By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
Joel Sisson is poised to take on the world. "The Adirondack chair is a symbol of Americana, right?" he begins. "So we'd use the World Wide Web and all that to connect with youth groups in other nations, to find a symbol like the Adirondack in their country. Maybe it's just each country's idea of a chair. In some nations that might be a stool, in other countries it might be a stump or a throne."
The pitch of Sisson's voice--especially when he's enthusiastic about something--moves randomly high and low without ever dropping at the end of a sentence; it's a speech pattern that seems to match his free-flowing imagination. "And then, right under the 185 flags outside of the United Nations in New York City, we'd set 185 creations, each symbolizing a country."
You want to say: Earth to Spaceman Sisson, do you read me? Have you looked at your measly bank balance? Do you remember that your Green Chair Project is being evicted from its storefront because it can't pay its rent?
That you'll soon have power equipment spewing sawdust into your kitchen because there's no place else for the project to go? That your youth crew has been cut from 20 to seven because you have no money to pay them? That even your staunchest supporters are talking about your organization in the past tense?
But you don't say that. You know he'll just snatch another saltine from the pack on the table, rib the kids about the hip hop that just started blaring on the shop boom box, and say something like, "I know in my gut that there's so much potential here. It's still possible. It's just a matter of money."
Sisson's unflagging optimism, along with his boyish appearance--long, wavy hair in a ponytail, paint-spattered coveralls that hang on his lanky figure--make him seem younger than his 37 years. His chutzpah is contagious, especially when combined with his humble approach: People who used to give him money still remember the way he'd take them to his shop and explain that if they wanted to see what their dollars could do they should talk to any of the kids at work here. Some almost wrote checks right then and there.
In its heyday just a few years ago, the Green Chair Project was the darling of local media and nonprofit foundations--a symbol of urban renewal, neighborhood spirit, and teen self-determination. During its peak summer, in 1994, the organization employed about 40 kids to make nearly 1,000 chairs painted its signature shade of mint-milkshake green. The chairs popped up on the lawn of the state Capitol; in D.C. near the Washington Monument; on a Public Broadcasting Service documentary about Sisson's project, and in the news
But lately the magic has worn thin. As 1999 begins, the Green Chair Project's checkbook balance is near zero. Sisson and assistant director Mike Hoyt have cut their wages and supplement them with outside contract work (Sisson does welding and house renovation; Hoyt is a set designer). Since midsummer, Youth Supervisor Kayeng Lor, 21, has been limiting himself to one meal a day, usually scavenged from friends who know what he's going through. The project has been asked to leave the Chicago Avenue storefront where it's been operating rent-free since April 1997; Sisson says the equipment will be moved to his loft/home in the former Hertz Truck Rentals garage on Nicollet Island. "My bedroom is going to be the office, and the shop's going to be in the whole work area and bleeding around into the kitchen," he announces, anticipating the flying sawdust. "I'm making myself a bed that will be more like a tent than anything else."
Sisson's voice turns subdued as he admits he has been "vacillating between depression and the highs from the potential of this project." Financially, the highs have been few and far between, except for an unexpected $7,000 donation from an anonymous charitable trust in December. The money allowed Sisson to pay the back rent on the Nicollet Island space and could keep the Green Chair Project going for a month and a half--two if they really skimp. He calls it "a little reprieve from a death sentence."
The story of the Green Chair Project's downfall is fraught with unique complications, conflicts, and personalities. But it's also a familiar tale, repeated over and over in the world of nonprofits--that peculiar industry that amounted to $10.4 billion worth of economic activity in Minnesota last year, according to the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. A greater percentage of the working population is employed by nonprofits here than almost anywhere else in the nation; in certain parts of Minneapolis and St. Paul, it's hard to go five blocks without encountering some well-intentioned outfit seeking grant money. And just as in business, for every entrepreneur whose idea takes flight, many others crash and burn.
Sisson's idea was hatched in 1991 on the 3100 block of Pleasant Avenue, where he lived at the time. The way he tells it, he was painting the trim on the house he rented; some neighborhood kids wanted to help, but Sisson worried about splotches on the siding, so he put a wooden Adirondack chair in the yard and they all painted it together. The color was Valspar tint 257-3, now known as Symbolic Green.
The first chair was not long for Sisson's backyard--it disappeared one night about a month after the painting party. Sisson remembers that while he was scouring the neighborhood for it, one of the kids' mothers told him, "You got to get our chair back." That comment, he claims, sparked the idea of organizing work crews of kids in his backyard, to make green chairs that would be set up in neighbors' front yards at dawn.
It's a nice story; prod just about any member of the local arts-and-nonprofit community and you'll hear a version of it, usually with a few embellishments. For instance, the original chair was taken by people who were helping Sisson's roommate move and thought the chair was his. But myth has it that someone stole it. Sometimes the alleged crime expands to include all sorts of porch furniture. Sometimes Sisson is said to actually have seen kids stealing a chair from his yard.
But as always with such stories, at some point the details cease to matter. Did Abe Lincoln really walk 10 miles to return a borrowed book? Did George Washington actually chop down the cherry tree? The Green Chair tale has become "folklore," says Louis King, Minneapolis school board member and head of the vocational training institute Summit Academy OIC, who goes on to enthusiastically recount his version: "Joel started this thing because he'd had a chair stolen, and instead of taking the typical response [of calling police], the radical that he is, Joel got kids together to build chairs. It's a great idea that's about peace, community. A great idea."
From his success with the first few chairs, Sisson wanted to expand. He says he saw kids selling drugs or causing trouble in his neighborhood and wanted to pay them to do something constructive. A former welder who had graduated from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and dabbled in found-object art, he had never approached arts funders. But he started writing anyway--long, rambling letters to foundations, corporations, individuals. He got no takers.
Until he saw Mark Dayton talking about his work with inner-city kids out east in an early 1991 TV interview. The department-store heir responded to Sisson's letter with a check for $2,500; a few months later, he wrote another for the same amount.
In 1992 and 1993, Sisson went to work for the Lyndale Neighborhood Association while selling furniture part-time at Room & Board. He also kept building chairs in his backyard. Money to buy lumber and pay the kids came from the New Jersey-based Puffin Foundation, which, in Sisson's words, funds "art projects from prisoners and people who can't get funded in regular routes." Change Inc., an emergency fund set up for artists by Robert Rauschenberg, also kicked in a check.
But Sisson wanted more. In 1994, he began telling people that Green Chair work crews would build 1,000 chairs in one summer, and that all the chairs would be trucked to the state Capitol to make an enormous outdoor installation. It was an irrational, impossible goal--or it would have been, had the green chairs not begun working their spell.
Sisson hooked up with Urban Ventures, an economic-development organization with a warehouse on Lake Street and Fourth Avenue. The group offered its space, and work crews of kids paid through the federally funded Summer Youth Employment Project. Next he connected with Jack Becker, program manager of St. Paul-based FORECAST Public Artworks. FORECAST agreed to serve as Green Chair's administrator and fiscal agent, providing the 501(c)/3 nonprofit tax designation needed to reel in major supporters.
Even so, Becker remembers, the first year was a challenge: "It was a weird animal. Here was this individual artist who wrote these"--he chuckles--"these stream-of-consciousness letters, who didn't put together the things that usually are put in front of funders." Becker says the Green Chair Project's unusual combination of youth services and art also confused nonprofit administrators. "Youth-services funders could relate to the part about putting kids to work. But once he said that he wanted to put 1,000 chairs on the lawn of the state Capitol, he was on his own."
Since the Green Chair Project was difficult to describe on paper, Sisson and Becker often asked potential funders to visit the Urban Ventures site. "They'd start asking Joel questions about the project and he'd say, 'No, talk to Johnny here,'" Becker recalls. "I hadn't seen people do that before. Most of the time, it's more like 'I've got to say the right thing, because the kids might not.'
"We actually raised $35,000 in two-and-a-half months. That's amazing. It defied the laws of fundraising. One foundation gave us more money than we asked for. In my 20 years of fundraising, that just doesn't happen."
Neal Cuthbert, Program Officer for the Arts at the McKnight Foundation in Minneapolis, says foundations respond to organizations that have a "buzz" about them: "There is a zeitgeist about some projects. They hit a lot of people with a certain sense of excitement, and funders are just like those people. You jump on the Vikings bandwagon, it's no different."
By the fall of '94, Sisson estimates, the project's staff of almost 40 workers had nearly reached the 1,000-chair goal: "We made it to either 911 or 918, depending on which kid's numbers you accept." The workers, mostly low-income high-school and middle-school students, were paid minimum wage. Assistant director Hoyt received "between $10 and $12 an hour," says Sisson, and his own take for the year amounted to around $10,000. (His highest salary from the project, in 1997, was $19,000.)
Sisson and FORECAST sent out mailings about the chairs; newspapers and TV stations ran stories, and soon the orders began pouring in. All the Adirondacks were sold for between $40 (unpainted) and $50 (painted); before delivery, Sisson and cohorts hauled them to the Capitol, where buyers were invited to participate in a group photo.
It may have been Green Chair's golden age. "The project had a spirit to it that was charismatic, intoxicating," recalls Cuthbert. "There was this surreal absurdist quality to it. It was neither fish nor fowl, but we looked at it and thought, 'Why shouldn't youth training programs enliven and excite the imagination?'"
"The green chair became a symbol for people--an Adirondack bumper sticker in a sense. People, organizations, coffeehouses would have green chairs out, and it meant that you supported a sort of spirited urban activity."
It also meant that you got an inexpensive piece of lawn furniture. Assembled Adirondack chairs typically cost more than $100. There are no figures on exactly how much each Green Chair costs to make, but those involved freely admit that the project couldn't have lasted without subsidies. In 1994, the project's budget was $67,000; of that, about $30,000 came from chair sales, while the rest were public monies and foundation grants.
To some, that fact alone means the project failed the low-income, often minority kids it set out to serve. Shelby Steele, a scholar affiliated with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the author of The Content of Our Character, has studied the role of charity in race relations. "On a larger level, this kind of enterprise is what I call iconographic reform," says Steele. "It's an icon of white virtuousness, white concern: You can buy chairs, and have the illusion that you're doing something. 'I'm a good person because I bought a green chair.' But the fact that the organization doesn't make a profit sends the message that these kids are surviving by charity."
Sisson, for his part, didn't mind that his project could not survive on chair sales--on the contrary. By late 1994, he was worried about becoming "just a chair-making factory. People started looking at us as a source of cheap chairs. But there was a whole lot more involved." He was dreaming again: What if the symbolic aspect of the chairs were blown up to gigantic proportions--if they lost all practical purpose and became pure public art?
In the fall of 1996, Sisson, Becker, two more adults, and nearly a dozen kids associated with the Green Chair Project piled into cars and headed to Washington, D.C., following the biggest U-Haul available. The truck was loaded with two 14-foot-tall green chairs and 55 regular-sized ones, each adorned with the outline and motto of a U.S. state or territory. With the help of students from Duke Ellington Arts High School in D.C., the chairs were set up first in front of the U.S. Capitol and then at the foot of the Washington Monument.
The chairs instantly became a landmark, recalls Becker: "People would look around, they'd look for their state's chair, and they'd go sit in it. They'd ask: How did these chairs get there? Who are the kids that made them?" Sisson, he says, had tapped into a powerful symbol: "If you actually climb up in [a big chair], you feel like a kid. Joel readily admits that he was inspired by Edith Ann, the Lily Tomlin character. And it's a great photo opportunity. People like to have their photos taken in the big chair. Joel has a great intuitive sense of that."
In a way, the Washington Monument installation was the culmination of Sisson's found-art vision for the Green Chair Project: "You put stuff out there and let things happen," he says. "You can't dictate what happens. One of the things that we found in D.C. is that most of the monuments are very dark, stoic. We saw hordes of people, as soon as they saw our chairs, run toward them like kids."
Walker Art Center chief curator Richard Flood says Sisson's vision fulfilled "the best ambitions of public art. It's about a bigger issue than something that's dumped on a traffic median. You have a celebration of human endeavor in the best possible way. And it also reflected a sense of community that's rarely evident in public art."
Greg Mason, 25, digs through a pile of chair parts, sorting them into stacks of slats, legs, and armrests. Lined up along the walls are newly made chairs, carefully labeled parts, and "jigs"--pegs and guides set up on a work table so each chair will feature the same slat spacing, the same angle of seat and back. Sisson came up with the jigs, and workers have altered them over the years in an effort to make the chairs more sturdy. The kids run this shop, says Mason, who proudly notes that he's written references for four of the workers he supervised last summer.
No one was asking Mason for references in 1996, when he was fresh out of jail in Gary, Ind. His mother put him on a Greyhound to Minnesota, where his father lived; a friend told him that he could make money building green chairs. He arrived at work on time every day, worked hard, and last year was promoted to mentor. He supervised 10 summer workers, most from low-income families, many speaking Spanish, Lao, or Cambodian in addition to English. The place is full of stories like Mason's--prototypical Green Chair tales of hope, work, and self-respect.
Except that this is not the Green Chair Project. It's the Green Chair Workshop, a branch of Louis King's Summit Academy OIC. Sisson hooked up with King's organization, then called Two or More, in 1994; King was intrigued with the idea of using chairs to train youth in carpentry, teamwork, and basic business practices. Two or More offered its space and summer youth crews as the Project's second chair-building facility. But Sisson and King parted ways the next year, when Sisson began asking the kids to build 14-foot chairs; they've tried to get back together since then, only to realize that the differences in philosophy are too great.
"I don't do public art," King says. "I don't know who to go and sell that idea to." Unlike Sisson, King is a nonprofit veteran who knows how to put together the paperwork funders demand--the spreadsheets showing how many kids worked for how long, the goal statements and outcome reports. Perhaps not surprisingly, his group has often won out when both the Green Chair Project and the Workshop applied for grant money. King says he didn't expect things to work out that way, but is grateful for the support: "No one could have foreseen how this was going to catch on," he says. "Joel planted a seed and we were able to nurture it. It's one of our signature programs."
Competition among groups with similar goals and constituencies is nothing new in the nonprofit world. Jeremy Hanson, public policy coordinator for the Minnesota AIDS Project, says it's a familiar conundrum for AIDS groups, most of which compete for the same set of funding sources funneled through the Minnesota Department of Health. "It does get frustrating sometimes," Hanson says. "The Minnesota AIDS Project does awareness for education and we do public policy and we do it all over the state. So what if a group wants to provide services in, say, Mankato: Do you fund that group or ours?"
In the case of the competing Green Chairs, the confusion was heightened by the fact that the groups were hard to tell apart. Sisson says at least one check destined for the Project was almost sent to the Workshop instead, and a member of his board also advised King's operation. When Sisson applied for a business phone, the phone company turned him down because there was already a "Green Chair Project"; the snafu wasn't fixed until King changed his group's listing to "Green Chair Workshop."
Minor though they were, the snags have grated on Sisson, who says his public-art efforts have created publicity from which the Workshop now benefits. He made that point to Summit's board in a recent letter: "All we are asking is that if Summit is going to continue to enjoy the publicity we have received, then please...do not do us any disservice by not being clear to inquirers as to who is who and why."
Yet Sisson insisted in the same letter, "We are not sore losers about funding going to Summit. After all, you have the stronger, better organization. Congratulations! Really."
By the end of 1996, the Green Chair Project had arrived at a fork in the road. The Washington trip had been expensive, but supporters felt the exposure was worth the cost. Now, however, the bills were coming due. "Because we were focused on D.C.," says Sisson, "we didn't focus on chair sales at all." Only about 50 Adirondacks were sold that year. The funders were getting antsy.
"There was a sense that they had a level of funding that they probably couldn't maintain," recalls McKnight's Cuthbert. "Not everybody stays a Viking fan; they move on to whatever the next bandwagon is. The funders couldn't continue to hang on in the big way of the early years." If the Green Chair Project was going to keep dreaming big, Cuthbert says, it was going to have to get organized.
"It's fine if a group is content to be a little chamber group," he explains. "But if this little chamber group says, 'We want to be the Minnesota Orchestra,' then it's about figuring out the capacity of the people involved, the interest of the greater world. We've supported a lot of organizations that have started out small and then taken off and become huge. We're still providing support, but it's a smaller piece of their picture."
Sisson, too, was anxious to see the project expand. He wanted to sell loveseats, children's chairs, and folding chairs. He also had high hopes for "the kits"--chair parts, tools, and a video and training manual, all packaged in big wooden crates that unfolded into work tables with jigs attached. The kits, he figured, could spread the Green Chair gospel and generate revenue at the same time: He and his crew would conduct team-building seminars for corporations and larger nonprofits, teaching executives how people of different backgrounds and personalities could work together.
But to do all this, and continue to expand its public-art projects, the organization would need a year-round, permanent home. Steve Cramer, executive director of the economic-development group Project for Pride in Living (PPL), remembers being approached by Sisson in early '97. "Funders are telling me that they're not just going to be giving me money if I continue to open in the spring, close after the summer," Sisson told him. "I need a sustainable organization." Cramer offered to house the project, rent-free, in a storefront PPL owned near Chicago and 35th Street; PPL also stepped in to fill part of FORECAST's role as the project's fiscal agent, channeling grant money and providing administrative support.
The project moved into the new space in April '97, and the funders seemed duly impressed. "In early 1997, Northwest Area Foundation gave 20 grand, the McKnight Foundation gave 30, and the Dayton Hudson Foundation gave another five or 10," recalls Tripp Somerville, senior program officer at the Northwest Area Foundation and a longtime booster of the project. "[Those were] serious investments to move the Green Chair Project from a seasonal, almost fly-by-night operation that had a tremendous amount of potential to one that could be sustained year-round."
Building a year-round operation also involved the addition of several new layers of administration, including a transitional advisory board that would eventually become the nonprofit board required for 501(c)/3 nonprofit tax designation. But Sisson and the board soon started butting heads. The advisers wanted to focus on basic business first: Public-art projects would have to wait.
"This is where I failed," Sisson grimaces. "I think that sometimes people look at me as some wacked-out longhair with grandiose ideas and no vision of pulling them off. But it seems like, over the years, we've been able to do chairs for sale and public art. I didn't think that we had to re-prove to the board that we could still do both things at the same time."
Becker, who served on the transitional board, disagrees, saying the team did see the value in public art. But, he points out, a board is legally and financially responsible for an organization, so members must consider the bottom line. Sisson, he says, was coming face-to-face with "the ball-and-chain administrative aspect of nonprofits. You must meet regularly, communications is a big part of it, and the care, maintenance, feeding of a board is a big thing. It can drain energy away from project stuff."
Cuthbert adds that administrative tasks are a necessary evil, especially for an ambitious organization. "When you think real big, there are going to be more demands, because you're asking for bigger investments from people. If you up people's level of investment, you're going to up the level of inquiry into what you're doing. It requires some due diligence. People want to know what the money that they've spent is going to."
Sisson leans back in his chair and looks at the ceiling. He's clearly uncomfortable talking about this phase in his project's life. By late 1997, he explains haltingly, it had become obvious that he could not and did not want to handle the project's growing administrative load. So the Project hired Cynthia Williams as operations director. Advisory-board member Somerville, who is married to Williams, warned of a conflict of interest. But Sisson says he "liked her energy."
The relationship soon deteriorated. Williams seemed to agree with the board more than Sisson or assistant director Hoyt did. "I always wanted to keep us working on multiple fronts," Sisson recalls, "and both Tripp and Cynthia wanted us to concentrate on narrowing down the projects and developing the organization itself. Cynthia was here setting up systems, but the systems weren't being set up for public art; they were being set up for accounting, chairs and orders, production. They wanted a chair-making factory."
Actually, says Becker, it was Sisson who kept getting embroiled in administrative details: Building the organization was "a lot about letting go. [But] Joel would think, 'How can I be responsible if this computer program goes through and it's not right for me?' If it didn't feel right for Joel, it would eat at him."
John Paul, a partner with the Dallas-based consulting group Association Works, has seen the same dynamic play out in nonprofits across the U.S. "It's called Founder's Syndrome," he says. "The founder is still wanting to be in charge, when in fact the organization is now bigger than even the founder imagined it. The board has a fiduciary role to govern, so typically the founder loses, but the organization is so wrapped up in that personality that it makes the fight very difficult." In one very public example, Paul notes, Mothers Against Drunk Driving founder Candy Lightner was ousted in 1985 by her board, which argued that the organization had become too big for her to run.
The Green Chair board never discussed removing or replacing Sisson. But he removed himself for part of each year in a planned sabbatical. "He left at end of December and came back beginning of April," remembers Williams. "It was right during a crucial part of grant period--I was brought on board and then he left. It was difficult. He called in on occasion, but did nothing that advanced the project in absentia. He was living in a shed somewhere without a phone."
Sisson doesn't flinch at the mention of his winter trips. He explains that they were necessary because of a back condition that has caused his spinal disks to deteriorate and required two steel rods to be implanted in his back in the mid-1980s. Sisson can't bend from the waist up and says cold weather puts him in constant pain; he skipped his journey to warmer climes for the first time this year, he says, because of his project's dire situation.
In the summer of '98, it became apparent that many of those associated with the Green Chair Project were growing tired of the constant clashes. The organization had barely gotten its own 501(c)/3 designation when Becker decided to stop his involvement. Somerville resigned from the board in August. Williams had left her job in June, when it became clear the organization could no longer afford her. Last month Williams started working as a consultant with the Green Chair Workshop.
PPL's Steve Cramer also looked north for stability. Cramer met with Louis King in December to see whether the Green Chair Workshop could take over the storefront on Chicago Avenue--as a paying tenant. They could, so Cramer told Sisson that his crew would have to move out by late January. "It's not about taking sides for me," Cramer says. "It's about what's going to work and what's going to be sustainable--and, frankly, what's going to get us off the hook for paying for that building."
Sisson clearly struggles to maintain his composure as he arrives at this point in the story. "At least Steve came down in person to tell us that he'd made a deal with Summit," he says, then adds: "It felt really screwed up. People will go by next year and see a chair organization and think that it's us."
It's quiet at the Green Chair Project on a mid-January afternoon. The day's crew consists of three teenagers, all in baggy pants speckled with Symbolic Green: 17-year-old Ge and two 16-year-olds, Jenny and Flora, both students at the Minnesota Center for Arts Education in Golden Valley. An 11-year-old neighbor named Michael has also wandered in: Sisson often pays him a few bucks here and there to help out or sweep up. Today it's just a social visit, but Michael wants credit anyway. "Put Michael T. in your article," he advises, "because we got two Michaels."
Ge says the workshop's casual atmosphere is part of its appeal. He's been working at the shop on and off since 1997. "It's relaxing--takes off a lot of stress to come here, where everyone's happy." Jenny nods, setting in motion a mop of short hair sticking out in all directions. She has known about the project nearly half of her life. "I lived at 33rd and Pillsbury, near where Joel started," she says, "and I always knew that if I had to have a job, I wanted to work here." Her family now lives three blocks from the Chicago Avenue storefront, so the new Nicollet Island site will be much more of a schlep.
Sisson--in work pants and a tucked-in mustard-colored shirt--listlessly tidies up the space. He says the crew has been "cleaning and inventorying like crazy," and that he's finding lots of papers in the office he thought were lost for good. Yet nothing about the shop's interior suggests the project is about to pack up; when pressed, Sisson admits he's still not convinced it will have to. "I'm hoping for some major magic on the weekend of the 22nd," he grins.
Back in his office, Sisson rifles through a drawer, pulls out some old budget figures, then sits back to mess with his ponytail. "I remember when we got our first dumpster for this place," he says. "It was super exciting. Mike [Hoyt] and I were sitting there thinking, 'We're going to have a permanent space." He glances toward the workshop and adds: "It has been a shame to have this space only running three days a week. We haven't been able to work with as many kids as I would have liked. I'm hoping that we can share a space with another group and share equipment, administration, maybe a grant writer."
The Green Chair Project's current state looks familiar to Diane Espaldon, a consultant at the St. Paul-based Stevens Group, which teaches theories about business life-cycles to nonprofits nationwide. Espaldon says that unlike for-profit businesses, nonprofits frequently refuse to die even when they're up to their ears in debt: "Typically, in business, the final cycle is termination, you close your doors. But if there's a life-cycle of a nonprofit, the last stage is like 'lights on, nobody home.' There might be a few staff members. They've been bankrupt for several years, and they go on and on.
"Usually it's almost like they're eating up their own reserves, taking advantage of the staff's time and health. It's an incredibly stressed-out time for the organization. They might get a grant here or there. But the money doesn't go toward any future vision. It's for keeping the doors open."
Yet, Espaldon says, paralysis is not always the end: "If they're in the termination stage and take an aggressive stance, they can be turned around, just like a business can be turned around."
FORECAST's Jack Becker says he's convinced Sisson won't be able to give up on the project. And, he says, maybe it can be saved. "It could go back to hibernating for the winter. But it would have to be by plan, like theaters have their season. It can't be by the seat of their pants." Scaling back, adds Cynthia Williams, might even liberate Sisson's imagination: "He saw business normalization as selling out, being slick. I think Joel needed the organization to be loose and free and really hit-and-run. Maybe the Green Chair Project needs to go back on the street where it really belongs."
Indeed, both Sisson and Hoyt seem almost relieved at the project's dwindling. "Once all the parties involved met an impasse and funding ran out, somehow Joel and I realized that we just had to dig down and work," says Hoyt. "And this summer and fall became fun again, and the kids that we're working with were magical. We had stopped focusing on organizational development and just worried about getting our asses out of debt. And it was fun."
Sisson smiles as he talks about the potential U.N. installation. And despite his quibbles with the Green Chair Workshop, he hasn't given up on launching Green Chair satellites in other cities. Even as it's about to be boxed up, his laser printer churns out proposals that outline a major collaboration of nationwide funders and nonprofits.
"We're not going to be just waiting on Death Row," Sisson insists. "It's not done yet. We'll take this thing back to my studio, but we'd rather find a new place and keep it going as a training center for the satellites across the country." Then again, there's another option: "It would be really easy to be just me and my van, working with young people."