Brian Jacobson
Continuing coverage

An Open Letter to Skylight

By - Jun 28th, 2009 01:42 pm
Foreward from the Performing Arts Editor: It has been two weeks since the firing of Skylight Opera’s Artistic Director Bill Theisen by its board, along with several other positions including the company and box office manager. All of this was a decision made as an expected operating loss of $100,000 at the end of its fiscal year looms on June 30.
The move, announced discretely two days after the firing, set off a firestorm of criticism and one physical protest scene from the actors and crew who adored Theisen, subscribers who then threatened to cancel their ticket orders for the upcoming 50th Anniversary season for 2009-10, and the arts community in general. Jamie Johns, who was the music director, openly and repeatedly criticized the move and was fired for insubordination. Two board members, Robert Biel and Pat Kraft, have resigned in protest.
Much of the scorn has been directed at Managing Director Eric Dillner, who was hired away from the Shreveport Opera by Skylight in Milwaukee to encourage a positive monetary flow. Detractors think there were others steps that could have been taken. Many believe that it was a power play by Dillner, who will absorb the Artistic Director duties into his role. Dillner, for his part, has stated that they offered freelance directing opportunities to Theisen as they plan the upcoming fall shows.
As the controversy continues, we publish here an open extended letter penned by Sarah Kriger Hwang, who works as the Director of Marketing and Development for Renaissance Theatreworks in Milwaukee, but is speaking here on her own personal volition as a “Subscriber, Donor, Arts Administrator, and Human Being.”

Dear Skylight Leadership,

It saddens me to write this letter. I have held off on voicing my opinion, but now I sense that you are waiting for the public outrage to die down. I am not comfortable letting that happen.

My big question is “why the silence?” If you are so certain that the decisions you have made are in the best interest of the Skylight, then why not share your decision process with your constituents? I’m not a lawyer, so in my lay opinion you are not legally bound to disclosing an organizational restructuring, but why not disclose it? Isn’t better to get buy-in from a constituency broader than an executive committee? Couldn’t the PR problems have been avoided by being transparent? If there is nothing to hide, then why not? This was not a run-of-the-mill restructuring…this was HUGE!

So, who am I? And why does my opinion matter? Well, it doesn’t really, but I’d like to share it anyway. My history with the Skylight starts at childhood, attending rehearsals of the shows that my mother choreographed. Then I performed in the 1985 production of Anything Goes. Then I interned in marketing and development after college, and finally served at the marketing director from 1996-1998. In addition to being a child who grew up at the Skylight, a past performer, and a former employee, I am a subscriber, a donor and an arts administrator. Needless to say, I care deeply about the Skylight.

But, I have lost faith. With no concrete information on which to make judgments about what has transpired over the last 2 weeks, I could do nothing but formulate an opinion based on rumors. My opinion on your specific decisions is not important, and frankly those decisions may be none of my business. But my opinion on your handling of those decisions is important because your silence over the past two weeks has done more than create suspicion. It has had a confidence-shaking ripple-effect in the community from the employees who still work for you, to artists who hope to work for you, to tenants who count on you for their home, to the community who has supported you with their time, money and hearts.

Being a company with 501(c)(3) status means you benefit the public. If you benefit the public then shouldn’t that public be informed? Don’t they deserve it?

I’m afraid that you have held out too long. Without faith in the leadership of your organization, how to you intend to garner the support you need to sustain the organization, let alone for the deficit you are facing?

My only wish is for this to turn out well.
Sarah Kriger Hwang

0 thoughts on “Continuing coverage: An Open Letter to Skylight”

  1. Anonymous says:

    this saga reminds me of the melt down of Theater X years ago. ’tis a dangerous thing to combine artistic director with that of executive director…too much power in one pair of hands. it’s the job of the board to make sure the venue is financially stable. so tell me, how did this get out of hand? was the board rubber stamping rather than really being involved? did they think some wealthy geezer would sally forth with a check to bail them out? being involved means watching the bottom line like a hawk.

  2. Anonymous says:

    There are 30 some members on Skylight’s board. I don’t know any of them (most of them don’t know each other) but i suspect most of them are there because they donated money and want a feather in their cap, which means they know nothing and care little about what specifically happens with the organization. The board members who do pay attention (the exec committee, i assume) probably don’t know much about running an organization either, they hired the managing director to do that, and trusted him, blindly, and this is the result.

    It’s the very organizational structure of most big 501c3 arts organizations at the root of these disasters.

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