Sunday, July 26, 2009

wininger: "blatant disregard for artists"

leslie wininger, former development director for the skylight opera theatre has sent this letter to eric dillner and the skylight board.

leslie's message to all those standing against the recent restructuring: "I just want everyone to know that I am standing, and have stood, squarely with them."
Dear Mr. Dillner and members of the Skylight Opera Theatre Board of Directors,

I am very saddened to find it necessary to write this letter, but I must add my name to the growing list of artists, former staff, and Board members who have withdrawn their support from Skylight Opera Theatre.

I have avoided expressing an opinion until now because I didn’t want to add to an already painful situation or harm an organization about which I care deeply. Having stepped down as the Skylight’s Development Director three years ago, I did not feel it was my place to weigh in on the decision to eliminate the positions that set off this unfortunate chain of events. I didn’t know all of the circumstances that led to the decision, nor should I. What’s more, I still have friends who work at the theatre, and I wanted to support their efforts to try to make the best of the very difficult situation in which they found themselves. I also still respect and admire many of the board members with whom I was privileged to work. But your combined actions over the past month, and especially the past two days, have forced me to reconsider.

In an arts organization, the staff’s role is to provide and protect an environment where artists can effectively practice their craft. The Board of Directors’ role is to ensure that the organization has the resources and leadership it needs to allow both the staff and the artists to be successful. In the current situation, neither the Managing Director nor the Board of Directors is fulfilling its solemn responsibility to the Skylight. As a result, the organization so many of us love is on the brink of destruction and I cannot in good conscience support it any longer. I am withdrawing my financial support effective immediately.

As the former Development Director, no one knows better than I how important charitable donations are to the theatre. When I left, contributions represented well over half of the Skylight’s annual operating budget and that figure was growing every year. Ticket sales were (and apparently continue to be) strong. But with that blessing also comes the curse of not being able to significantly increase earned revenue without dramatically increasing ticket prices. That option wasn’t viable three years ago, and it certainly isn’t viable during a recession. Donations must “fill the gap” between what it costs to operate the organization and what’s sold at the box office.

So I understand that the theatre needs donations now more than ever. But I also understand that it is artists, and in this case the Skylight’s artists, who inspire donors to give to arts organizations. Yes, it’s the Board and staff that usually do the asking, but there would be nothing to ask for if it weren’t for the artists. They are the reason patrons come to the theatre. They are the ones who touch our emotions. They are the ones who “help us remember some things, forget others, and refresh the dry places in our spirits”. It’s not the Development Director, the Managing Director, or the Board of Directors.

It’s heartbreaking to see that those who believe that a strict business model can be applied to an arts organization have overtaken the leadership of the Skylight. Your blatant disregard for the artists and the donors who care so deeply about the Skylight demonstrates that you do not understand the basic, beautiful nature of what you’ve promised to protect and preserve.

In my opinion, there is only one way out of this sad situation: Mr. Dillner must step down, and the Board must accept Colin Cabot’s incredibly gracious offer to serve as the interim Managing Director. Any board member who cannot endorse these actions should step down, as well. Then and only then can Colin and the remaining Board members undertake the enormous task of reengaging all of the stakeholders that have been disenfranchised during this debacle and re-claim the Skylight’s rightful place among our community’s most vibrant and treasured cultural institutions. To do otherwise is to willingly destroy Skylight Opera Theatre. Should these actions be taken, I would be willing to dedicate considerable time, talent and resources to the effort to save the Skylight.

Arts organizations – by their very nature – are living organisms. They can flourish or perish overnight. I fear your actions have wrought the latter. Please reconsider before it is too late.

Most sincerely,

Leslie Wininger
Development Director


  1. Having read just about EVERY letter posted on this, and other blogs, I must say that Ms. Wininger has very eloquently hit the proverbial nail on the head - the third paragraph of this letter truly says it all - I can only hope that someone in a leadership position will read this and have an epiphany! BTW - Tony your video of the day has me wondering........?

  2. I agree with Bill. This is the most articulate and complete version of the events, and why Dillner's leaving is the only answer to solving the current crisis. Leslie, you have done the Skylight and the community a great service by your clear-eyed evaluation.

  3. "I didn’t know all of the circumstances that led to the decision, nor should I."

    Again, I want to ask posters from the board. What is it that you know and we don't know, that had led to the result of the confidence voting a few days ago?

    Obama has approval index rating of -11 today. After a number of screwups it's still on downward trend. On the other hand Eric, who is supposed to be clearly at fault (from the information we had been told) of this situation, had better number that, at least it is a positive number. There must be something.

  4. Tamara MartinsekJuly 26, 2009 at 4:04 PM

    Leslie - may I say that this is exactly why I loved working wih you - wisdom, heart and moxy - well said my friend!

  5. Well written and right on! Thank you, Leslie.

  6. Thank you for your smart, smart letter Leslie.

  7. Thank you all so much for your kind comments. I've loved reading them.

    I wanted to clarify what I meant when I said the leadership of the Skylight doesn't understand the nature of the organization. I’m fully aware that the Skylight must succeed financially in order to thrive artistically. But financial success is a means to an end in a not-for-profit organization, not the end itself. That’s what distinguishes a not-for-profit organization from a for-profit enterprise. Without question, there is constant tension between margin and mission. Some decisions must be driven by tough financial analysis, others by artistic merit, but there must also be a balance between the two. When things get too far out of balance in either direction, the organization finds itself in crisis. Decisions were made over time that led the Skylight to the dire financial situation that it faces today. However, immediate and extreme reaction in the opposite direction doesn’t bring balance back to the equation; it only makes things worse and compromises public trust in the organization.

    My comments weren’t intended to be a personal indictment of Mr. Dillner or any member of the Board, although I concede they could have been interpreted that way. I have nothing but sympathy for everyone involved in this mess. And I choose to believe that they really are trying to save the organization. But given where things stand, the solution I suggested in my letter is still the only path I see out of this situation. And then the really hard work begins.


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