Who gets to govern Australia’s major cultural institutions?

The question has taken new interest in the wake of the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry. That’s because many of the top directors and executives caught up in the royal commission also helm Australia’s largest and most prestigious cultural institutions.

We now know the board of financial giant AMP Limited lied to the financial regulator ASIC. In testimony last week, AMP’s former head of advice Jack Regan lost count of the number of times AMP had misled the regulator. It also emerged that AMP’s board had signed off on a so-called “independent report” to ASIC that had in fact been doctored and edited.

AMP’s chairwoman is Catherine Brenner. Brenner this week moved to fire CEO Craig Meller (or fire him again, as some wags joked, after he had already announced he was stepping down). But an obvious question mark hangs over Brenner herself: just what did Brenner know about the doctored independent report to ASIC?

The royal commission has tabled incredibly damaging emails between AMP’s general counsel Brian Salter and Clayton Utz’s Nick Mavrakis, that quote Catherine Brenner telling Mavrakis to “include a statement to the effect that Craig Meller was unaware of the practices or their illegality”.

Catherine Brenner is also a trustee of the Art Gallery of New South Wales — a gallery that boasts an annual turnover nearing $100 million and audiences exceeding 1.5 million in 2016-17. It also has a priceless collection, the ageless prestige of the Archibald Prize, and $23 million of public funding from NSW taxpayers.

Is a company director that has lied to the financial regulator still an appropriate person to be a trustee of the flagship gallery of Australia’s most populous state?

It doesn’t stop with Brenner either. AMP board director Patty Akopiantz is also a board member of leading theatre company Belvoir. AMP’s third-in-charge executive, Sally Bruce, is the company secretary of the board of the Melbourne Festival.

More broadly, a dense web of links has been spun between senior executives at companies named at the royal commission, and the boards and governance of Australian cultural organisations.

David Armstrong is the chair of the Australian Museum. He has also been a board director of NAB since 2014. Armstrong is chair of NAB’s audit committee. Since 2014, NAB staff have been accused of involvement in a bribery ring, forged signatures, and a major financial advice scandal. There were ongoing revelations about forgeries and false witnessing at NAB at the royal commission just this week.

The cross-directorships go on and on. CommBank chair Catherine Livingstone is on the board of the Australian Ballet. Opera Australia director Brian Benjamin is a merchant banker formerly at Macquarie. The Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s director David Livingstone is the Australian CEO of Citigroup. Carriageworks’ chair Sam Mostyn is a non-executive director at Citi’s retail bank. The Museum of Contemporary Art has a number of former or current bankers on its board including Simon Mordant, Scott Perkins, Anne Sherry and Lorraine Tarabay.

At the top of Australian culture, figures like David Gonski and Nicholas Moore sit at the node of many webs of influence. Macquarie’s Moore, for instance, is one of the highest paid CEOs in Australia. He also chairs the government’s key screen funding agency Screen Australia and is also chair of the trust of the Sydney Opera House. 

[Should the Sydney Theatre Company keep Ian Narev on its board?]

As Crikey reported last year, the Sydney Theatre Company’s board is chaired by former Commonwealth Bank CEO Ian Narev. Narev’s tenure in CommBank’s top job was marred by a long succession of scandals and financial improprieties — most notoriously, the CommInsure insurance debacle and 53,000 money laundering charges. At the Royal Commission, CommBank has ‘fessed up as the gold medallist of charging fees for no service.

Is Ian Narev really the best person to helm the board of Australia’s largest theatre company?

When I asked the Sydney Theatre Company that question last year, the response was dismissive. STC’s board and management unreservedly backed him: Narev enjoyed wholehearted support. STC’s CEO Patrick McIntyre and artistic director Kip Williams penned a response praising Narev as a “stimulating, thoughtful chair who has encouraged us to think big and to back vision”.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of STC’s response is its glorification of Narev in fundamentally cultural adjectives. “As a former management consultant, Ian is a creative, challenging and agile thinker,” the board wrote.

Even if we accept it on face value, what does it say about the governance of Australian culture that you can preside over a sustained period of corporate malfeasance at a major bank, and still retain your seat as the chair of the country’s largest funded theatre company?

The intertwining of the top tier of the arts and banking has been going on for years. The reasons are obvious enough: arts organisations want funding and social acceptance, while banking executives and captains of finance want culture (or at least the trappings of it).

The web of influence also reflects changing intellectual fashions. With the rise of neoliberalism, it became accepted wisdom that top business figures, particularly from the banks, were ideal candidates to occupy governance and oversight roles at the top of Australian culture.

But now we know just how bad it is in Australian banking. Major executives and board directors of big Australian banks have been involved in an industry that has run amok for more than a decade. As an industry, big Australian banks have collectively escaped any form of meaningful regulatory oversight, and a rampant culture of malfeasance and corruption appears to have set in.

Given what we know about the culture of the banking industry, is it time for the cultural sector to reassess its close ties to the world of finance?