Gate Theatre run like ‘family business’, 2016 report claimed

Arts Council commissioned review after concerns raised about governance

The Gate Theatre: A 2016 report compared the management style under Michael Colgan ‘to that of a family business with a high degree of control by the current director over all aspects’.  Photograph: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

The Gate Theatre: A 2016 report compared the management style under Michael Colgan ‘to that of a family business with a high degree of control by the current director over all aspects’. Photograph: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

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A report into the Gate Theatre last year found that board members were overly reliant on Michael Colgan and that the prestigious Dublin theatre was run like “a family business”.

The report was commissioned after the Arts Council expressed concerns around key areas in the Gate Theatre, including governance, and the fact that its director, Mr Colgan, was then also a member of the board.

In 2016 the Gate commissioned Bonnar Keenlyside (BK) to undertake the review, with specific reference to “governance including skills, operations and systems including monitoring and evaluation”. The review took place in October and November 2016, and was given to the Gate in January 2017.

BK reported to a steering group at the theatre which comprised Mary Finan, Peter Crowley and Jim Clery, director Mr Colgan and head of production Teerth Chungh. It conducted interviews with all then board members and senior management.

It compared the management style under Mr Colgan “to that of a family business with a high degree of control by the current director over all aspects”. It said staffing required a review and “an HR policy and consistent approach to staff review, reward and development is required to address anomalies in recent practice”. It did not specify what the anomalies were.

It recognised that there had been “significant improvements in governance systems and processes in recent years”. Decisions were made to limit the length of service for board members, and it was also decided that Mr Colgan and any future directors would no longer serve as board members.

‘Lack of formal policies’

The changes were to “address specific weaknesses associated with previous arrangements. These included a relative lack of refreshment on the board with the majority of board members having a prior personal association with the director, who, as an expert and long-standing leader had a dominant role on the board. These weaknesses were compounded by a lack of formal policies and processes exposing the board to the risks of over-dependence on the director”.

It said the board had “been effective in its governance overall”, but recommended it adopt “key policies including artistic, HR and diversity policies and more transparent and documented processes”.

It said that over the last three decades with Mr Colgan as director, some board members had served “throughout the entire period including the current chair”. This was Mary Finan, who retired in May 2017.

It pointed out the attendance had dropped from 102,810 in 2011 to 94,110 in 2015, and it had accrued combined losses of almost €1 million in 2013 and 2015.

The theatre, the report acknowledged, is “an internationally significant producing theatre with a high reputation for the quality and style of its work” which has had to cope with “a fluctuating environment” over the last decade on the back of the economic crisis, and cuts in its subvention from the Arts Council.

Cutbacks and constraints

Mr Colgan, together with the management and the board, were “to be commended on their expertise in trading through this difficult time, maintaining audiences and a high level of artistic output”.

“Overall, the Gate has been highly successful and productive on a proportionately modest level of Arts Council support and has been expertly managed,” the consultants’ report declared.

The theatre produced a “highly acclaimed” programme in 2013, funded by its own reserves, and enjoyed “an exemplar year”. Two years later, however, it suffered unplanned losses on the back of poor bookings. A year later, it had to make cuts, showing previously-successful revivals, rather than new work and running shows for longer, along with cutting overheads.

The cutbacks restored the Gate to financial health, but it was “achieved at the expense of the programme which has been constrained in ambition in order to minimise risk and maximise financial return. The Gate believes that this risk damaging its reputation and also losing audiences”.

“The Gate is now at a juncture where it has little room to take risk, to develop and experiment. Its current model is stretched to the point of unsustainability,” said the report, published in January 2016.

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