Southern Theater catastrophe

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by John Munger • August 1, 2008 • As some of you may know, the Southern Theater is not only a Fringe Site but also one of a handful of focal points for the nationally recognized Twin Cities dance community. You may also know that July 15, two and a half weeks ago, brought news in the Star Tribune that the founding Artistic Director of The Southern, Jeff Bartlett, had been summarily dismissed by the Board of Directors.

If this is news to you, please read on. If you already knew as much, you probably also know that this event has precipitated an incandescent crisis in the dance community. My purpose in today’s blog is to bring you up to speed, whether you’re hearing all this for the first time or whether you’re already up to your hips in the outrage.

Going Through the Movements is the blog of John Munger, one of five bloggers covering the Minnesota Fringe Festival for the Daily Planet.

First, let me begin by narrating a bald and blunt statement of the context of events.

On Thursday, July 10, the Board of Directors of The Southern Theater in Minneapolis, MN, abruptly relieved founder and artistic director Jeff Bartlett of his duties after 33 years (other numbers of years are stated in various contexts). This action came to light for artists, donors and the general public in a newspaper article on Tuesday, July 15. The Southern Theater has for many years been the focal venue for Twin Cities dance artists. The Southern has also collaborated with the Walker Art Center and has been a co-creator of the SCUBA dance network.

There has been outraged community reaction among artists and many donors and patrons. All issues, many of them litigious, are in play and neither Jeff Bartlett nor the Board is willing to disclose anything that might affect litigation. A group of 50 or more dance artists, including the majority of those booked for the coming 2008-09 season, met on Wednesday, July 16, to organize protest and to demand answers from the Board. The artists put together a public meeting with members of the Board scheduled for Monday, July 21. The Board issued a press release on Friday July 18 responding to these concerns by affirming the Board’s commitment to policies, philosophies and long-range plans already in place.

The meeting on July 21 was inconclusive. A majority of artists among the approximately 150 people gathered expressed frustration and outrage. The Board made no concessions and held firmly to affirmations of preserving the legacy and integrity of The Southern’s mission. Most of the meeting was civil though strained, but a handful of outbursts on both sides occurred near the end.

I would like to observe that my statement above saying, “The meeting on July 21 was inconclusive” is an understatement. Please note the following:

The artists and others who were hastily assembled did not have an organized and focused thrust or argument. Time had been too short, respect was due to varying viewpoints which meant a scattered response from the community, and no-one who is working seriously on this issue expected otherwise.

The Board basically said as close to nothing as they could get. They, too, were dealing with a short time-line and a perhaps unexpectedly vigorous pushback. They repeatedly reiterated their continuing support for legacies, in-place plans, and the mission of The Southern, but never responded to questions to say substantively what they meant by those legacies, plans nor even (for the most part) the mission. This, too, was to be expected. Faced on short notice with massive outrage they HAD to hunker down and limit themselves to defensible and pre-existing general statements that sound good.

But I want to say that real value came from this meeting. First, the Board had a chance to see firsthand that they are faced with genuine, serious, organized opposition based on professional and thoughtful disputes against the Board’s actions and processes. Second, the community had a chance to see how the Board behaves and how they answer, or deflect, pointed questions. It was also an opportunity for The Board to invoke current litigation as a reason for refusing to answer many questions.

Some of the audience statements were excessive, rude or not to the point. Some of the Board’s responses were evasive or even insultingly dismissive. There’s plenty of anger and frustration to go around. These learnings, on each side, did nothing to resolve issues but they did a great deal to shine light on key elements of the controversy.

Now the real work begins. Let us hope that we can come together with unified voices and let us hope that the Board can learn what is REALLY meant by the mission statement phrase, “…catalyzing connections among artists and audiences.”

Artists and other concerned parties are meeting again the night of Monday, Aug 4 at a place to be announced. The Board is apparently meeting in a formal session that same night. There may be picketers, which has NEVER happened in 30 years in the Twin Cities dance community. Stay tuned. If you wish to weigh in to me, you can reach me at 651-646-8076 or at my e-mail, Jrmdance@aol.com.

NOTE: This blog does not reflect the opinions or policies of the Minnesota Fringe Festival, Dance/USA, TCDailyPlanet nor anyone other than the author. These are purely and utterly my own observations and views.

John Munger has been performing, teaching, choreographing, researching and writing about dance for about 40 years. He teaches at Zenon, day-jobs for Dance/USA, and still hasn’t gotten much of it right.