening in financial management, which is of course something that was not something that was desired by the staff. On the other hand, at a different organization, there was a debate that came out about very frequent social events that were being held. These were social events being held within the organization and again a debate broke out. These events were exhausting the staff who said that they also felt that the events were distorting the organization’s mission. But in this case the staff prevailed and the number of events was reduced, and one of the trustees there said, “Well, social events are very important, but there has to be a balance.” So in this case, staff succeeded essentially by arguing that the elite social agenda, the trustee social agenda, did not support the organization’s interest, but was actually threatening its very character. So, I think that those just offer examples of how understanding the boards perspective is absolutely critical for any professional or for anybody who really needs to work with or through arts organizations because the board does have that ultimate authority.

Amanda MacBlane: Right. Because obviously after reading this book, you really made the point that these boards and these elites are necessary for the organization to exist and this leads me to the last little thing I wanted to talk about. These people are incredibly essential to the functioning of the organization, but the insularity of the fundraising activities of the board also seems to alienate them from the larger community. I don’t feel that these organizations, particularly these elite institutions, exist for the larger community and I’ve always found kind of a disconnect between their outreach programs and ideas about involving the community and the aura of exclusivity in which they seem to be wrapped. Do you sense this disconnect as well?

Francie Ostrower: Well, I think this is a very, very important area and is very important for them because—something that we haven’t spoken about too much but is, in a way, the book’s thesis—is that there are these kind of important but conflicting influences at work on these boards. One between these class-influences, which often do push to more insularity and traditionalism, and the other rooted in the kind of organizational influences. I think that these organizations that I’ve studied and certainly the older ones have changed. At one of them, it used to be that at the end of the year they’d tally things up and if there was a gap between what they had earned and what they had spent, the board would just give the difference. But the days are long gone when a small group of wealthy people can support these organizations and trustees know it. And in fact, in a sense, they’ve contributed to it because their own interest of having what they consider an organization of excellence—they associate excellence with size. So they have supported and even encouraged the kind of organizational growth that really has made it impossible for any small group to support them. The reason I bring that up here is that, in fact, these organizations have to have a wider range of financial support just to exist, and they don’t exist in a vacuum. The societies they’re in have changed as well and, therefore, there’s a lot of recognition that they need to do other kinds of things to bring in new audiences, to not be so insular. I think the example of supertitles is a great example because again the very point of supertitles is to make opera more accessible. And so, trustees said, we have to do it because we have to bring in more audiences and because they care about the art form and they felt that this was important to having it continue. So, what happens though, is that the boards become more open in terms of the organization and its services. There is kind of a stereotype of the elite arts boards and certainly historically, they just want to keep the arts organizations to themselves and they don’t want to let anybody else in it, but, in fact, that wasn’t really the case with these boards. They supported and were very open about having the organization be more open, but when it comes to the board, it’s very different. That stays exclusive and they kind of have their relationship to the organization separately. You know, a museum can have an exhibit, a lot of people come, but they see the exhibit when it is closed to the public. They’re on the board with others such as themselves. But when you do have a board like that, clearly, one of the roles of a board is to kind of connect an organization to important constituencies and clearly these boards connect these organizations to people with many resources. In some cases can be helpful in other arenas as well, with businesses, government. But when it comes to other parts of the community that it may be very important for the organizations to connect to, it’s obviously harder because the board doesn’t have those connections. Diversity—the whole issue about diversity is a good example. All these boards say, “we want diversity, we care about diversity,” and yet it is very, very hard for them to do this in part because of their insularity. Here, again, I would say is a place where staff can be very important. Let’s look at something like education or outreach programs. If you talk to the trustees, they all support education programs. They think they’re important but it’s not the area that most of them personally will find the most compelling or interesting to become very involved in. There are major exceptions to that but on a museum board, for example, the acquisitions committee for many trustees is going to be more appealing than the education one because it’s more distant from where they are. So I do think that this is an issue and the other issue is that the status that we’ve been talking about, which in some ways can be very powerful, used in a powerful way to the benefit of the organization can also get out of whack, out of balance. It’s one thing for status to be used as a tool or to be used as one motive, but if it becomes nothing more than kind of a vehicle for status it can really hurt the governance function. So I think that if I were to step back and to look at it, what I would say is, if you were to have a board such as this, which in one sense, to trustees, seems diverse because they have some people from this kind of business and some people from that kind of business, but certainly, from another perspective, it is very homogenous, certainly in terms of class. It also means that there’s going to be more of a priority on and there’s going to more attention given to things that are closer to their way of life and that can keep boards from identifying potential problems that come up or responding. It may be that external prompting or even a crisis has to happen before certain things get their attention or they are willing to change. Again, I think that they do give their organizations valuable elite connections, but their homogeneity also limits their ability to connect the institution with other segments of the community.