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Southern's Bartlett, 30-year arts veteran, ousted: outcry ensues

By Caroline Palmer

The summer is never a quiet time for the arts community but it seems like the activity behind the scenes these days is just as dramatic as anything happening on stage or in the galleries. Theatre de la Jeune Lune announced it is going dark. Longtime Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program curator Stewart Turnquist abruptly resigned from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

And now Southern Theater Artistic Director Jeff Bartlett, on staff for over 30 years, is "technically on leave," according to board chair G. Bryan Fleming in a Star Tribune story on Wednesday. It appears that Bartlett may be out, completing a cycle of board and leadership changes over the past two years. The parties have assumed the usual legal positions, refusing to discuss the reason for Bartlett’s removal.

The unexpected news has left many wondering whether the Southern still believes in the “artistic philosophy” posted on its website: “We value connections to the local community and celebrate artwork that holds potential for transformative exchange.” This concern was raised often during a community meeting attended by at least 40 dance and theater artists at the Zorongo Flamenco studios on Wednesday night. Emotions ran the gamut from grief to betrayal, anger, confusion, and an overarching apprehension about the direction of the Southern and the health of a local arts community now experiencing the effects of a growing economic crisis. There were practical concerns as well -- artists slated to perform at the Southern in the coming season expected to work with Bartlett, a critical partner to many an artistic vision, and his absence leaves a creative, as well as an administrative, void.

Bartlett’s situation is certainly familiar -- other long-time, well-respected artistic directors have been let go in similarly unceremonious fashion across the country. Boards are empowered to make changes that they believe best serve the organizational mission -- and not everyone may agree with such changes. Boards trip up, however, when they neglect to communicate effectively with the stakeholders affected by decisions they know will have significant impact.

The Southern board seems either unaware or unconcerned about how Bartlett’s removal affects its constituents – artists, audience, funders. And while it’s true that healthy arts organizations should not be defined by personalities, it is important that key personnel transitions are handled with care because relationships between artists and arts presenters are defined first and foremost by trust. Right now the Southern is on the verge of losing its community trust.

The attendees at Wednesday’s community meeting want to address these issues directly with the Southern board and have made a request for a public meeting. In a letter emailed today, published in full below, the signers express several concerns regarding Bartlett’s employment and the future of the organization. A meeting date and location has been proposed -- Monday, July 21 at 7 p.m. at the University of Minnesota Barbara Barker Center for Dance -- but needs confirmation from the board. Check back here for an update. -- Caroline Palmer

UPDATE: The public meeting with the Southern board has been confirmed for Monday night at 7 p.m. at the U of M Barbara Barker Center for Dance, 500 21st Ave. S., Minneapolis, in room 100.

***

July 17, 2008

To the Board of the Southern Theater:

We are a group of artists, audience members, and donors committed to the Southern Theater.

We are concerned with the “indefinite leave” issued to Artistic Director, Jeff Bartlett, and the void of artistic leadership this creates. We are also gravely concerned with the manner in which this decision was made and the attendant silence around this action from the Board of Directors.

We feel that these actions in and of themselves are troubling, and are concerned that they indicate a larger sensibility and style of leadership that is detrimental to the future of the Southern.

We support Jeff’s vision of artistic leadership, and we believe that artistic and financial viabilities go hand in hand. We hope our collective voice will be considered as the Board tenders its ultimate decision regarding Jeff.

While we respect what may be confidential aspects of the Board’s negotiations with Jeff, we as individuals and community leaders who directly support the financial and artistic life of the Southern demand a public meeting with the Board of Directors to discuss how this situation was handled, and how it reflects the Board’s vision. The Southern Theater is a 501(c)3 organization and its board is beholden to public accountability.

The Southern’s mission statement declares its commitment to artists, audiences and the local community. We expect the Board will honor that commitment by meeting with the community in a timely fashion.

The UMN Dance Department has offered space for this meeting on Monday, July 21st at 7:00 p.m. We look forward to your confirmation by Friday, July 18th at 6 p.m. Karen Sherman has agreed to coordinate the scheduling of this meeting on our behalf. She may be contacted at kesksay@earthlink.net.

Sincerely,

Morgan Thorson, Artist Judith Howard, Carleton College/Artist Mary Easter, Founder and Director of the Dance Program, Carleton College/Dancer/Choreographer Cassandra Shore, Artistic Director, Jawaahir Dance Company* Sarah K. Sawyer, Arts Journalist/Performer Katherine Strohmaier, Performer Ranee Ramaswamy, Artistic Director, Ragamala Music and Dance Theater* Aparna Ramaswamy, Artistic Director, Ragamala Music and Dance Theater* Judith Brin Ingber, Artist Wendy Knox, Frank Theater Leslie Ball, BALLS Cabaret* Kevin Lawler, Director/Actor Karla Grotting, Founding Member/Artistic Associate, Joe Chvala and the Flying Foot Forum* Colette Illarde, FUEGO Flamenco* Robert Haarman, Artist Michele Blanchard, Perimeter Productions Robert C. Hammel, Perimeter Productions, Former Southern Board Member Tamara Nadel, Founding Member/Development and Outreach Director, Ragamala Music and Dance Theater* Ashwini Ramaswamy, Founding Member, Ragamala Music and Dance Theater* Ben Krywosz, Nautilus Music Theater David Harris, Performer/Arts Producer Linda Shapiro, Arts Writer James Sewell, James Sewell Ballet* Laurie Van Wieren, Choreographer; Producer/Host of 9x22 Dance/Lab Jon Skaalen, VSA Arts Minnesota Sally Rousse, Sewell Family Foundation Megan McClellan, Artist Brian Sostek, Artist Penelope Freeh, James Sewell Ballet/METRO Magazine Dance Writer* Nicolas Lincoln, James Sewell Ballet* Genevieve Bennett, Artist Molly Stoltz, Dance BFA Major, University of Minnesota Jeremy Bensussan, Out on a Limb Dance Company Susana di Palma, Artistic Director, Zorongo Flamenco* Justin Jones, Artist* Carl Flink, Chair, University of Minnesota Dance Department; Artistic Director, Black Label Movement* Karen Sherman, Artist* Joe Chvala, Artistic Director, Joe Chvala and the Flying Foot Forum*

* denotes 2008-2009 season artist

cc: Kathleen Fluegel, Program Director, HRK Foundation Neal Cuthbert, Vice President of Program, The McKnight Foundation Vickie Benson, Program Director, The McKnight Foundation Nancy Fushan, Program Officer, Bush Foundation Amy Frimpong, Senior Program Officer, State Arts Board Sue Gens, Interim Executive Director, State Arts Board Jeff Prauer, Executive Director, Metropolitan Regional Arts Council Kris Kewitsch, Target Foundation Cynthia Gehrig, President, The Jerome Foundation Eleanor Savage, Program Officer, The Jerome Foundation Philip Bither, Performing Arts Curator, Walker Art Center R.T. Rybak, Mayor of the City of Minneapolis Cam Gordon, City Council, Ward 2, City of Minneapolis

Caroline Palmer, City Pages Chris Roberts, Minnesota Public Radio Rohan Preston, Star Tribune Marianne Combs, Minnesota Public Radio Camille Le Fevre, Star Tribune Graydon Royce, Star Tribune Dominic Papatola, Pioneer Press Kathy Berdan, Pioneer Press Heidi Raschke, Senior Editor, Pioneer Press Casey Selix, Minnpost.com Lightsey Darst, Minneapolis-St.Paul Magazine; mnartists.org Marya Morstad, KFAI Tim Gihring, Arts Editor, Minnesota Monthly


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