Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Looking for scapegoats at Intiman

Last Intiman show? Chuck Cooper in "All My Sons"
By Barry Johnson

I did some hunting and pecking for news on Intiman Theatre this morning and found something useful by Jose Amador at the Seattest website.

Amador took his text from the comments section of a post on the Seattle Stranger's blog, specifically one by the former artistic director of Seattle Empty Space theater company, Allison Narver. That comment is provocative at the very least. It starts: "I am so fucking sick of Arts Boards that don't know what the hell they're doing."

She was talking about the decision by the board of Seattle Giant Magnet children's theater festival to make this year's festival its last, but then she tore into Intiman's board, too. "Shame on The Intiman Board as well. Blaming Brian C. [Colburn, Intiman's former managing director] for the theater's misfortunes shows what a chicken-shit, lame, ignorant bunch they are." And then:  "I'm sick of seeing worthy arts organizations (ConWorks, The Empty Space, Giant Magnet to name a few) close because of weak, scared, arrogant and/or inexperienced Boards."

This attack resonated with Amador: "Narver once again bluntly echoes some of what skeptics have been saying since the news of Intiman's fiscal woes came to light. What makes the statement stick is the fact that the Board has not been, and likely will not ever be, forthcoming about exactly what happened at Intiman." He also accused Intiman's board of scapegoating Colburn and neglecting its own duties, and vowed to take up Narver's call for deeper discussions of "non-profit governance and the relevance of arts organizations."

I'm in no position to ascertain the overall performance of the Intiman (or Giant Magnet) board. Still, two of Narver and Amador's points make sense to me.
  • A couple of days ago, I suggested that both the Philadelphia Orchestra and Intiman needed to be much more forthcoming, both about their basic financial information and their explanation, descriptions and narratives of how they got to their present situations. Amador uses the word "forthcoming," which is akin to the word I used, "transparency."
  • The behavior of non-profit boards is hard to fathom sometimes. I still believe that Portland's greatest theater "failure," the collapse in 1997 of Portland Repertory Theatre, then the city's second largest company, was unnecessary, the response of a board that had lost its nerve. That's another reason they need to be transparent -- so the public and the immediate community of the arts organization in question can offer alternative explanations and courses of action. The public, even the concerned public, rarely has a good idea of how non-profit arts groups are governed.
Transparency is directly related to democracy, we know. Only organizations with democratic characteristics need to be transparent about their decisions, and transparency is what makes democracy possible. I think that what Amador wants, really, is for Seattle's arts organizations to be more democratic.

Our narrative default is usually something like the Great Man theory of history. We look for specific heroes and villains, and we neglect the conditions on the ground that enable them to succeed or make their failure more likely. I want to know what Amador and Narver and other Seattle observers make of the overall conditions -- the values of Seattle's culture, its resources, its ambitions -- and how Intiman's board reflected, or failed to reflect, them.  Then we can start describing what happened far more usefully.


The Empty Space, which was known for its experimental approach to theater, closed in 2006...  Intiman blamed Colburn for masking the true financial condition of the company from the board in February, when it went public with its need for emergency funding... Colburn left the company in November of 2010... The late director Dennis Bigelow was artistic director of Portland Repertory Theatre when it closed... Intiman says it's regrouping and hopes to offer a season in 2012... Crosscut's David Brewster applies some Great Man narrative to explain Intiman, though he adds some useful detail and historical perspective in the process.


Anonymous said...

While I appreciate Allison Narver's frustrations, typically when someone says that a board is afraid, it generally means that person feel the board isn't raising enough money. While that could be true, it's also up to the artist to ask whether the work being created is worthy of the board going out on a limb for. Sometimes the answer is yes, and sometimes it's no.

Barry Johnson said...

How to keep a board interested and involved in its theater company -- I think that's a skill, too. And I think you're right: The first question a board member asks is "does the work make me proud" -- in some form or another. For a company with a track record like Intiman's, though, you probably only sign up to be a board member if you like the work, right?

Jeremy M. Barker said...

Well, I don't know what the Intiman's buy-in for board members was, but I imagine it wasn't cheap. To respond to anonymous though (I'm a former critic in Seattle), I think the board did throw Colburn under the bus. For years the theater had been running a deficit and spending down its endowment to make up the difference, which should not be something the board was unaware of and--in fact--I tend to doubt they could be since some treasury functions, like controlling the endowment, rest with the board, not just the managing or business director.

Barry Johnson said...

Jeremy, I think that's right: the Board had the ability to know what was going on, unless Colburn was falsifying financial information and Intiman's tax returns. And I don't think anyone has said that. Throwing the previous job-holder under the bus, regardless of the position or the circumstance, is a time-honored practice. In a few situations, it may be ALL one person's fault, but generally there's blame to go around.

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