Dream Weavers

ACT's crash reflects a Seattle arts culture of big talk and board stiffs.

"Is it curtains for ACT Theatre?" ran the front-page headline in the Feb. 15 Seattle Times. The news that A Contemporary Theatre is broke and on the verge of bankruptcy shared top billing with Iraq weapons inspector Hans Blix flipping Colin Powell the bird at the U.N. "ACT Theatre must raise $1.5 million by the end of next week," wrote the Times' Misha Berson, cranking away at the klaxon of crisis. End of the week, nobody had stepped forward to cover ACT's debt, so a fall-back position was announced: ACT's board of trustees would pony up $40,000enough to cover ACT's basic expenses for one month"out of their own pockets." Was anyone but cynical old me unimpressed with this? Once upon a time, it was thought that such gestures were exactly what trustees of nonprofit organizations existed for. For that, and to make sure the groups they head don't get into such straits in the first place. But that's not how things worked at ACT, apparently. According to the Times, "[Sheena] Aebig, a Seattle bankruptcy attorney who became an ACT trustee in July, said she did not know how broke the theater was until Jan. 4, when ACT staffers told the board the organization had run out of money." Considering that Aebig is not just a trustee of ACT but the co-chair of its board, such ignorance is astonishing. Surely a bankruptcy attorney, of all people, is aware of the meaning of the term "fiduciary responsibility"? In its Tinytown way, Aebig's confession seems as appalling as Kenneth Lay's assertion that the company he headed burned through half a billion dollars without anybody in the front office noticing. But it's entirely in keeping with the way arts groups, in Seattle and elsewhere in this country, are governed and financed. The system is rickety even in good times, and bad times expose its shortcomings cruelly. During the six months that Aebig was settling in as captain of a rapidly sinking ship, ACT's marketing department managed to persuade some 5,000 people to front the company $500,000 to $750,000 for subscriptions to the upcoming 2003 season. At the same time, ACT's books were showing a half-million dollar dip into the red. Rather than notify the responsible authorities on the board that this was the case, it seems that all money raised to finance the coming 2003 season was spent just to keep the theater doors open. But ACT's problems weren't just with recent cash flow. Before the company moved, in 1996, into the plaster-and-marble halls of the old Eagles Lodge downtown, people were pointing out that the numbers didn't make sense, that even with both stages at Eagles playing to capacity, they were too small to cover the cost of running such a grandiose physical plant. After the move, the disparity between possible income and allowable expense got even farther out of whack. Two theaters deliberately designed to function as "empty spaces" or black boxes were, season after season, so bedizened with unnecessary physical froufrou that even good plays and capable actors were lost from view. Froufrou is expensive. So are "nationally acclaimed artists." For most of its 38 years, ACT was run by Seattle-based artists who did first-rate work while hiring local designers and performers. But in the 1990s, ACT's board decided it wanted sexy artistic leadership to go with its plans for a sexy building. Peggy Shannon and her successor, Gordon Edelstein, had no links to the artistic Seattle community and nothing to gain careerwise by working closely with it. Shannon talked about hiring big out-of-town names; Edelstein actually did it. During his tenure, talents like JoAnne Akalaitis, Philip Glass, Charles Mee, Jane Alexander, and Randy Newman were invited to use ACT as a sandbox to develop projects in. Over the years, we saw some interesting work at ACT, but most of it cost three or four times as much as it earned. The ACT board signed off on that strategy; in Aebig's astonishing words, "We let our artistic eyes outrun our financial pocketbook." But if the board of trustees of a nonprofit arts organization has any function whatsoever, it is to prevent the eyes from pillaging the pocketbook, or to see to it that the pocketbook is constantly replenished. ACT's board did neither. While Edelstein was earning the points with New York's cultural chattering classes that got him his nice new job at New Haven's Long Wharf Theater, the company whose fortunes he supposedly was shepherding was reduced to a hollow shell, without two nickels to rub together, to artistic effect or otherwise. The specifics of the ACT debacle are unique to ACT, but the attitudes that virtually ensured catastrophe are not confined to the environs of Seventh and Pike. Ever since the Seattle World's Fair, Seattleites have dreamed big and brushed aside doubt. The 42 solid citizens who believed Roger Stevens when he said that a remodeled 5th Avenue Theatre would make big bucks for the town ended up paying $100,000 each for their kicks. Likewise the public benefactors who joined Ida Cole in underwriting the Paramount Theatre renovationthough it cost them an estimated $250,000 each to get the monkey off their backs. Nobody capable of running a few figures on an envelope back believed the up-front cost estimates on Benaroya Hall. Likewise, the numerological fantasy sold straight-faced to press and public as the construction budget for Seattle Center's Marian Oliver McCaw Hall. In cases like these, it's the public that ends up footing the bill, but that's so much the norm in this town that nobody even notices a pinch in their wallets any more. The people ultimately responsible for these matters are not artists, however spendthrift; not managers, however pliable or feckless; but trusteesthe members of the boards of the institutions, who in exchange for tax exemptions for their hobby agree to be legally responsible for its actions. For them, "I didn't know" or "Nobody told me" are not acceptable explanations. Is ACT just the first of many dominoes? Probably. Intiman's in trouble and trying to retrench; the Empty Space is hanging by a thread; On the Boards is on the ropes. We haven't heard much about perennially troubled Pacific Northwest Ballet recently, but with their perennial cash cow The Nutcracker tanking last Christmas, things can't be all that rosy over at the Phelps Center. And looming behind them all is the Paramount. Debt-free for the moment, how long can it stay that way without the periodic infusions of cash from Ida Cole, which have kept the wonderful old white elephant going this long? ACT's distinction among leading Seattle arts groups is that it was the first to run out of ways to cover its ass in public. More butts, maybe a lot more, are going to be bared before too long. But whatever happens, however dire, the one thing we can be pretty sure about is that in this town, no one will even ask for explanations: certainly not funding authorities (like the Corporate Council for the Arts), not, for pity's sake, the press, though both have been aware of at least the outlines of ACT's plight for a year or more. At ACT, an institution it took 35 years to build has been frittered away in three. However many institutions end up crippled or imploding in the current downturn, we can be comfortably sure of just one thing: None of it will be anybody's fault. rdowney@seattleweekly.com

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