(Washington Post illustration based on iStock photo)

Vision. We want performing arts organizations to have it. After all, the point is to offer us compelling performances, new perspectives and ideas. Or so, at least, some of us think. 

But for an arts administrator, vision is only one piece of a picture that includes a host of practical considerations. There are the challenges of getting a given work on stage. There’s the question of how well it will do at the box office. And there’s the authority to which the head of an arts organization must actually answer. It isn’t the critics; it isn’t the audience: it’s the board. 

Sure, the audience buys tickets. But ticket revenue, even if you sell out every night, isn’t enough to sustain most operations. In many cases, the board represents the economic engine that drives the company. Furthermore, it is the highest authority. Responsible for hiring the top administrator, it plays a decisive role in shaping the direction of a company. It’s the boss. The board is seldom far from an artistic leader’s mind.

What do boards do? It varies from one company to another. Some performing arts boards serve in a purely advisory function — voting on new hires, for example, sometimes only nominally rubber-stamping choices made by the artistic staff. Other boards, though, have fiduciary responsibility, providing vital financial support to keep the doors open. Witness the board of the Washington National Opera, which essentially had to keep the company afloat, with so-called “heroic giving,” for a few seasons before the Kennedy Center stepped in and rescued the company in 2011. The boards of performing arts organizations are, on average, twice as large as the boards of other nonprofits, according to a study published this year by the headhunting firm Russell Reynolds Associates, and more than six times larger than the boards of an average Fortune 500 company. You need a lot of people to keep all those musicians or dancers or actors onstage.

Yet there’s an odd disconnect between the size and financial heft of performing-arts boards and their actual function. Some board members would laugh at the idea that they exercise considerable influence on an organization; some, indeed, resent being viewed as “walking checkbooks,” with the implication that they should pony up and shut up. Although board members often bring considerable business expertise to the table, the attitude often prevails that they don’t really understand art and shouldn’t sully it with mundane business considerations. This leads to a Catch-22, whereby board members are branded as Philistines by harping on issues such as financial viability and ticket sales, but are kept at arms’ length from creative mandates — or from exercising oversight in a meaningful way.

This isn’t, of course, true of all boards: Some are interested and involved, and some are inspired by an artistic leader’s vision. But often enough, boards are invoked, by those very leaders, as figures of fear — particularly when it comes to trying out new things. The boards of large classical music institutions are often committed to maintaining a traditional status quo, especially when it comes to opera, where the incursion of contemporary, probing productions is seen as a plague by some conservative audiences. (In 2003, the heirs of the late board member Sybil Harrington sued the Metropolitan Opera when a production of “Tristan und Isolde” that was partly funded by her bequest was deemed not traditional enough.)

And while the world of classical music loves terms such as diversity and outreach, boards are still overwhelmingly white and upper-class — and to a certain extent, deliberately or by default, administrators cater to their tastes. This contributes to the dragging pace of substantive change when it comes to attracting new audiences to the art form.

But even though it’s a fact that boards can represent a creative drag on an institution, or help to further misaligned priorities — by, for example, hiring the wrong artistic leader — the solution doesn’t lie in abolishing boards or even maligning the considerable efforts of people who care enough about the performing arts to donate large amounts of time and money to keep them alive. Boards are less a problem than a symptom of a larger, systemic issue: a pervasive loss of creativity in large performing arts institutions. I’m not the only one to notice that our largest performing arts institutions have become fundamentally inartistic bureaucracies — organizations in which art has become a commodity, and artists, the content providers, have to fight hard to push through new ideas — like Alan Gilbert, the just-departed music director of the New York Philharmonic, who ultimately couldn’t keep swimming against the tide.

Last fall, I heard Matthew Shivlock, in his first season as general director of the San Francisco Opera, describing a fundraising trip he had made to a Silicon Valley company, where, he said (and I paraphrase), the employees used skateboards, wrote with markers on the windows, roamed around an open-floor plan and encouraged offbeat ideas. Back in his own office, Shivlock said, he found himself thinking, “I wish I worked for a creative company” — and then recoiled in horror at the implications of the words. He told the story precisely to illustrate a pervasive problem in the performing arts: Companies have to work so hard to maintain their status quo, to keep the funding coming in and the performances going on, that many of them have lost sight of a truly creative approach. They don’t have the time or resources to break the mold. And if they do take a risk, and it doesn’t work, it seems to only confirm the idea that it’s not safe to venture outside familiar terrain — confirm it, at least, to the board members who need to approve it. 

What is the real vision that we’re looking for in the performing arts? Maybe it needs to go beyond simply what goes on the stage. Maybe someone needs to bring vision to the fallacy, almost universally accepted, that the only way to sustain the arts we love is to shore up a system of oversized institutions that no longer seem to work well in today’s culture. Might there be a better way to reconceive orchestras and opera houses, and to allocate the considerable resources that go into the performing arts every year, while fostering creativity — rather than convincing everyone that art needs to be packaged in layers of institutional bubble wrap so it doesn’t get broken? Maybe somewhere, there’s even a nonprofit board that could help an institution figure out how to find it.