Are there invariably problems in the relationship
between boards of trustees and directors - and can
they be made to work better?
When I was Director of the National Gallery in London and things got bad, I could always console myself that they were never quite as bad as they had been for one of my predecessors. His Chairman of Trustees would lie on the floor and kick his feet in the air if he did not get his way. Knowing about how my predecessors had experienced their Boards of Trustees was one of the reasons I decided to write a history of the National Gallery. It was a useful way of analyzing what had gone wrong in the past and it has led me to be increasingly interested in the vexed issue of the relationship between boards of trustees and directors, not just of the National Gallery, but of public institutions more generally. Are there invariably problems in this relationship, and can it be made to work better?
In writing about the National Gallery, it became clear to me that problems in the relationship between the Directors and their Board have been an issue
of institutional, and sometimes very public, concern, ever since its foundation in 1824. Then, six grandees, including the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister), were appointed as Trustees to look after its welfare.
I have always assumed that much about an organization’s history is planted into the original circumstances of its foundation, like a genetic prototype, and that the characteristics of the original foundation tend to replicate themselves through history. It is in the “genes” of the National Gallery that the Trustees should be representatives of the heartland of the British establishment and that they should presume that their appointment is not simply an honor, but gives them the right to determine policy and to influence, if not to decide, the choice of works of art for the collection. (The difference between the exercise of legitimate influence and the right to determine policy lies at the heart of some of the problems surrounding the operation of boards of trustees.)
In the late nineteenth and early 20th century, the Trustees were perfectly explicit in regarding themselves as better born, better educated and, most particularly, having had better access to works of art during their upbringing. They therefore saw themselves as better able to make judgments about what works of art should be purchased. In the 1890s, they ensured the writing of the so-called Rosebery Minute which described their role as follows: a Board of competent persons – not necessarily experts, but selected with a due regard to their special qualifications for the work, and applied with the best expert assistance – possesses an advantage which cannot be so effectively obtained under a system which places the whole responsibility for a decision on the shoulders of one individual.
As a result of this minute, they assumed the authority to castigate future Directors for lapses of taste, reducing Charles Holroyd, who was Director in the early 20th century, to tears, and writing that “if he were one’s butler and brought up a corked bottle of wine one would spit it out.”
By the late 1920s the relationship between the Board of Trustees and the Director was completely dysfunctional: staff left and there were fairly continuous rows. This was the period when Lord Lee, when he was Chairman, would lie on the floor and kick his feet if he didn’t get his way.