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March 15, 2007

Holding boards responsible

Bridgette Redman

Critics and arts journalists are quick to hold artists responsible for the work they produce. They have an equal responsibility to hold governing boards of artistic organizations responsible for their management decisions, especially when non-profit boards have such immense control over what is done.

Lansing's professional resident theater, BoarsHead, recently laid off three employees (their education director, their general manager, and their carpenter) and changed a show mid-season to one with fewer actors after their board demanded they cut $150,000 to $200,000 in expenses. They were forced to do this despite the fact that they've been playing critically successful shows to full houses. Their budget had taken a short-fall due to the death of a donor and the reduction in state monies.

The president of their board, Larry Meyer, is a businessman who┬ is the president of the Michigan Retailers Association. He appears to have little understanding of how an arts organization is distinct from a commercial business. In the coverage of these layoffs, I kept waiting for Meyer to be asked why, if BoarsHead is to be run like just another business, anyone should donate money to them? We wouldn't donate money to Wal-Mart so that they could increase market share. By showing a lack of commitment to the season and to artists, the board sends the message that money is more important than the art they create--which makes future donors less likely to give.

Also, why lay off the education director who has been bringing in grant moneys far in excess of his salary or the managing director who saves the theater money by hosting actors at her home and who has wide connections in the community?

At the NEA Institute, Ben Cameron talked about a society's need for the gift economy and the market economy to be in balance. Commercial businesses compose the market economy while artists, clergy, and teacher compose the gift economy. The two can't successfully be run the same.

When a board suddenly demands that a theater organization in the midst of a successful season change shows and staffing, there must be a reason more compelling than budget projections not hitting where expected. Nor is it healthy to have a board president whose response to creative suggestions is to threaten to shut the theater down if they refuse to comply with his draconian demands.

Unlike commercial businesses, theater and the arts are supposed to be the vehicle that invigorates the soul in our society. Their success is perilous if their fate is placed into the hands of businesspeople whose understanding of the bottom line eclipses their commitment to the arts.

Posted by Bridgette Redman at March 15, 2007 11:30 AM

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