Does OTB have a death wish?

On the Boards struggles to survive the PR debacle following its abrupt dismissal of artistic director Mark Murphy.

EARLY IN THE AFTERNOON on Monday, April 26, a committee of trustees of the nonprofit arts production and presenting house On the Boards notified its artistic director Mark Murphy and its managing director Sara Pasti that their services were no longer required. The board, they were told, had decided to reconfigure the organization under a single head, who would be responsible for both artistic and administrative functions.

Even before the board got around to notifying On the Board's staff of the development, the phone wires between lower Queen Anne and the rest of the world were burning up. Board members soon found their in-boxes filled with angry and anguished protests from artists, audience members, and other interested members of the theater community. The press was badgering the board's press rep before he could get a press release out, and long before the first articles about the event appeared.

In the press release finally issued by the OTB board 24 hoursafter the bloodbath, the firings were presented as purely administrative, in the language of classic Organization-ese, as " . . . a move to provide strong, consolidated leadership . . . and to fulfill the promise of its new facilities. . . . The leadership positions of artistic director and managing director will be eliminated as they currently exist. . . . The changes come after six months of organizational development and analysis of structures and issues for growing organizations."

In a Monday interview, the board's official spokesman, Dave Roberts, gave a somewhat more concrete rationale for its actions, saying that members felt "uncomfortable" having to listen to and evaluate competing ideas about the organization's proper future course. "We came to the conclusion that it was important for the board to have a single place to look for leadership," he said. But among the press release's platitudes can be found a different motivation, voiced by board vice president Jerry Fulks: to "bring in larger audiences to two theaters."

The release includes the obligatory nod from board president Lorna Jordan to Murphy's "tireless pursuit of the group's artistic vision, which has helped OTB grow into a cornerstone of contemporary performance for both the Northwest and the worldwide arts community." On Monday, the message was less fulsomely delivered. Murphy was told to leave the building immediately and not return.

The decision by the OTB board to fire its entire leadership before beginning the process of recruiting replacements was not as abrupt as it looked. According to a scenario pieced together from conversations with OTB board members and staffers, the tension between Murphy and Pasti began almost as soon as the latter joined the organization in April 1996. Pasti played a crucial role in mobilizing the board and community for the successful campaign to remodel the old ACT building and liberate OTB from the cramped, shabby rented facility it has occupied since its foundation.

But Pasti was the new kid on a block where Murphy has been a fixture for a decade and a half, and it was difficult for her to achieve a visibility—particularly with the press—commensurate with her importance. "An interview would be set up, and Mark would say, 'I want Sara to be there,' and the interviewer would say, 'Why?'" one staff member recalls.

After the successful conclusion of a capital campaign and the move into the newly renamed Behnke Center for the Performing Arts, Pasti's position became even more frustrating. "The excitement was over," says another OTB staffer. "It's not very thrilling doing day-to-day management; as far as Sara was concerned, Mark got to have all the fun, flying around to conferences and looking at new work, getting all the publicity and all the credit for the success of the move. She started expressing her dissatisfaction by crabbing Mark to the board every chance she got. Meanwhile, Mark was hearing back from people in the community that Sara was telling anyone who would listen that she had her own ideas about the direction OTB should take and how she could do a better booking job than Mark and so on. That didn't help."

Board spokesman Dave Roberts says that the executive committee was uncomfortable in the role of referee, and decided to call in professional counsel in the form of John Runyon of the Leadership Group, a small local management consulting firm. In the course of interviews with the consultant and board members over the last few months, both Pasti and Murphy stated that they could not continue to work together indefinitely.

As often happens when a committee is faced with making a hard choice, avoiding choice proved easier. The upshot of the interviews and $12,500 budgeted for consultant fees was truly Solomonic: Both Murphy and Pasti were fired and their positions eliminated, in favor of a new combined artistic-administrative position to be filled after an international search.

Serious questions remain. If the board bore no animus toward Murphy, why was he dismissed so rudely and exiled from the building with 15 minutes notice? "We were given legal advice that this should be done," one board member says, with no further explanation.

One insider speculates that Murphy was given such short shrift because the board feared his continued presence might rouse the rest of the staff, overwhelmingly in Murphy's corner, to wake from its poleaxed state and "make trouble." As an additional inducement to docility, staff was informed that the board would understand if any employees cared to follow Murphy immediately into exile, though accounts vary about how clearly this message was sent.

It is obvious from remarks by OTB board members on and off the record that none of them expected the storm of protest their action raised, or how unanimously opinion would run against them among the public, artists, press, and Murphy's peers. Typical of the latter was the artistic director for performance of Minneapolis' Walker Arts Center, Philip Bither, who summed up the feeling of scores of others when he wrote: "[F]rom the outside the move seems not only capricious but self-destructive and ungrateful as well. . . . It is hard to imagine what type of individual your organization will be able to attract [as a replacement for Murphy] after a colleague who has accomplished so much and who is amazingly respected throughout the field is treated in this manner."

Even among the establishment arts-funding community, not accustomed to second-guessing decisions of its own kind, the decision has roused negative comment. Referring to a grant from the Corporate Council for the Arts to support OTB's move to new quarters, one old hand said, "We didn't give them $350,000 so they could go and pull something like this."

On the purely practical side, the fatal weakness of the board's plan was expressed best by one of the many people posting critical remarks on the OTB Web site's "AfterTalk" page. "If On the Boards does hire a single executive director to replace both Mark and Sara," wrote Peter Mumford of Seattle, "how is that person going to be able to travel to festivals in Europe and around the country to keep up with the latest in performance art?"

"This is what happens when boards start thinking they can steer an institution like On the Boards," one veteran presenter/producer in the field says. "They always hire a management consultant to tell them to do what they've decided to do anyway. They always have a bushel of plausible rationalizations for their actions. And they always, always adopt Wile E. Coyote for their role model, rushing right out into space and not looking down until it's too late."

So relentlessly negative has the response to its decision been that the board felt compelled to schedule an open community forum to explain its actions at 8:30pm on Tuesday, May 4. And there are some signs that the board's unanimity is beginning to crumble. "He could reapply for this job as executive director," the board's Roberts told the Times' Mary Murfin Bailey. "We are not trying to say whether he is, or is not, a candidate." The arts community is not waiting for a miracle, however. At 7pm on May 6—opening night at On the Boards of Rennie Harris' PureMovement company, in a pair of new works co-commissioned by Murphy from the New York choreographer—a demonstration is planned under the flowering chestnuts in front of OTB's new building at First Avenue W and Roy St.

One local artist who hasn't worked at On the Boards in years summed it up thus: "I think it is important to communicate to the board as firmly and clearly as possible that, upon mature consideration, we have decided that if we are forced to choose between Mark Murphy and the OTB board, we must regretfully ask for the latter's resignation."

Shortly after the press release was made public, a rebuttal was drafted.

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