Review: Trustees of Culture

Are elite boards getting out of touch with their organizations' true purpose?

TRUSTEES OF CULTURE:
Power, Wealth, and Status on Elite Arts Boards
Francie Ostrower
136 pages (The University of Chicago Press, 2002)

Through interviews with trustees of four major cultural organizations, the Urban Institute’s Francie Ostrower investigates the implications of cultural boards’ affiliations with an elite class. She finds these boards, long connected to “old money,” genuinely seek greater cultural diversity and include new kinds of leaders – such as those with business expertise – yet only recruit wealthy members. Such organizations depend on major contributions from trustees and their fundraising, but with criticisms of the art world’s insularity and institutions scrambling to demonstrate their value to the general public, she questions whether these elite boards are growing out of step with their organizations’ missions and the constituents they intend to serve. Ostrower finds that the use of board seats to attract and reward donors leads to large boards (with more than 50 members) whose size compromises genuine discussion. Furthermore, elite boards can encourage greater spending than necessary since institutional stature enhances board stature. In the words of one trustee, “All of these institutions have an unquenchable thirst for money because they are all doing too much. … All of these institutions build all the time.”

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