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Managers who see the big picture

FOR many senior and middle managers in business, a seat on the board may seem a distantdream. But if career ambition is combined with an interest in the arts, a non-executive directorship could be just an application form away.

The Board Bank, a confidential register of people who are willing to volunteer their skills to arts organisations, is up and running. The bank, the latest initiative from Business in the Arts, is acting as match- maker between arts organisations and those with business skills and enthusiasm.

Both sides benefit. Galleries, museums, theatre groups and dance troupes get a new board member, ready to share their commercial expertise, while managers receive first-hand experience of non-executive governance, helping the organisation meet the challenges of a competitive market.

An effective board is vital to the success of arts organisations.

The Board Bank was launched last month - Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, was there to give it the Government's stamp of approval - after pilot schemes in Scotland and the North-west. Word is spreading that the scheme, sponsored by NatWest, offers mutual benefits.

So far, 60 matches have been made, 170 managers have applied to join the bank, and 110 arts organisations have applied for a fresh influx of commercial talent on the board. Board hopefuls attend a short course, and Business in the Arts draws up a shortlist of three candidates matched to the needs of organisations. They then hold interviews to pick the person who will best suit.

With so much National Lottery money up for grabs, having a board member whose commercial acumen can help guide an organisation through the bidding labyrinth should come in handy - outside consultants can dent the tight budgets of many organisations.

Andrew Potter, a principal associate with Coopers & Lybrand, joined the board of the Liverpool Everyman in December 1994 and helped frame the theatre's lottery submission. His contributions at board meetings bring the theatre the benefits of his expertise in business planning and finance. He then gets "a first-hand drama tutorial in the pub afterwards".

Bob Rigby, a project management specialist at United Distillers, joined the board of the Scottish Music Information Centre last October. According to Kirsteen McCue, the SMIC's director, Mr Rigby is "a point of sanity and logic in a world too often influenced by the 'arty' side of things. His project management and sound knowledge of financial structures complements skills already on the board."

Support from the business world is grounded in hard-nosed commercialism - reaping benefits for the company that go beyond boosting its corporate image. Becoming a board member of an arts organisation can help motivate and inspire managers, and give them a chance to develop skills that they will bring back to their day job. Hands-on experience in an environment away from the office is likely to prove far more educative for managers than all those courses in the management of change and creative thinking.

Business in the Arts, part of the Association of British Sponsorship of the Arts (Absa), has a history of placing people from the commercial sector with arts organisations to handle specific projects, again on a voluntary basis.

Lorraine Trainer, director of human resources at Coutts & Co, the private banking arm of NatWest, had a placement with the Serpentine Gallery. She was then asked to become a director of the gallery and is a zealous enthusiast for the Board Bank. "It's win, win, win for everyone involved," she says.

"There is nothing like putting yourself outside your normal working environment for helping you get a fresh perspective. It wakes up your ideas. It's about constantly questioning what you do."

Ms Trainer found that her experience at the Serpentine fed back into her own job, but she has a word of caution for those who are thinking of putting themselves forward as board members: "You've got to make sure that you don't go in thinking, 'Business ideas are what the arts wants.' It's the fusion of the two that is powerful. And, as I've found, very often you alter your own ideas."