Wednesday, January 11, 2012

One way to ensure spirited board discussion –“try this at home?”

Before Christmas I received in the mail a DVD that brought back memories including an interesting and seemingly counterintuitive technique regarding board of trustees’ decision-making. The disc was made at a recent ceremony celebrating the contribution of two men, Moon Landrieu and Thomas Lemann, to the establishment of the Arts Council of New Orleans in 1975. Landrieu was then Mayor of New Orleans and is the patriarch of extraordinary political family that today includes his son Mitch, the present mayor and daughter Mary, a U.S. Senator. Lemann is a distinguished attorney and respected arts patron. It was Lemann, as its board chairman, who brought me to New Orleans to be the arts council’s first director.

In the DVD, Lemann reminds Landrieu that one of the arts council’s first achievements was the mounting of an outdoor monumental contemporary sculpture show that placed works by noted artists such as Mark di Suvero and Clement Meadmore in public places around the city. The idea for the show had come from a visit I made to a similar show in Houston. Both Lemann and I were enthusiastic about the project, but the arts council board would have to agree before proceeding. We knew that obstacles to acceptance, both internally and city-wide, might be that the city had then virtually no contemporary art scene and at the same time a reputation for conservative protection of local tradition – and this scheme was hardly conservative. I was worried.

A few days before the board meeting Tommy Lemann called me to discuss the agenda. I would do a slide presentation of some the art to be shown. Then he had invited two guests to speak to the merits and advisability of the project: Bryan Bell, a vaunted civic leader in New Orleans, would be a guest and the other John Lishawa, a British expert in old master prints visiting the city. Oh, good idea I said to myself, although a bit confused about the inclusion of Lishawa, Then he continued: Mr. Bell would speak against the project and the British visitor for it. Lemann went on to say that Bell would say it was just the wrong first move for our infant organization; Lishawa thought it brilliant. I was stunned and to put it mildly, apprehensive.

The meeting began; I made my presentation and left. My position was known and this was a board decision. Like an expectant father in the waiting room, I paced outside the board meeting location. An hour later the board emerged and I learned it had approved the mounting of the show.

What is the lesson here? Or was this simply a canny lawyer acting on the courtroom advice: “Never ask a question to which you do not know the answer.” I like to think – and believe- it was a risky but perceptive way of guaranteeing thorough and lively discussion prior to making an important decision. No one on that board could claim that both sides of the question were not presented and reviewed. The vote was positive and so was the feeling of those participating on how it was reached.

Now, I am not necessarily suggesting you adopt this particular gambit – or as the caption reads in some TV ads “Don’t try this at home.” What I want to propose is that some way be found to structure a critical board decision in such a way to assure airing of full and diverse opinion. It is tempting to “stack the deck” before a meeting, but it can be counterproductive if there is a lingering sense afterwards of a key vote having been rammed through. Boards can be and often are fragile organisms.

The sculpture show went on – something of a miracle as we then only had a staff of two (myself included). But a volunteer crane operator, the help of several of the sculptors and the forbearance of the city on whose property most of the works rested made its installation possible. There were some public cries of outrage, but also applause. The arts council definitely got on the map. In 2010 it celebrated its 35th anniversary. There are those in New Orleans who credit the quality and public nature of the show with laying the groundwork for greater appreciation of contemporary art in the Big Easy. And it may have started because the board chairman decided to try a different – and counterintuitive – approach of reaching board consensus by purposely inducing debate.