Wednesday, June 24, 2009

a skylight call to arms

jonathan west at artsy schmartsy, also the managing director of the sunset playhouse in elm grove, wisconsin, sums up what he thinks about the skylight debacle:
The current Managing Director of The Skylight and the Executive Committee of The Skylight should resign due to the negative effects of an intensely miscalculated announcement of a management restructuring that has turned into a public relations disaster.

They are not bad people. They are, in fact, good people. They are well intentioned and tried to solve a problem. I think their decision might be right, but the handling of it was so wrong and their silence regarding the public outcry promotes an arrogance that I simply cannot support as a quality of an effective leadership team.
i think jonathan's got the right idea. let me add a few things.

first of all, where is colin cabot? colin, we need you.

second, WHO IS THIS EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE? it seems there are plenty of current board members who don't even know the answer to this question. we need to know who exactly made this decision, and they should have the balls to stand up and say, "i am responsible for this."

if the entire board did not vote on this decision, is it legal? if the entire board voted on it after the fact, is it legal? (and legality aside, isn't there is a huge difference between a vote prior to a decision being made, and a vote afterwords to try to "clean up the mess?") and if the board did in fact give dillner and the executive committee a vote of confidence, after the fact, was it legal? i.e was a quorum reached?

second - the dillner's skylight is planning a "community forum" to discuss all of this in the near future. call me crazy, but i think this is a smoke screen and an attempt to diffuse the issue. the community has already done lot's of talking, and no one has responded. no one. what does that tell you? that we're trying to decide what to say? what "stories" are being coordinated and agreed upon behind the scenes right now?

i'm tired of hearing "well, eric is really a nice guy." i'm a nice guy too, but i make bad decisions (sometimes.) and if mr. dillner is such a nice guy, why was this a total shock to bill theisen? if an executive committee said, at some point, "this is what you must do," and dillner vehemently disagreed with it, why didn't he bring bill in to the discussion? this is the first major, public decision mr. dillner has made for the skylight and i'd say it hasn't gone well.

those in favor of this decision are, i believe, about to present their case to the public as a unified front, when in fact, it seems clear they are not. those not in favor of this decision need to rally the troops, and dig in for the long haul or just give up and move on. plenty can go on behind the scenes, but while that's happening, we need to be a vocal, loud, clear voice.

jamie johns may have gone too far for some, but he was heard. we need to be heard too. i say no more mr. nice guy: civil, legal protest against this decision is worth it. signs. shouting. singing. chanting. a breakfast is a great idea, but we need to be raising our bagels to the sky and yelling "i'm mad as hell and i'm not going to take it anymore!"

the longer this is drawn out, the more it dissipates. this is what a pr firm would tell you: "don't respond and it will go away."

we must not go away.


  1. I'm not going away and I'm going to call out another board member every day until we get answers.

    First a recap:
    Good for Bo Beal (and now Pat Kraft) to resign from the Board. Who's next?

    Byron Foster: You've served, what, 15+ years on that board? You think Eric Dillner can do what only Clair Richardson even dreamed of doing? Seriously? Even Colin Cabot, with all his knowledge and experience was wise enough to go get artistic directors.

    John Hein: You've been there long enough (certainly longer than Pat Kraft) and understand the duties of all of these positions that have been eliminated. Have you seen a plan that shows you how the duties of FIVE full time positions will be absorbed? Are you going to be the estate lawyer who tries to negotiate with the anonymous donor that this new restructuring still allows you to pull the income from the million dollar gift to support the salary of a guy who nuked the position the gift was intended to permanently endow?

    Now for today's spotlight:

    John Stollenwerk: You've been on that Board longer than almost anyone, including Byron Foster. Is this the way you do business? Is this the kind of treatment of employees you want your name associated with? Really? You want your name on this kind of "corporate restructuring" after all you've done to ensure smooth transitions at other companies, including your own?

    stay tuned.....

  2. As someone who has worked in PR, given social media technology and the viral nature of this information, the worst thing they could have done is not respond. They clearly don't have anyone in place to handle crisis PR, which is exactly what's going on. You would want to contain the damage and participate in the conversation at this point to at least give the illusion that they care about what their constituents are saying. Instead, they either have no PR counseling or if they do, it's by someone as out of touch with reality as their executive committee. There's no such thing as it "just going away" anymore.

  3. from what I gathered reading the by-laws, Eric actually could have made the moves even without the Executive Committee approval, which means it was legal. Still doesn't make it the correct way to do things, but it was legal.

    i heard an attempt was made to hold an emergency board meeting but they could not reach a quorum. to remove a director, it requires a majority vote of directors (not just directors present).

    somewhat off-topic, my understanding is that the endowment for the AD is in a frozen state due its value dropping below what was originally donated (that's one of the stipulations). let's hope it was invested prudently and did not have major exposure to the markets or it might be a while before there is any money available from that endowment.

    i don't know the particulars of the endowment--it was certainly publicly given to endow the AD position, but i don't know how binding its legal details are. and of course, if ED takes on the title of MD/AD, then there is an AD to endow.

    again, if the removal of the position of AD was done without consulting with the donor of the endowment, even if the fund is frozen, is--am i repeating myself here?--not the proper way to do things.

  4. I really wish someone would come forward with the particulars to this very important piece of the puzzle that is the 1 million dollar AD endowment. I am really curious to know how restricted the fund is, what the original contribution was, and how much of the principal is still in play. I cannot imagine that any major market loss to the original contributon is making these funds unavailable to pay the AD salary if that is in fact what the entire contribution was intended for. Having worked with a much larger endowment program at MAM it is my experience that you play it quite safe with these funds. I am talking Money Market accounts where you are only losing interest income in a bad market.

  5. Tamara MartinsekJune 24, 2009 at 5:22 PM

    All foundations and individual funders whose grant dollars are based on invested funds 9which is all of them!!!) are taking a hit, re-adjusting budgets to be able to continue granting at needed levels, foundations with employees are facing hiring freezes (note frezes not firings, benefit readjustments, restructuring - Even GMF - but all these organizations have smart investors leading them -and are wise enough to have endowments structured to cover market shortfalls - so my question is was this AD endowment already "dipped into" to cover other shortfalls?? No matter how it has been handled - the donor would have to be informed (or the donors executors if they are no longer with us) and Skylight should be required to provide annual repoirts on the status of the endowment to said donor!

  6. I spoke with a Board member who is very familiar with the Skylight investments and the endowment. I did not pose all of the questions that have been stated here, but I got assurances that the endowment was being handled properly (no dipping for other reasons, etc.). One of the stipulation states that if the endowment value goes below the donated value or below its cost value (don't know what that means) then it cannot pay out and any money paid out cannot lower the endowment value below those other values. he did not know if the DONOR had been handled properly. and while i would like to know how the investment is being handled, i also recognize that it's really none of my business. the only salient point for me regarding the endowment in this big soap opera is: was the donor consulted?

  7. Hey, just noticed in Tony's post that I say something about the Executive Committee members being bad people. That was a typo. I've fixed it in my post on my blog. I think they are good people. So there.

  8. Matt Flynn: There's no way you OK'd this debacle. There is likely no Board member closer to, or more appreciative of the artistic staff and the artists that strive to further the Skylight dream than you. How could you treat them this way? These people were your personal friends. How many times have you appeared on stage with or under the direction of Bill Theisen?

  9. So much has been said. All I can add is...what a gigantic clusterfuck. Can I say that, or is that a threat?

  10. Milwaukee,

    I'm still riveted and sad. I was a newcomer to the city just 12 years ago. It was amazing to me how welcoming and open armed the entire arts community was. I hope the passion for answers in this arena can stay alive long enough to get some answers. My plan is to take two weeks off. When I get back in town, I will start calling Suzanne and Eric again daily until the royalty will at least grant me an audience. The executive committee has decided to stay the course. So then, must we.

  11. JJ: Maybe by the time you get back we'll have resolved this for you. Here's today's call-out:

    Gary Jorgensen: You run a family business. You know the importance of succession planning and fair treatment of your family and employees. If you would not stand for this kind of action by one of your sons, how can you have your name attached to something like this?

    The call-outs will continue until we get answers.

  12. Jim Plunkett: You probably know better than anyone on the Board the value of an artistic director to the success of an arts organization, given your family's life long passion for and support of the arts in Milwaukee. You also run a family business and know the value of personal realtionships to the success of a company. Between your vast experience in the arts and your success as a businessman, can we assume you were presented with a plan for this restructuring that met with your approval from both an artistic stewardship and business standpoint? If not, then why are you supporting this decision?

  13. Cutis Sawyer: Are you a member of the Executive Committee? (You were last year)Did you have a hand in this "restructuring"? As a CFO for Midwest Airlines you could be expected to understand the proper way to conduct restructuring in a time of economic contraction. Tell us, did you see a plan that convinced you that terminating the public face of the organization and the means of production would lead to long term vibility of this organizaton? Tell us, if the airline was having trouble attracting investors, but ticket sales were more than offsetting direct operating costs and were contributing to cover admin overhead, would you cut the people responsible for driving those ticket sales? Or would you look at why senior leadership couldn't attract investors? Certainly you have your hands full with the sale of Midwest to Republic, but if you could spare a moment to comment on your involvement in this 'restructuring' it would be appreciated.

  14. Vince Shiely: Aside from Matt Flynn, you are the person closest to the artistic corps on that Board. Your family has been personally touched by the skill, grace, and courtesy of Bill Theisen, Diana Alioto and Jamie Johns. Is this how you return their consideration? By eliminating the people responsible for the very purpose of the organization?

  15. Jude Werra: Personnel management guru, corporate recruiter, and HR professional extraordinaire. Under what circumstances would you ever condone such a ham-fisted, ill-conceived, and poorly executed staff restructuring? Next to Matt Flynn's approval, your approval is the most inconceivable. Why in the world would you want your name associated with such a debacle?

  16. F. Tessa Escamilla Bartels: Tessa, as a singer one might expect you'd have a little more concern about the gutting of the artistic staff. As a board member, it calls into question as to whether you were adequately informed of a major change in executive oversight for the company. As a Latina, aren't you just a wee bit concerned that the current administration has all but eliminated anyone of color from the staff?

  17. Robert Bell: Bob, you are a businessman and a banker and are expected to understand the finances of Skylight (seeing as how you're at their bank and all). Can we assume that you reviewed this plan for restructuring and found it sound? if so, did you consider the impact this would have on the company's ability to continue to generate earned revenue during a particularly difficult period for contributions? Just wondering because you seem to have OK'd the firing of the very people responsible for that earned revenue. On top of it all, your family has some of the deepest links of anyone in Milwaukee to the Skylight and it is shocking that you'd allow such an unseemly departure from that history.


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