Southern Theater's war of words comes to uneasy end

Artists, management call truce after highly criticized firing of artistic director Jeff Bartlett

"They really fucked this up." That's how choreographer Karen Sherman describes the way the Southern Theater's board of directors has handled relations between the board and the large community of artists associated with the theater since July, when the board fired the Southern's founding artistic director, Jeff Bartlett.

When Sherman and other performers debuted their works earlier this month on the Southern's stage, it marked the first sign of a thaw in a bitterly cold war of words between the artists who make up the heart of the theater and the board of directors charged with securing the theater's future.

For now, it appears the artists and the board have put most of their differences aside to keep the 2008-09 season alive. But getting to this point was a difficult and occasionally ugly process. As recently as a few weeks ago, the season's future was in doubt while artists slated to perform attempted to balance loyalty to Bartlett with the need to get paid and make a statement to the board.

Business as usual: The show goes on at the embattled Southern
Mike Kooiman
Business as usual: The show goes on at the embattled Southern

Some artists were toying with the idea of keeping the Southern dark by refusing to sign their contracts. Eventually, they decided to let the theater's season—the last one Bartlett lined up—move forward.

"It was an agonizing decision," says Sherman, whose piece copperhead was the first dance performance this season. But she wanted to perform. "I might not fit into their future vision. I wanted to grab that opportunity."

Patricia Speelman, the Southern's president, says the pieces for a successful season are now beginning to fall into place. She says she is in the process of finalizing contracts for the rest of the season, and that she has even received some positive feedback from the artists who have performed so far. Just a few weeks ago, such good news coming from top brass at the Southern would have been unthinkable. But this period of working together for the season is clearly more of a ceasefire than a peace treaty.

Initially angry about how Bartlett's departure came without notice or a reason from the board, artists turned their ire into calls for broad changes to the theater's operation. The board's move also raised eyebrows among the Southern's funders.

"I won't make a statement on behalf of the Jerome Foundation, but I'll make a statement as an individual member of the Twin Cities arts community," says Jerome Foundation program officer Eleanor Savage. "I think that the way the situation was handled with Jeff Bartlett lacked all integrity."

Vickie Benson, program director of the arts at the McKnight Foundation, which is a major source of funds for the Southern and contributes to general operating costs and dance and choreography fellowships, echoes Savage's thoughts.

"Talk about a textbook way to not do something," Benson says. "That alone was so poorly communicated that of course people are going to rise up."

And rise up they did. Teetering between rage and mourning, artists demanded that the Southern's board members explain their actions. In the early contentious face-offs, the artists vented to the board, which, forced into self-defense tactics, didn't win many supporters.

"The response was so dismissive," Sherman says. "Most of the board seemed to feel that we were trying to be agitators."

"The board said, 'We understood that we would lose some artists with [firing Bartlett],'" says Charles Campbell, co-founder of the Skewed Visions performance company. "And the implication was that it was all right with them."

Some artists think this sort of friction between the performers and the financially minded board is the result of fundamentally different ideologies, in addition to the controversy over letting Bartlett go.

"The present board knows less about the history, culture, philosophy, and relationships that the Southern constitutes," says dance artist and administrator John Munger, who was one of Bartlett's original artistic partners at the Southern in 1979. "I think this board is inclined in a direction that somebody might describe as 'corporate.' Whereas the artists, the audiences, and, in general, the constituency [of the Southern] is what might be described as 'not for profit.' It's oil and water. They don't mix."

Unsatisfied by the board's reaction in their meetings, Campbell, Sherman, and hundreds of other artists united in an effort to bring change to the Southern.

The artists formed an email listserve called the Southern Community. Ideas were bandied across cyberspace and a few were brought to the board. One was that a mediator of sorts, a "scribe," as the artists called it, keep track of the board's and artists' interactions and feelings. The board rejected the idea. Artists asked for four artists to be on the board. The board countered with two spots.

Soon it became clear that the artists were confronting the board about a lot more than one man's dismissal. Bartlett, for his part, hired a lawyer and stayed mum on the subject of his departure. Eventually he reached a settlement with the board, but on advice of his lawyer, his lips are still sealed on the matter of his abrupt termination.

But members of the board are making no apologies for being business-minded. They point out that by focusing on the bottom line, they've greatly reduced the theater's long-term debt. After renovation costs racked up about $300,000 in debt, the board over the past two years has trimmed that to about $90,000.

"We started building a board with, I know the artists don't like the word, but corporate people," board member Vicky Mogilevsky says. Mogilevsky, whose volunteer work raising money for several Twin Cities nonprofits landed her a spot on the board, notes that having employees of major companies on the board opens the theater to donations it might not have otherwise received from those companies. She says that despite criticism of the board in the media, it's one of the best boards she's worked on, with a level of devotion to the theater that the artists and public can't always see.

Speelman, who has a lengthy history of work in theater, agrees. "I've worked with a lot of boards in my career, but this is a very strong and committed board. This board cares every bit as much as the artists that perform here," she says.

While a few weeks ago statements like that would have been seen entirely as spin, as the season progresses, the slightest trickle of hope appears to be entering some artists' minds, and several artists agree that the board has done some things well. Campbell says that artists have tried to express gratitude to the board for their success in unloading the red ink. But, he notes, money doesn't appear to be the reason Bartlett was let go.

Mogilevsky acknowledges that the relationship between the board and the artists is strained, but with the season proceeding to the delight of audiences and critics, she says that a positive has come out of the kerfuffle. "This opened up a lot of dialogue that I never would have had with artists. It's unfortunate that it had to happen this way."

Speelman says that while both sides are upset, the theater is fundamentally unchanged, even without Bartlett at the helm.

"I know we're operating under a microscope, but I think people will find that the Southern is still the artist-centric organization that it has a reputation for being."

But whatever optimism the season has produced, artists maintain that the Southern is just not what it once was.

"It's just so astonishing to me that this was allowed to happen," Campbell says of the discord. "It could have been solved in so many ways, so early on, and at every opportunity it fell deeper into a hole. I think we're at the bottom now, and I think that because of various board members' efforts and the artists in the community's efforts, we're starting to make those first steps out of the pit. But it's very dark in the pit, and nobody knows exactly how we're going to get out of it." 

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