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By Fractured Atlas on March 12th, 2024

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A New Chapter for the Fractured Atlas Board: In Conversation with Andrew Taylor and Russell Willis Taylor

Board of Directors

Fractured Atlas is no stranger to change. Over the past two plus decades of working as a nonprofit arts service organization, Fractured Atlas has embraced the inevitable ebbs and flows of what it means to be part of a living, breathing arts ecosystem. Today, we’re excited to share some transitions that are underway at the board level. In October, Board Chair Russell Willis Taylor completed her service and the Fractured Atlas Board selected Andrew Taylor to help steward the organization’s next chapter. We talked with them about what the work has meant, field-wide trends on board relations, and the fluid shape of organizational resiliency.


*turns page* a new chapter begins

FA: Fractured Atlas has undergone many transformations in the past couple of years, and the board is no exception. 2024 marks a new transition—Russell Willis Taylor stepping down and Andrew Taylor stepping up as Board Chair. Can you two speak to the factors informing these changes and how the board at large is navigating this new chapter?

Russell Willis Taylor (RWT): I see it as responsive—responsive to the fact that we have had the same devoted, committed cast of characters on the board for some time now. Every time there were changes at the staff level, we would take the temperature, step back, and ask, “Is this the time to have a big change at board level?” It never felt like the right time. When we got to the stage where we were looking at how long some of us had actually been on the board, we thought, “...well, even if it's not ideal, it's time to make some changes and create space for other people.” To the best of my knowledge, the transition has been entirely amenable and cordial. While we think about and work on the recruitment of other board members, we're really grateful that somebody with Andrew's experience and knowledge was prepared to step up.

Andrew Taylor (AT): I think a board, like any other group of people, is an organic, social group that is trying to make sense of the world and take action in it. During a period of so much change in the environment and in the institution itself, it wasn’t a good time to shuffle everything. When I reflect on this time, I’m grateful for this extraordinary board of diverse perspectives and context. We have a wonderful CEO, who brings real, stable leadership into the picture. There’s all sorts of amazing work happening on the staff. After sunsetting many of our programs during the pandemic, we’re at a point where we can dig in and focus. Now we’ve arrived at a moment where the board needs to change, as well. Plus, Russell lives in Scotland, so there are just a bunch of different reasons to make this change. Since I’m part of the old guard, I consider myself as a bridge chair from the board that has been to the board to come. And I don't just mean that in the change of people, but in how the board relates to the community and to the organization. I think it's time for us to also interrogate that.

FA: Love that term you came up with, Andrew—bridge chair. Russell, you've served four years as Fractured Atlas’s Board Chair, with nine years of board service total. How does it feel to go steady with an organization for almost a full decade? 

RWT: It felt good, mostly. Fractured Atlas really has been three different organizations during the time that I’ve been here. And then in the middle of everything was the asteroid that was Covid. After moving to a different country and no longer being active in the art scene in the United States, it became clear to me that even though I love Fractured Atlas, it deserved a Chair who was a little more in that network, all the time. One of the most important things that a Chair or any board member does is to advocate informally for the organization. I was happy to do this, but it was difficult because I wasn't physically present in spaces. So it felt like a natural time to say, “Okay, you really do need somebody who is much more present and much more visible”.

By choice, I no longer have a highly visible public job in the art sector and I think Fractured Atlas needs and deserves that. It should be someone who has the same high degree of reputational capital that the staff and the entire organization has. So it felt pretty natural to wind down when I did. I also think that one of my great traits is that I have the opposite of FOMO (fear of missing out). I have the opposite, actually: of being too involved in something that I should have moved on from. Board members have to make space for new ideas and new ways of looking at things. You can talk about it, but if you want to make the space, you really need to make the space.


embracing art sector vibrancy

FA: Andrew, you mentioned in a message to staff that there will be, “...a focused and durable effort to welcome new board members who represent the vibrancy of the arts sector”. As the current Board Chair, what's your interpretation of art sector vibrancy, and how does the Fractured Atlas Board membership fit into this larger puzzle? 

AT: I think vibrancy literally means “teeming, vigorous, exuberant, flourishing.” And to me that means diverse and inclusive. It means people with different lived experiences and different durations of experience. It's hard to capture it. I don't mean to suggest that the current board isn't vibrant—we have an extraordinary board. I am so joyful and grateful for both their depth of expertise in lots of different areas that are essential to the enterprise, but also their compassion and context. The current board members are all over the world, doing extraordinary work of their own, in many ways, advancing the same mission of creating more equitable practice. 

Now, there is an opportunity to invite new voices into the board. Any time you bring somebody new into the organization, it changes the organization. For me, vibrancy means making sure we have all the voices we can muster to help the organization. The board is just one place where that happens. The staff, the leadership team, and our members all have different perspectives and context, and it feels like a good moment to imagine “What does a governing board look like for the next chapter?” You always want a board for the next chapter, not for the last chapter. The best way to address uncertainty and unknown things is to bring the most diversity of perspective possible into the room and to make sure you're not just settling into a comfortable acceptance. There are several opportunities. For example, we don’t have many current active artists on the board and we need more of the artist's perspective. There’s also amazing action happening outside of conventional philanthropy and the nonprofit sector that I think we could learn from. It's always great to have deep expertise in our core business, which is really around financial systems. Vibrancy to me means all those things, like different perspectives, deep expertise, and new and old perspectives mixing into one.

boards of the future

FA: From both of your perspectives, is there something around board configurations that you've seen across the sector that's been interesting to you, like an experiment done by someone else, whether it's in our field or an adjacent field?

AT: I think governing boards of nonprofits are really tricky, because they're intended to be a form of collective leadership, which sounds very progressive, but nonprofit boards are also in, of, and from systems of wealth and power. The whole structure of nonprofit governance is built on this assumption that particular people are authorized to represent the public trust, and those people lead the organization. It has this weird way of being both collective and really elite. At the same time, we can't change the nonprofit model, since our fiscal sponsorship work builds upon tax-exempt status. Given this, I've been really drawn to people who are innovating within the existing nonprofit model while also making space for other approaches. Fiscal sponsorship, for example, offers tax-exempt benefits to individuals and creative teams without nonprofit status. Our venture investments have also supported initiatives in the for-profit world.

Relatedly, I'm really interested in the idea of a “minimally viable board”. This model asks, ”How small can a governing board be so that it keeps a really light touch?” It decenters almost everything to either its membership, community, ally organizations, or staff. It continually acknowledges that the board is not the center of authority and it’s more of a stewardship enterprise. The board makes sure the organization is compliant, responsive, and following good practice, but it leaves actionable decisions to the community. I'm also interested in people who are playing around with advisory boards or minimal boards in other forms.

RWT: Because I'm spending as much time, if not more, at community-level engagement and environmental issues, I'm seeing different kinds of boards than you often have in the arts. In the arts, you quite often have an asymmetric power structure. Board members are expected to bring access to resources. In the case of Fractured Atlas, that's less true because of our business model. 

I’m interested in two ways of being a governing body that I see as being effective in community organizing and in environmental and climate issues: 

The first is for a board to revisit, in a disciplined, regular way, the questions “What is the biggest problem we want to solve for the organization right now?” and “How do we want to help?”. I know when I joined Fractured Atlas, part of the reason that a board was being assembled was to give legitimacy within the field to the work that Fractured Atlas did. Well, that's not a big requirement now for Fractured Atlas. But there are other networking things that the Fractured Atlas Board could do. Boards outside of the arts are regularly asking themselves what is the most useful thing, activity, or set of activities for this board to be engaged in for what this organization requires right now? Sometimes it'll be dealing with people in government, sometimes, in the case of a couple of charities that I'm involved with over here, it will be maintaining links with the European Union. 

The second thing that I think that needs to be asked regularly is: is this board accountable? And we have tried to be an accountable board to Fractured Atlas. We haven't always achieved everything we wanted to, but we do ask regularly whether we are doing what we're supposed to be doing. If the board is not accountable, because it is an asymmetrical power relationship, it starts to feel like something else to people who are leading the organization. In environmental causes, that degree of accountability is more visible than it tends to be in artistic organizations. So focusing on where you can be of most help and looking at how you're accountable for your responsibilities are the two areas that interest me at the moment.

AT: Just to add one more thing that you made me think of, Russell, which is the convention of nonprofits to be siloed and separate institutions. We learned pretty quickly through the pandemic and the social justice reckonings that isolation is not going to change the world. Engaging in more permeable and collaborative practice with other allied institutions is essential—sometimes leading, sometimes following, sometimes supporting, as board member Lisa Yancey would tell us. How are you entangled in the world in a way that makes a difference? Because no single board nor single organization can make the most powerful impact, acting alone in defensive ways. I'm really looking forward to stretching out and taking part in a constellation of governing boards thinking and acting in ways that advance a common purpose. 

the quiet leader's journey

FA: Leadership is often portrayed as a hero's journey, full of bold, decisive action and the overcoming of clear challenges. Could you speak to the quieter moments of leadership? Where agreement seems out of reach, praise feels faint, and the path ahead is shrouded in uncertainty.

RWT: Gosh, it sounds like the plot of Dune, doesn't it? I think the hero notion of what leadership looks like is one of the most damaging constructs, particularly in American culture. We can think of a lot of people who shouldn't be in public office who got there because they presented themselves as the only people who could solve the most important problem.The notion of a hero as your leader carries with it a set of sometimes subconscious stereotypes based on aspects like gender, age, race, education, lived experience, etc. It's why we have seen instances when people are not promoted from within to a leadership role, but someone's brought in from the outside who's maybe a little shinier and a little more heroic on the outside. Oftentimes it doesn't work out so well because what was needed was a kind of understanding and solid competency as well as a vision for where the organization could go. I get very impatient with the whole heroic leadership thing. American society and culture is not as supportive of quiet leadership as we might like. It is very much driven by celebrity culture. There are a lot of good things about that that can be very entertaining, but it is often the case that people who are the most effective leaders are the people who are not making noise all the time. They are getting on with the business at hand. I think a board needs to be that quiet leadership within an organization. My personal view is that a board should not be looking for glory or even gratitude, but looking for the ways in which they can support the organization. It's nice to be thanked, but we don't need to be the poster children for what's going on in an organization.

AT: I agree with Russell that the idea of a single, strong, charismatic leader who makes everything possible doesn't actually happen in the real world, particularly in governance. In a lot of ways, it is a collective endeavor. It is not a single person speaking boldly. And if it is that, you’ve got a bad board. Certainly you should speak boldly but with curiosity. A favorite way to frame this is to “have strong opinions loosely held.” You bring your best possible argument for a case to the room, but you let it go when other people suggest something better. The other thing the pandemic and social justice movements taught us is that every choice that benefits one group can have a tragic consequence for another. If you're not thinking broadly and collectively, again, you're on a bad board. It's all murky middles when you get down to it, and that's okay. That's why it's also really important you have people you care about deeply. You don't have to always agree with them, but be in a community of practice that has deep care not only for the fellow members on the board, but also for the members and the staff and the whole enterprise. I think kindness and care are the most important values in the long game.


the shape of organizational resiliency

FA: We’re curious from your perspective, what does organizational resiliency look and feel like to you?

RWT: In the last four years, I have come to think that organizational resilience is as much an organizational culture attribute as it is a strategic objective or even a core competency. If the culture is one of curiosity and willingness to share concerns and ideas, then you're going to respond to the unknown better than if you are absolutely convinced that everything that you're doing, the way you're doing it today, is right. Entrenchment makes the organization very inflexible. Getting lots of different points of view on any team is a proven way of anticipating what could be different tomorrow. 

Covid is just such a perfect example to illustrate this. Out of all the stuff the arts was scenario planning for, a global pandemic wasn't on that list. Particularly in the performing arts, what does it look like when people can't come? Not when they don't want to come, but when they just can't come? What do you do to make your organization resilient and meaningful? I think a number of organizations, particularly performing arts organizations in America, had real existential moments during the pandemic. Because if the only way that theater can make a contribution to American life is for people to sit side by side in an enclosed space for 2.5 hours, that was a pretty rough ride for two and a half years. How do we make asking ourselves regularly “what are we here for” part of our organizational culture? What is it we're trying to do? You don't want to be asking it every single morning because you won’t have anybody who wants to work for you, but it's not a bad thing to see how we are conflating, for example, our strategy and our mission. The reason we're doing something is so embedded in how we're doing it and that's the only way we can ever achieve it. Resilience is as much organizational culture as it is anything else. 

AT: I'm still a recovering English literature major, so I have to define the term. Resiliency is the ability of a system to take a hit and retain its basic function or purpose, right? The system can take a punch or a hit, an environmental shock, and retain its essence. To do that you need a lot of things. For example, you have to be responsible with your money. So if you're completely out over the ledge financially, you can't take a hit. If you're not responsibly managing your accounts, you can't take a hit. At the same time, you need another layer of strategy. You need a sense of your relationship to your environment, where you bring strengths and where you have weaknesses, where you might ally with others. That's another part of resiliency, because you can't take the hit alone. If you're in a group of organizations or people or communities, then you're in a much better place. What Russell was just speaking to is the generative component of being resilient, which is always being curious and always looking out into the world not just for threats, but for the opportunities embedded in them.

For Fractured Atlas we have to consider what shape we want to retain. Is it our purpose or our projects that we hope to hold intact? If we get rigid about the means by which we accomplish our goals, we get into a difficult place. If, instead, we try to retain our purpose—“to make the journey from inspiration to living practice more accessible and equitable for artists and creatives”— we might have to actually change a lot of what we do. We stay resilient by changing, which is a weird sort of paradox.

I'm really excited about the people we have on the team now, the board we have now and the board that's yet to come. I think Fractured Atlas has a trajectory of shapeshifting to retain its basic purpose and so I'm excited to see where that leads us.

Thank you to Andrew Taylor and Russell Willis Taylor for their time. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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