Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Stories with brains

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Faced with an apparent underwhelming choice of candidates for the U.S. senate in 2008 (incumbent Norm Coleman-R, and challengers Al Franken-DFL and Dean Barkley-I), Minnesota voters contrived to choose none of them for as long as possible.

The proceedings surrounding the re-count of an election too-close-to-call, certification by the State Canvassing Board, and the (so far) month-long trial initiated by Coleman have resulted in not seating one of two senators to which Minnesota is entitled. Today's tally has Franken ahead by fewer than 300 votes, but stay tuned. Eventually, either Coleman or Franken will assume the office, with neither possessing a mandate from a majority of the voters.

I appreciate the collective wisdom of this expression by the electorate, although I know that many do not. Possibly, if we could have forced a do-over with a new slate of candidates, we would have done so. That is not in the legal deck of cards.

Would that it were so, however, for such sterling public servants as Jack Kingston, the representative for Georgia's 1st Congressional District. Before voting against the recent stimulus package, Kingston raised a fuss about including $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts because the money would not be spent on real jobs for real people. That kind of talk riled some of us arts and culture types. Especially since Kingston's own website touts his district as something of "a literary haven" and the background setting for filming of Academy Award-winning movies.

Kingston's wisdom aside, artists and members of their support system believe themselves to be very real people. In fact, I believe one segment of artists – dancers – are among the most intelligent people on the planet.

Coinciding with the conversation in Washington about the reality of the arts was the appearance in Minneapolis of an essay by Melodie Bahan, director of communications at the Guthrie Theater. Bahan, who says she likes well-written reviews, thinks that readers of daily newspapers would be served better by a focus on "actual journalistic coverage of the arts."

Insisting that journalists are storytellers and that thousands of stories are not being written, Bahan says "Stop writing reviews and start writing news."

Oh, honey!

Surely you at least thought twice about such a position after the Star Tribune newspaper reported last month about the $682,300 salary and benefits that were paid to Guthrie Director Joe Dowling in 2007. (That is less than 3% of the Guthrie's budget, by the way.) Even though an editorial noted that Dowling and others had earlier taken 20% cuts, and even though a reader observed the sum is less than 5% that paid to three roster members of the Minnesota Twins, I would bet that you and your colleagues did not welcome the writing of such news. Nor the discussion that has reverberated since.

Nonetheless, let us assume that the arts are somehow as real as the rest of the world, that they are created and sustained by real people, that they impart meaning and value to other real people, and that they should be subject to real journalism. What real, or surreal, stories would then be written, and with what timing?

Relative to Dowling, we would have read in 2003 that he and others took 20% pay cuts to tide over a rough patch in the Guthrie's finances. That would have been as laudable then as was last week's welcome news that Jeff Immelt, CEO of General Electric, opted to forego a 2008 performance bonus of $11.7 million after the company's stock price tanked by 56%. As noted by Forbes, this action by Immelt and GE set an example both of good governance and good public relations. The example stands in contrast to the more than $3 billion in bonuses approved for employees of Merrill Lynch by former CEO John Thain following 4th quarter losses in 2008 of multi-millions of dollars.

We would read, as we did last week, that the New York City Ballet would not renew the contracts of 11 of 101 dancers next year; that senior staff already had taken 10% salary reductions; that junior staff will take 5% reductions next year; that ticket sales and donations are down 6-8%; that this year's deficit of $5.5 million will equal 8.8% of the $62.3 million budget; that next year's deficit is projected at $2-3 million; and that the endowment has dropped from $187 million to $138 million. We would read, as we have not, how the company intends to finance multiple years of deficits totalling multi-millions of dollars. We would read, as we have not, why the company believes it cannot institute balanced budgets for the current and succeeding years.

Such stories would juxtapose nicely with today's congressional testimony by Chesley Sullenberger, the US Airways pilot who landed Flight 1549 safely in the Hudson River, not far from City Ballet's headquarters at Lincoln Center. Sullenberger told the aviation subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that his pay has been cut 40% in recent years and his pension terminated. He has started a consulting business to augment his pilot's pay and works seven days a week to make ends meet.

We would continue to be outraged by news such as that greeting us this morning: (1) After investing $150 billion in American International Group (aka A.I.G., the insurance giant that is "too big to fail") where the collective we now own 80% of the company, they tell us they need tens of billions of dollars more. (2) After investing $45 billion in Citigroup, we need to give them more, raising our ownership stake to 40%. (3) General Motors and Chrysler need $22 billion on top of the $17 billion we already have lent. No doubt, some top staff people at these outfits would continue to complain about the government's salary compensation caps because they have contrived a lifestyle for themselves that does not work with less than seven figures.

(You read it here first: I can and will run any company into the ground for $500,000 a year. I will bring along my own cronies to help me do it. Where do I sign my contract?)

An age of real-arts-news-not-reviews would continue to include hard facts in stories such as appeared in the New York Times nine days ago (Sun., Feb. 15, 2009, AR5). Writer Kate Taylor reported on the viral fund-raising efforts by the Magic Theatre in San Francisco to raise $350,000 to avoid closing for good after 40 years. The theater has enjoyed a national reputation for its creation and production of new plays.

Basically, as reported by Taylor, a former artistic director drove the subscription audience away with crappy work that even the board of directors did not like. Still, the staff and board let the budget (i.e., expense budget) double to $2 million while debts mounted. After a $75,000 shortfall in this season's subscriptions "the board took a closer look at the balance sheets....The theater had maxed out its $300,000 line of credit and had $300,000 in other debts."

I have been looking for a new gig in the arts, am up for a challenge, and saw that the Magic had a leadership position posted. So, I started digging deeper to find out more of the back story on $600,000 of debt – representing 30% of the budget. A Dec. 31 story in the San Francisco Chronicle quoted the artistic director as saying "There was a lot of debt we didn't realize we had....This situation is the result of years and years of mismanagement."

A Jan. 19 Chronicle story related a combination of causes and quoted the board chair thusly: "The reports we were getting at the finance committee level and at the board level were not thorough enough for us to fully understand the mounting accounts payable....That's our fault." The future of the Magic Theatre remains in doubt.


Rep. Kingston down in Georgia should take comfort in the knowledge that mindless risk-taking and financial mismanagement are traits shared by incompetents in for-profit and non-profit enterprises.

Ms. Bahan is right: there are a lot of stories not being written. Some of them could include the tales of mismanagement and poor governance within organizations in Minnesota that pre-date the current economic downturn. To be fair, however, many organizations do have their acts together, and we should read about those also.

Just as I read this morning about many of Minnesota's good "Banks That Had a Brain" in a laudatory essay by Minnesota's solo senator, Amy Klobuchar. Not all banks lost their heads and ran off to the land of Oz, Klobuchar writes. "They did well, both for themselves and for the people they serve."


Alan said...

Very intelligent commentary. It's nice that someone got specific in response to Melodie. (I'll probably link to this if that's all right, Gary?)

Though, I think its important to note, that not all in-depth coverage of the arts has to be or even should be about money. Right?

Gary Peterson said...

Alan: Thanks for reading and response. OK to link. Certainly, there is more to cover in the arts than just money, but money does seem to consume the zeitgeist these days!