The arts in turmoil

It’s about time the arts were making headlines. Unfortunately, it’s not for the best reasons. Artists are in an uproar–most recently about the controversial exits of two long-time arts administrators, well-liked by artists, at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Southern Theater, the area’s de-facto home for dance among other performing arts.

The alleged force-out of Jeff Bartlett, the Southern Theater’s artistic  director who’d been at the theater since interning there in 1975, is still a mystery to most: He apparently was told not to report to work for the indefinite future and wasn’t offered any explanation. At the same time, the Southern gleefully announced the hiring of its first president and CEO, Patricia Speelman, characterizing it as a significant step up toward stability and becoming a major institution. The response of artists and arts aficionados who have appreciated and benefited from Bartlett’s leadership at the venue was swift: “This is akin to asking Bruce Springsteen to leave the E Street Band, or telling Jon Stewart to leave the Daily Show, or cutting Batman from THE DARK KNIGHT,” read the announcement of an artists’ meeting last night to discuss Bartlett’s departure. (Today, the meeting’s organizers have sent a statement to the Southern suggesting the handling of Bartlett’s departure indicates “a larger sensibility and style of leadership [at the theater] that is detrimental to the future of the Southern.” They called for Southern management to attend a larger community meeting they are planning for July 21.)

The other incident was the resignation of Stewart Turnquist as the coordinator of Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program, which showcases local artists at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Like Bartlett, Turnquist had been at it since the 1970s, and recently, in a reorganization begun by the erstwhile MIA director Bill Griswold, the previously adjunct program was brought under the rather broad umbrella of the MIA’s new contemporary art director.  Artists close to the program fear its autonomy–a panel of artists choose which Minnesota artists to showcase in MAEP’s gallery within the MIA–might be compromised by its increased closeness to the MIA power structure. The MIA, on the other hand, says that its independence will remain intact and that, if anything, the MAEP may benefit from the increased closeness, its profile elevated through greater marketing, etc. Turnquist’s supporters, too, have called for a community meeting, this Saturday.

Here’s the bottom line–the Southern has screwed up in its handling of the Bartlett affair. Even if it has very good reasons for letting Bartlett go , if it’s true that they weren’t shared with Bartlett, as they haven’t been with the press (and if rumors of power plays being a significant factor are also true) such seemingly clandestine management at the very least undercuts the institution’s accountability to artists and the community at large. In cases like this, where legal liabilities may prevent full disclosure, it’s admittedly dangerous to jump to conclusions. But equally powerful is the liability of saying too little, because nothing fans fear and rumors like the unknown. The MIA, too, might have stemmed the tide of fear by tendering a more public explanation–or much sooner, at least–of how folding MAEP into the organization’s general auspices would or would not change the program.

And yet it’s also likely that the loudness of the uproar may directly correspond to the length of these directors’ tenure. Over the course of three-plus decades, artists and patrons have become accustomed to things being a certain way for a very long time, and many have either benefitted from or appreciated the way it was. The possibility of change has been all the more unsettling by the mystery of it all. By all accounts, Bartlett and Turnquist were widely admired, approachable and encouraging. Yet in general such long tenures tend to breed a clubby atmosphere, in which knowing the right people–and being on their good side, and sharing the same sensibilities–could make the difference between having your art seen or not seen for the length of one’s entire career. As some devil’s advocates have pointed out, allowing the MAEP panel to operate independently all these years could well have fostered three decades of friends simply showing friends’ art.

I’d prefer the community were neither that cynical nor as reactionary as others have been. There isn’t nearly enough information to suggest that reinstating MAEP’s outsider status or Bartlett, as some artists have called for, or boycotting the Southern’s season (as others have), would benefit artists in the long run (though Bartlett may well be entitled to compensation and certainly an explanation)–that dynamic is simply the known quantity. But such reactions point to something greater in the artistic community right now: the sense that the sky is falling. Artists, generally self-employed, live with more uncertainty than most of us and to be a good arts administrator these days is to constantly reassure artists that the carpet is not being pulled out from under them. Yet in the aftermath of departures and closings from the Theatre de la Jeune Lune to the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Twin Cities artists are as skittish as they’ve ever been, and one less sure thing may have been the last straw.