Hey hey we're the trustees

Get on the board

It took place in July, on stage at the Old Vic. Elton John sat squarely at the centre of a long table, facing out into the dark auditorium. Beside him, on his right, was the immaculately turned out American actor, Kevin Spacey – and beside him, the pixie-like figure of Dame Judi Dench. Also present, making his own inimitably good-natured contribution, was Lord Attenborough.

You could be forgiven for thinking that this was some kind of star-studded gala performance. But that wouldn’t account for the others on stage: the directors Stephen Daldry and Matthew Warchus; the agent Charles Finch; the producer Robert Fox; the PR guru, Matthew Freud; the fundraisers Lynn Rothschild and Joyce Hytner; the former national newspaper editor Rosie Boycott and the former cabinet minister, Peter Mandelson. Perhaps it was a party – to honour the dazzling achievement of Sally Greene, the woman who bought the loss-making Old Vic and turned it into one of London’s most exciting theatres?

Not exactly. In fact, it was a meeting of the Old Vic’s board of trustees – the first for the new chairman, Elton John, whose appointment added yet more lustre to one of the most glittering boards in the arts. (The trustees and associates who sent apologies, in July, included the magazine editor Tina Brown, the actors Willem Dafoe and John Malkovich, and the director Richard Eyre.)

Elton was one of the first to arrive: he’d come early to talk with Daldry about a forthcoming stage version of Billy Elliot. (Elton is writing the music, Daldry will direct, as he did the Oscar-winning film.) His control of the meeting, when it began, proved startlingly good. “I was very impressed by how he grasped the key issues,” says one man who was there. “Elton has an amazing ability to get people’s attention and motivate them and make it fun at the same time. He can be stern and strict, but he never loses his sense of humour.”

As Greene recalls it, “If people talked out of turn, Elton would say, ‘Through the chair!’ He wouldn’t let people talk too long. He knew who everyone was around the table. He’d done his homework.”

It’s not exactly surprising that Elton should be good at running a board meeting: he’s been doing it for years. With his Aids Foundation, he has raised $30m in ten years. As chairman of Watford FC, he took the football club from the bottom of the league to the top. And theatre is hardly unfamiliar to him: his Aida is taking $1m a week in the US, while the Lion King is playing at several venues across the world.

Plainly, Elton possesses in strength not just one but both the qualities required of board members – cash and cachet. But just because he is qualified for the job of chairman, why would he bother?

People often assume that belonging to a board is easy, involving nothing more than occasional attendance at glamorous parties. That’s certainly a part of it. But there’s a lot more. Though they are not themselves responsible for, say, drawing up the accounts or overseeing health and safety, trustees are jointly responsible for ensuring that such humdrum tasks are carried out correctly. “There are all kinds of things you are automatically responsible for as a trustee,” says Marco Compagnoni, a lawyer who sits on the boards of the Royal Opera House and the Serpentine Gallery. “If you are an actor you might think you have come on to the board to think about artistic things, and that these are not your concerns, but they are.” (That’s why many supporters of arts organisations prefer not to join the board but take some other, nominal role. Madonna, for instance, is vice president of the ICA but not a trustee.)

John Mortimer, in his recent memoir, The Summer of a Dormouse, revealed that his responsibilities as chairman at the Royal Court theatre included adjudicating in a prolonged debate as to whether leather seats in the auditorium might infect women playgoers with thrush. He was also dragged into a furious row after agreeing to incorporate into the theatre’s name that of the Jerwood Foundation which was offering to supply three million pounds to complete the rebuild. (A fellow board member and playwright, Timberlake Wertenbaker, called for Mortimer to resign over the Jerwood deal – and eventually resigned herself before a compromise was achieved.)

Similarly, Ivan Massow – who chaired the ICA for more than three years – remembers it as extremely hard work. “I didn’t have a desk there,” he says. “I would get my emails four days late. Millions of them. Problems that you would not imagine, such as a ceiling collapsing, in a great room that provided a huge part of our income. English Heritage would not give permission to get it repaired at once. So I would have to get on the telephone to Chris Smith” – the then Culture Secretary – “and plead with him to get this sorted out before the institution goes bust. Or you get complaints from the council about noise, and have to go and grovel before them.” Massow should perhaps have foreseen what troubles lay in store, because when he was appointed to the job, he recalls, “Charles Saatchi telephoned me and said, ‘You are mad.’”

Maya Even, the Countess di Robilant and a former presenter of the Money Programme, could never have predicted what she would face as one of two vice chairmen at the South Bank Centre. In the midst of a massive redevelopment of the site, the SBC’s chief executive left, soon followed by the chairman, Sir Elliott Bernard, who was gravely unwell. Together with her fellow vice-chairman, Edward Walker-Arnott, Even was obliged to take control of the redevelopment plans, raise millions of pounds, appoint headhunters to find a new chief executive and encourage the government to appoint a new chairman. Particularly grim was an encounter with the parliamentary select committee for culture. “I thought I was going to get torn to shreds,” she says. “There were a lot of tough questions.”

So how did Sally Greene persuade Elton John to get involved with the Old Vic? “Sally is a friend of ours,” explains Elton’s partner, David Furnish. “She came round to our house in London with the most enchanting book from the Old Vic archives, a fantastic collection of costumes and so on, from Laurence Olivier’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Vivien Leigh. It was full of fabric swatches and set designs. She gave him that, and a letter. She said, ‘Don’t read it now, and I don’t want an answer at once.’”

Elton considered her request for a couple of months. “The greatest luxury in my life is time,” he says. “I didn’t want to do anything unless I could make a real contribution. But I did eventually decide that this was something that I wanted to get involved with.”

Few people have ever been as successful as Greene when it comes to appointing trustees. After taking over the Old Vic – at great personal risk – she established a charitable trust to run it, and had to build up a new board of trustees from scratch. “I decided right from the beginning that everyone involved with it had to have the same passion that I feel.” The first person she asked to get involved was Stephen Daldry. “He said, ‘Christ! That’s a bloody good idea! We should be running the Old Vic. We’re going to do it. I’m going to help you.’”

Then she met Kevin Spacey, who was in London – at the Old Vic – with The Iceman Cometh. “Stephen and I took him to lunch at the Ivy. I said, ‘Would you come and help me? I didn’t see even a flicker of doubt. If I ever see a flicker, I won’t have people on the board. But Kevin wanted to get involved.” How did she know he could help? “He’s in the business. He is more than an actor: he produced The Iceman himself. And because Kevin is a very articulate actor-producer – and runs his own production company in LA – I knew he would bring something that no one else could bring. He has been the best board director I have ever had. We did a big fundraising dinner with Shipping News, this year. At Claridges. Kevin and Judi made speeches. And that same evening Kevin went off to do Parkinson, on TV. Did you see it? He sat there talking about what we’re going to do at the Old Vic.”

Richard Eyre she approached at the Old Vic, while he was making a film about British theatre. At lunchtime, over sandwiches, he agreed to join the board. Better still, he brought with him his producer, Robert Fox.

“Somebody from the Daily Mail said to me, ‘Oh, you have just got famous people on your board’,” says Greene, as she’s interrupted by a phone call. “Hello…?” she says. “Oh, Elton, hi!” (I stand by while the Old Vic’s chairman, from Atlanta, plays its chief executive, in London, the third song he’s written for Billy Elliot.) When the call ends, Greene continues: “But each member makes a real contribution. At the last meeting, Elton said, ‘I will give a concert at the Old Vic to raise money.’ Similarly, Tina Brown hosted a fundraising lunch at her home in New York. And Peter Mandelson recently helped out with a planning problem, involving an advertising hoarding that could bring in £50,000 a year. Greene’s trustees are tremendously loyal. One, Matthew Freud, says simply: “I do whatever Sally tells me to.”

Alice Rawsthorn, director of another fashionable institution on the London’s south bank, the Design Museum, considers her board invaluable. “You can pick their brains relentlessly. It’s like having an army of McKinsey experts.” Rawsthorn, who served as a trustee before she became director, approaches different trustees for different kinds of advice. Take Professor Sir Christopher Frayling, who runs the Royal College of Art: “He knows the politics of the arts establishment inside out. He knows how to work the system. Our deputy, Denise Kingsmill [deputy chairman of the Competition Commission], knows the corporate sector. James Dyson, the chairman, set up his own company, so he understands many of the management issues. It’s terribly useful to have people who will tell you the truth. And Terence Conran: he’s done design and catering, so when we set up our cafe I could just fax Terence for advice. But I try not to pester individuals too often.”

After all, they’re much in demand. Several individuals turn up on more than one board. One South Bank Centre trustee, Joanna Lumley, is a patron of the ICA. John Tusa, the broadcaster, is a trustee at the British Museum and the English National Opera. Joan Bakewell is associated with the Royal National Theatre and the British Film Institute. Maya Even argues that these multiple affiliations keep people in touch with fresh ideas. Rawsthorn is less keen. When her trustees meet other people at parties, she says, “I want them to be talking about the Design Museum, not one of the other places where they’re on the board.”

Another category of trustees, less widely acknowledged than the big names are the people who bring in the money. At the Old Vic, these include veteran fundraiser Susan Hayden, who contributed substantially, or Kenneth Leet, managing director at Goldman Sachs. At the Royal Academy, they might include the many American associates, such as Mrs Henry Ford II and Mrs Henry J Heinz. The doyenne, in London, is Dame Vivien Duffield, formerly of the Royal Opera House and now at the South Bank Centre. “I know I am only there for the money,” Duffield recently said. “It is a case of what you can bring. You are not there to give artistic direction.”

In the US, would-be trustees must buy themselves a seat on arts boards. At the top institutions – such as MOMA, the Metropolitan, the Whitney and the Guggeheim, positions on the board can cost $1 million a year. In the UK, we’re less explicit about the money. Rob Hersov, founder and chief executive of MarquisJet.com, joined the board of the Serpentine this year, specifically to help with fundraising. “I’m not known as a contemporary or modern art collector,” he concedes, “but I’m known as an entrepreneur – a high-energy, creative-thinking person. I was brought in to show that perspective on funding and marketing the gallery.”

His strategy has been to build a group of affiliates: young, high-net worth individuals who want to be involved. People like Johan Eliasch, chief executive of sports giant Head, and his wife Amanda; banker Matthew Mellon and his wife Tamara, the managing director of Jimmy Choo; and the art dealer Harry Blain. “I usually mention this to people at a party,” says Hersov. “My wife will say, ‘Rob is involved with the Serpentine.’ When people say, ‘Gosh, that’s interesting,’ I say, ‘You could get involved.’”

Hersov takes care to speak plainly. “The Serpentine takes from £500 to £50,000. It’s really what people can afford. I don’t do this delicately. I say, this is what I want from you. People prefer you to be up front. I would rather someone said yes or no. It’s not nice to lure someone in and then say at the end that there is a cost.” In a fragile economy, not everybody wants to get involved. “A lot of people say no,” he concedes. “But there is money out there!”

For those who do get involved, the rewards make board membership worthwhile. Maya Even has started her second, three-year term at the South Bank Centre, under the new chairman, Lord Hollick. “There is nothing better. It’s fantastic. We still have a lot to do, but I’ve learned a hell of a lot.” Nor does Massow – who eventually left the ICA under a cloud, earlier this year – regret his years on the board. “It was wonderful,” he says, “because you get to know many artists and to see exhibitions. It’s nice to feel that you are contributing, giving something back, that kind of thing.

“And it was a learning experience. When I started, there was half a million of debt, and the place needed renovation inside and outside. When I telephoned people, they would say, ‘Oh, I thought the ICA closed in the 70s.’ At the end – and I really don’t want to take any credit from Philip [Dodd, the director], but I’m glad to have been part of it – attendance was up 30 per cent, year on year, and we made a surplus. From my perspective, the ICA is now worth talking about. It can punch above its weight.”

First published 4 September 02. © Harpers & Queen