Meddlesome management – the art gallery

This true story is one of eight case studies in Bullying in the Arts, published June 2011, the first chapter of which is FREE from the Gower website.

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In a small town, a privately-funded commercial gallery was opened to provide educational exhibitions, workshops and installations. The gallery’s owner was London-based and the Board of Directors included a local, retired financial executive, Alastair. The owner appointed an art gallery manager. An intellectual, Hazel had experience in managing large exhibition centres and was a distinguished curator, a personable individual and an accomplished professional. From the time of her arrival to take up her post, Alastair made himself known to Hazel as the eyes and ears of the owner. In the early weeks following her appointment, he began to take a particular interest in the day-to-day running of the gallery, as well as the policy and governance issues appropriate to his remit as a company director.

A retired executive with time on his hands, Alastair developed the habit of ringing Hazel daily, often with trivial queries ostensibly connected with the work of the gallery, or to question her about income streams and expenditure. This continued for several weeks and then Alastair began to appear on site, often turning up unannounced. At Board meetings, it became apparent that Alastair had been reporting back to the owner, without consulting Hazel, on a number of different issues. His reports were not always accurate.9193602-expressive-senior-businessman-isolated-on-white-stern-concept

Hazel made it clear that his continual interference was having a serious effect on her ability to manage. As a result, Alastair reported to the owner that Hazel had admitted she was not coping with the job and, six months into her tenure, he moved himself into an office in the gallery, full time.

Alastair was extremely polite and courteous to all the gallery staff, including Hazel when other people were present, and he made a particular point of letting everyone know of his important role as sentinel for the owner. However, in Hazel’s absence, he often made insulting and belittling remarks about her to other members of staff, especially about her intellectual capacity – describing her as a know-it-all – and her appearance. When alone with Hazel, his polite façade disappeared and he continually found flaws and weaknesses in the systems and procedures she had introduced, sometimes becoming angry and loud, and threatening that he could have her sacked any time.

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Hazel’s attempts to inform the owner of Alastair’s actions and explain their effects were met with incredulity: the owner believed Alastair to be looking after things properly.

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During the following three or four months, Hazel’s behaviour began to change. She became increasingly isolated from the rest of the staff and ceased to make her customary tours of the gallery to greet staff and visitors, only venturing out of her own office to leave the building. She was fearful of meeting Alastair and being drawn into one of his discussions, during which he took the opportunity to find fault with something she was doing, or not doing. Knowing that he was in regular contact with the owner, discussing topics to which she was not privy, she did not feel in a position to disagree when he suggested doing things in a different way. Other staff began to be affected by Alastair’s constant patrolling of the gallery, and his tendency to draw them into conversations during which he often would make offensive and malicious remarks about Hazel.

Hazel became more and more withdrawn and began to worry incessantly about company meetings where, increasingly, Alastair adopted the role of reporting on every aspect of the organization’s performance. Without her knowledge, he tabled financial papers he had drawn up and evaluations of staff performance, including her own, which contained negative personal comments, none of which were justified.

Unable to bear the situation any longer, Hazel left the gallery abruptly, and shortly afterwards so did several of her colleagues.

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A new art gallery manager was recruited. The absentee owner’s reliance on Alastair increased as he made it clear that he could provide consistency and stability during the handover period. His status and influence was enhanced and the incoming manager, Helen, although not apprised of the situation at interview, found that she had inherited a live-in company director. Helen had worked abroad for several years and had an array of qualifications in arts management. She was a bright and lively individual with an inquiring mind. After a few weeks, she had begun to get to know how the gallery operated, had met the remaining staff and had instigated recruitment procedures for new employees. Alastair had been abroad on holiday. When he returned he again began to take a particular interest in the day-to-day running of the gallery.

What followed was a duplicate of the type of behaviour and events that had resulted in Hazel’s departure. After repeated bouts of sick leave, Helen, too, left abruptly and, shortly afterwards, so did several of her recently recruited colleagues. Alastair held the fort pending the next appointment.

(Names and environs have been changed to protect confidentiality.)

Absentee leadership

This case study demonstrates appallingly poor leadership on the part of the gallery owner. The  bully successfully assumed designated hierarchical powers and instigated serial bullying. The relationship between employees and their managers is a crucial factor in determining the effective management of many arts organizations. In this case, the absentee owner placed all trust and confidence in a company director who happened to live locally, rather than in the professional CEOs who were employed. Both Hazel and her successor, Helen, were well qualified for the post they held. They had strong track records at national and international level, and were popular with staff.

Initially, Alastair may have had a genuine interest in being more involved in the business of running the gallery; however his behaviour indicates that there was a high level of confusion about the respective roles of company directors and staff members within the organization – evidence of a lack of constructive leadership (Einarsen, Raknes and Matthiesen 1994, as reported in Rayner 1999: 34). Also, Alastair patently enjoyed his privileged access to the owner and, rather than use this to build bridges between staff and directors and to encourage incoming managers to share aspirations and concerns, he embraced management as personal politics (Watson 1986, as reported in Bratton and Gold 1999:13), employing Machiavellian intelligence to render himself indispensable to the owner.

Needless to say, Alastair’s actions seriously impaired the succession strategy of the gallery: the arts world is a small world, and this post developed the reputation of being a poisoned chalice.

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References:

Bratton, J. and Gold, J. 1999. Human Resource Management: Theory and Practice. Hampshire and London: Macmillan.
Einarsen, S., Raknes, B. and Matthiesen, S. 1994. Bullying and harassment at work and their relationship to work environmental quality – an exploratory study. European Work and Organizational Psychologist. 4. 381–401.
Rayner, C. 1999. From Research to Implementation: finding leverage for prevention. International Journal of Manpower. 20. (1/2).
Watson, T. 1986. Management, Organization and Employment Strategy. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

If you have been affected by this account of workplace bullying in any way please seek help. Bullying in the Arts contains a list of agencies that offer assistance and new anti-bullying workshops are starting in June 2013 in the UK; email for further information.

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