Trustees, traditions and Ted

26 January 2018

By Sally Robertson

Twice a year the ISTA board of trustees meet at Ted’s house in the South of France: we spend a few days thinking, discussing, brainstorming and challenging without the hassles and pressure of daily life. This January I have recently returned from one of the strongest and most inspiring of board meetings.

Iain Stirling (the board’s chair) and I set an agenda way ahead of time based on the current strategic plan along with other agenda items we feel need discussion. I always open the meeting with a summary of ‘where we are’, outlining celebrations (things we should be proud of), challenges we face and moments of learning.

In recent years I have raised issues that we have subsequently brought into our strategic plan and issues that have taken the work of the organisation forwards in a monumental way: we have moved from a centralised office in Cornwall to remote working, created the Event Coordinator role, implemented a rigorous ‘managing risk’ programme of work and introduced a regular event review (to name but a few).

At this month’s meeting there were two issues to introduce.

First there is the idea of bringing the breadth, scope and excellence of ISTA’s work to a wider platform: shouting from the rooftops about the work we do. We want to begin to shift the nature of ISTA’s work into that of an advocate for the arts. This includes increased support for heads of schools, teachers and parents, by sharing research and data about the impact of our work. We will still, of course, be a provider of international arts events but the shift will represent a move to ‘do more’ rather than simply produce events: to be a voice and an advocate on the world stage for the benefits of a creative and artistic experience for all young people.

The second issue to flag was the current nature and scope of the Executive Director’s role and the need to begin to examine this closely to make the job more tenable. Not only for the current holder of the position (!) but also for EDs in the future. It is the trustee’s responsibility to provide sound governance for ISTA and this is a pivotal role that needs addressing- not only for personal reasons but also for the sustainability of the organisation and future EDs.

Warm welcomes

At this meeting we welcomed two new trustees: Anne Drouet- Director of the ISTA Academy in Hong Kong and Director of Performing Arts at ISTA’s member school, Hong Kong Academy- and Mike Bindon, who is Curriculum Manager for Theatre (and other subjects) at the IB in The Hague.

Both new members began their tenure by playing an active role in the meeting, which was greatly welcomed. Anne presented a report on marketing and branding that will impact how we approach this area of work as a staff. Mike reported back on early findings from our Event Review, examining the first round of surveys completed by artists and teachers about the current festival offer. Such reports take a good deal of preparation and it is this commitment and passion for volunteer work that defines the role of a trustee.

In addition to the specific input from Anne and Mike we examined and discussed the headlines of the current strategic plan. We discussed at length the proposed draft budget for 2018-2019 which Jo and I (more Jo really!) meticulously prepare in November of each year. Each budget item is discussed in detail, changes are proposed and finally a sign off by all members of the board takes place so that Jo can continue with financial work as we prepare for the new ISTA year.

Other items on the agenda included concerns around member engagement and the future of sites of learning festivals- such as Terezin and Eden. A new area of work called the Design of the Partnership clarifies how the board works with the Executive Director. Such discussions are fantastic and continue to move the organisation forwards with clarity and detail.

Smaller- yet no less important- items included liability insurance for trustees and performance rights at events; sickness and first aid provision at events; the need to collect next of kin information; and the viability of a teacher advisory panel.

Fond goodbyes

We then moved onto discussion surrounding succession planning. At this meeting we said goodbye to Jess Thorpe and Sherri Sutton- two trustees coming to the end of their seven-year term of office in May- as this marked their final meeting.

Alan Hayes led a heart-warming appreciation for the work Jess and Sherri have given to ISTA. A discussion then ensued about the process for finding their replacements and Iain cited the importance of a democratic process that had transparency and cast the net wide. A few years ago I would have struggled to let members of the board go. When strong relationships have been created there is a feeling of stepping into the unknown when replacing such members: I now embrace the change and do not worry. I know through an open and rigorous process we need to welcome the new and let ISTA benefit from the presence of new teachers and artists with new experiences. This keeps the board dynamic and fresh and ensures we have strong ambassadors and leaders in their field governing the association.

We also discussed the new and vital process for hiring a new chair of the board as Iain will attend his final meeting in January 2019, retiring from the board at the end of May of that year. Again, the right decision was made to advertise internationally for this post, casting the net wide and remaining curious and eager to see who we attract.

Finally, a lighter conversation ensued to plan ISTA’S 40TH birthday celebrations which will begin 1st June 2018, and a date was set for the following bi-annual meeting.

Iain has brought so much to the board as chair and his insights and careful handling of meetings are greatly valued. Emily Ross brings a fresh ‘outside eye’ to discussions and her perspectives and wisdom impact discussions strongly- not to mention her thorough and brilliant work organising meeting minutes. Alan Hayes sits in one of the key ‘teacher’ roles and his thoughts and contributions as a member ensure we always keep teachers and our relationship with them at the heart of any decision making.

Cherished memories

We have held meetings at Ted’s house for decades. I can remember saying goodbye to Ted and Mike as they retired from the board many, many years ago in the cosy lounge with a log fire roaring. The house and the memories it contains are part of ISTA’s DNA. It provides a warm and homely atmosphere to the meeting, affording us the chance to continue to catch up and chat, laugh and reminisce, outside of formal meeting times. As Jo and I regularly say, having meetings at the house is so us: so ISTA. And who doesn’t want to go to Nice? But it also, in keen ISTA tradition, helps us keep costs down, something we are always so very mindful of.

Past meetings have not been without their logistical challenges and I have often left feeling exhausted and done in from the trips to the airport and supermarket, not to mention making beds, cooking and loading of the dishwasher. So while in Dubai this year Jo and I had a brainwave to make things easier on us all by hiring a cook and housekeeper. I love these brilliant ideas that work so perfectly. This meeting was made more enjoyable and rewarding due to Jo being around (to help with budget discussions as well) with her hugely talented daughter, Pollyanna, who cooked for and looked after us all weekend. What a joy and a gift, allowing us to be able to relax and give ourselves that rare luxury of focussing entirely on the trustee matters at hand.

I write this blog on the very day that, two years ago, Ted left us- years too early. This day and this blog is filled with a deep sadness, much as when Alenka, Doug, Vincenzo and other key ISTA players have left us. But I try to remind myself that the day has to also be filled with celebratory thoughts about our friendships with Ted and all he did for ISTA. Gone are the days when individuals ‘give’ almost 30 years of their life in a volunteer capacity. These individuals have such an impact on who we are now, and they contribute to and shape the association more than most.

In the guidance document for trustees we cite that:

“collectively the board of trustees will “hold on to” the roots of the organisation. In this respect, along with the honorary life members, trustees are responsible for respecting the past while looking to the future and therefore maintain a sense of play, a sense of community, a sense of humour, teacher ownership, the notion of events as our core, an emphasis on process over product, a constant sense of renewal and progression, the essence of ISTA from our founders, the understanding that taking risks and making mistakes balanced with 
providing a professional and ʻexcellentʼ service lies at the heart of 
ISTA, humility in all aspects of their work.”

I am hugely proud and grateful to all the trustees for giving ISTA their time and wisdom. The bi-annual meetings at Ted’s are eagerly anticipated in a kind of ‘coming home’ way- I think Ted and others will be smiling down at us for holding onto long established traditions.

Ted, we continue to cherish you and our memories of you and celebrate all you gave to ISTA. A heartfelt cheer to trustees present, past and future; to traditions old and new. And, of course, to Ted.