Things couldn’t have gone worse, PR-wise, for the Southern Theater recently if falling sandbags had knocked out the first few rows of patrons. At just about the same time that the cutting-edge Minneapolis performing arts venue announced its new president and CEO, Patricia Speelman, word spread that its longtime artistic director, Jeff Bartlett, had been dismissed without public explanation. In fact, as it later became clear, the Speelman announcement was made in lieu of explaining Bartlett’s departure (folks quickly put two and two together) because the board had been advised not to do so. In the past week, more announcements have been made–but they’re being greeted by the same artists who once threatened a boycott with something like cautious optimism.
Enter stage right: Jon Ferguson, named the Southern’s new theater programming director–the first of three new directors to be hired in Bartlett’s stead, divvying up the venue’s music, dance, and theater programming responsibilities. Why is this good news, even for the artists who miss Bartlett? Because Ferguson is one of their own, an uncompromising experimentalist, and a critically acclaimed one: His best-known show, “Please Don’t Blow Up Mr. Boban” galvanized the Minnesota Fringe Festival a couple years back. He also happens to have a mile-wide sweet side–he’s taught theater to kids, after all. And it doesn’t hurt that he’s relatively young, too, and, being a British native, without decades-long ties to the way things have always been done here–a new generation stepping up.
Today’s announcement was that Kate Nordstrum, the Southern’s marketing and communications rep, would be stepping into the part-time duties of music programming director. As perhaps the person I’ve dealt with the most at the Southern, I’ve nothing but good things to say about her. Nordstrum was once a marketing manager at Lincoln Center in New York, helping book and promote musicians. Nordstrum was not the kind of communications person who obtusely pitches the venue’s season, demanding feature stories where none frankly exist, rather making you sure you had information when you needed it and letting you decide, not that would mind a rep who spies a good angle for you and makes you aware of it. The cynical might suggest that a lack of communication is partly what got the Southern embroiled with its artists, though the reasonable would see room for improvement while acknowledging the difficulties of the situation.
In the long run, what’s important is a commitment to greater transparency and an open ear for the concerns of those whose work and patronage keep the Southern relevant. And aside from the appointments, there’s been promising news on that front. Up to eight observers are now being allowed at board meetings. And the board has agreed to one or more artists eventually gaining voting representation on the board (previously, their role has been limited to a non-voting artistic advisory committee). Objectively, it’s admirable that the Southern has opened its doors without necessarily abandoning its own vision in the face of outside pressure. More of that, and the wounds may just heal over.