IN THE WAKE OF the firing of On the Boards artistic director Mark Murphy on April 26th, the board of the performance art venue have been deluged with phone calls, faxes, and e-mails in shock and protest. In response, they held a public forum this last Tuesday in the main hall of the venue, and invited local artists and members of the public to let their thoughts be known.
The 350-seat venue was near capacity, filled not only with members of the artistic community (many who wore Reinstate Mark stickers), but with 15 of the 23 board members of On the Boards, who chose to conduct the meeting from the center of the seated audience. This strategy had clearly been chosen to minimize the us versus them feeling that many of the attendees had expected to find, and early on in the meeting it was partially successful. But as the evening wore and statements of shock and outrage continued to barrage the members from all sides, the board soon began to resemble a circle of settlers wagons warding off attack.
We owe you an apology, began board vice president Jerry Fulks. Then as the crowds of Murphy supporters leaned in, he continued, We could have communicated ourselves far better to you about our decision. This, in fact, was to be the position that the board was to hold for the next two hours: We stand by our decision, we cannot talk about it because of non-disclosure issues inherent in a personnel issue, but we should have told you of our decision in a more open manner.
This caused a fair amount of frustration among the attendees, but in large part they were to remain civil and surprisingly non-confrontational during the next two hours, confining themselves to repeating their request that the board take swift and direct action in re-hiring Murphy.
After Fulks initial comments, he introduced Robert McGinley, On the Boards founding artistic director, whod just flown up from LA at the request of the board. The respectful applause that greeted McGinleys appearance was undermined somewhat when he proceeded to give the venues horoscope (Many of you may not realize that On the Boards has its own astrologer) which indicated post-partum difficulties after the birth of the new building. The thrust of comments that followed, however, was that no one person is On the Boards. When asked point-blank where he stood on the question of Mark Murphys firing, he was circumspect. I accept how they got to that decision. Its not my purpose to judge. Its my purpose to help them move on.
For the first half hour, the board members introduced themselves, spoke briefly of their relationship with the institution, and told of how difficult it had been to come to this decisionafter six months of deliberation. Prodded by a question from the audience, each gave account as to how long he or she had served on the board, as it is widely believed that the current board was put together primarily to raise money for the Capital Campaign to move the venue to Queen Anne and thus has little personal history with Murphy. Of the board members present, however, this proved to be misleading; five had served on the board for ten years or more, and several for at least three years.
The comments that followed over the next hour and a half tended towards respectful if pointed criticism of the decision, with little sign of the bloodbath that some of the participants had feared or hoped for. Although the board had originally planned to take turns answering each of the questions and charges, it soon became clear that since they still considered the reasons for Murphys dismissal confidential, there was little that they could do except sit back and listen to the complaints from the assemblage.
ONE OF THE STRONGEST accusations came from local film-maker Gregg Lachow, who accused the board of discarding the organizations most valuable asset by firing murphy, and asking for the members responsible to consider resigning. You could have sold the building and turned it into a 7-11 and you wouldnt have done as much damage to On the Boards as youve done through this decision.
Local dancer choreographer Crispin Spaeth argued that the boards method of dismissing Murphy had created a new position of executive director that no respectable candidate could possibly be interested in assuming. And local musician Dave Dederer, lately of the Presidents of the United States of America, stated that as board members you serve as trustees. You have violated the trust of this community.
Visiting dancer/choreographer Rennie Harris (who appears at On the Boards this week) spoke of Murphys successful efforts to reach out and embrace the art of the hip-hop community with unique artistic generosity, and called for Murphys reinstatement.
Local choreographer Pat Graney suggested that the board would do well not to merely consider the opinions of the people at the meeting, but to open their deliberations up to a committee of the artists represented by the gathering. This proposal was met with guarded approval by the board, though no details were discussed as to how such a committee would be formed.
The Board gave no timeline for further deliberation, but did say that input from this meeting would be considered and future action, including reinstatement, might be taken. This wasnt enough for some; as the evening went on, there were repeated accusations that the board was merely giving the attendees the run-around. Supporters of the campaign to reinstate Murphy circulated letters of support and outrage from such renowned artistic groups and individuals as The Wooster Group, Earshot Jazz, Londons Lyric Hammersmith, Spalding Gray, Bloolips, P.S. 122, Walker Arts Center, and Chicagos Museum of Contemporary Art.
Several of the board members had already left for the evening when local artist Matt Smith was asked to give some closing remarks. Youve asked for our input. All right. Our input is that youve made a mistake. And we would request that you reverse your mistake and reinstate Mark Murphy.