Tag Archives: Jon Ulsh

Ulsh is out, Stowell gains leverage at OBT. Now what?

A day before the season opener, the turmoil at Oregon Ballet Theatre has taken an unsurprising turn.

Photo: Lambtron, distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.Jon Ulsh, the embattled executive director, is out. Artistic director Christopher Stowell picks up some of his role, and chief operating officer Doug Wells will assume day-to-day management. The Oregonian’s Barry Johnson has the story on his Portland Arts Watch blog.

The ballet’s board says its decision isn’t a response to the overwhelming vote of no confidence in Ulsh by staff and dancers. But once the company’s letter of concern to the board became public, something had to be done — and this seemed the most likely outcome.

Development — read, fund-raising — apparently will become mainly the board’s responsibility. How it handles that task will be crucial to the company’s success.

Stay tuned. This story isn’t over.

Oregon Ballet Theatre: Can this marriage be saved?

UPDATE: Barry Johnson of The Oregonian has posted this new, vigorous counter-argument on his Portland Arts Watch blog to Nigel Jaquiss’s Willamette Week story about OBT’s shaky financial history (link to WW story is below). The gist of Barry’s new take: Bad weather during “The Nutcracker” WAS a major setback; nothing nefarious was going on; the company has radically revamped the way it does business and has a drastically reduced budget for the coming season. So where’s the scandal?

Ballet shoes, in fifth position

Ballet shoes, in fifth position. Photo: Lambtron, distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

The internal dissension at Oregon Ballet Theatre just keeps spilling over. Willamette Week broke the story of staff and dancer dissatisfaction with executive director Jon Ulsh, and now WW’s Nigel Jaquiss follows up with this report,which suggests a longstanding financial shambles. The Oregonian’s Barry Johnson followed up on the original story with a couple of good reports in his Portland Arts Watch column. Art Scatter posted its own take a week ago, and that commentary stirred up some impassioned responses in the comments section.

I hate this kind of story. People’s livelihoods and reputations go on the line. But you can’t sweep this sort of thing under the carpet. The newspapers need to keep hitting the stories; the organizations need to respond openly; the rest of us need to sort it all out and decide not just where the truth lies but also what it means.

The ballet world is an especially complex and partisan one that all too often seems to thrive, and sometimes impale itself, on divisiveness. Like classical music it gets caught up in the great-man or great-woman syndrome, for better and for worse. And when trouble hits — as it has in spades at OBT, where 41 of 56 employees signed a letter to the board questioning the executive director’s ability to carry out his job — the result can be a public relations disaster at the least and a crippling, even life-threatening blow at the most.

I don’t envy the ballet’s board, which has the difficult task of sorting the truth from the innuendo and anger, and then following the truth wherever it may lead. But it has to be done.

A couple of points:

The artistic/business alliance

Any arts group, and a nonprofit one especially, has to do a creative dance between artistic ambition and financial reality. The theoretical division is this: The artistic director pushes for the moon, the executive director or general manager says, “Let me grab my ladder and my butterfly net.” In reality, the partnership has to be vastly more collaborative. The general manager has to be committed to the artistic director’s vision, and the artistic director has to be willing, if reluctantly, to work within the financial realities that the general manager and her development staff can realistically provide.

It has to be a mutual give-and-take. What do we want, what do we need, what can we afford? If we can’t afford it now, what steps do we take so we can afford it later?

The general manager who nods and says “I’ll get you the moon” when in fact he lacks a ladder does the group no favors. The artistic director who refuses to believe the ladder doesn’t exist and keeps demanding green cheese also can do severe harm to his organization.

A question to the board: Have artistic director Christopher Stowell and executive director Ulsh been playing in the same ballgame? Have they been in agreement, or at cross-purposes? Have their expectations been unrealistic, or did they truly just have the bad luck to be steamrollered by an economy run amok? Sometimes good leaders make big mistakes. Sometimes they get caught by circumstances out of their control and their enemies shout, “Aha! Told you so!” Sometimes they’re just not up to the task. Parsing the differences, which OBT’s board must do, is perilous and essential.

Stowell is a special kind of artist — the kind of smart, aesthetically astute, nationally connected person a city the size of Portland doesn’t see every day — and the impulse inside the company, I’m sure, is to want to give him everything he needs to push the company as far and as fast forward as he can. He’s done a remarkable job of that. But has the ballet bought a house when it could only afford the down payment? I don’t know. The board needs to figure that out.

Is the partnership irreparable?

If leadership has made mistakes — and that includes the board as well as Stowell and Ulsh — does that necessarily mean it can’t learn and improve? Or is it truly too late in the game? The astonishing vote of no confidence in Ulsh by three-quarters of the staff will make any attempt at reconciliation daunting.

Did the staff and dancers make a mistake in going public with their concerns? Did they realize the letter would be leaked to the press? Did they leak it on purpose, figuring that was the best way to force Ulsh out — and if that’s the case, is it all over but the shouting? This is the sort of genie that’s impossible to put back in the bottle.

Again, I don’t know the answers. I’m not inside the company, and although I hear a lot of things, it’s difficult to gauge what’s accurate and what’s the understandable result of deep frustration.

If part of the problem is the way that Ulsh and Stowell work together, can that working relationship be improved? I don’t mean, do they get along personally? I mean, is each able to understand his own role in the business relationship, and are they able to separate reality from illusion? Is the partnership between equals? Do they trust each other — and themselves — enough to tell each other the truth, and to understand it themselves? Can they talk clear-headedly about limitations?

It’s a tricky balance. You can’t spend yourself into oblivion, but if you accept the status quo, you can shrivel artistically. Still, growth has to be real growth, without artificial stimulants. And if the bucks aren’t being hauled in, why is that?

I won’t presume to tell OBT’s board that it should hire, fire, or retain anyone. (Well, I will say it needs to hold on to Stowell as long as it can, even if that means getting him some training on collaborating with the executive side. This is, after all, his first artistic directorship, and even if you’re a natural at it, which I think he probably is, there are things to learn.) But the board can’t just hope the trouble will go away. It has to deal with it, and it has to act swiftly — but with careful, hard-nosed consideration.

Can this marriage be saved?

Should this marriage be saved?

We’re all waiting nervously to find out.

Oregon Ballet Theatre: Showdown at the No-K Corral

UPDATE: Barry Johnson takes the story further on his Oregonian blog, Portland Arts Watch, with this post on Friday. This appears to be very much a hot issue. Keep watching Portland Arts Watch.

Oregon Ballet Theatre's version of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker

Ever since last spring’s remarkable bailout from its equally remarkable tumble down the financial rabbit hole, Oregon Ballet Theatre has been trying to assure everyone that things are really OK now — and rumors have been rumbling that they most decidedly are not.

Bet on the latter. Willamette Week’s Kelly Clarke reported online Thursday that 41 members of the company — including many of the dancers, highly respected school chief Damara Bennett, ballet master Lisa Kipp and artistic director Christopher Stowell’s executive assistant, Rebecca Roberts — have signed a letter to the board asking for reviews of the leadership of both Stowell and executive director Jon Ulsh. Our good friend Barry Johnson joined in with this report on his Portland Arts Watch blog for The Oregonian. Do read them both to understand the background.

Although Stowell’s name is mentioned, it seems clear that Ulsh is the focus of what amounts to an anguished cry from the ballet’s rank and file — a mutiny, almost, in a business that takes its traditional hierarchy as a matter of fact.

“Either (Ulsh) does not have the skill set” to deal with the multiple challenges of his job, the letter stated, “or he does not have the capacity to handle all of them at once. It seems to me that if he did, we would not be in such deep difficulty after three years under his leadership.” The letter, composed by company historian Linda Besant, continues: “… I do not feel that the organization can afford to be a training ground for its executive director in this very crucial year.”

OBT dancers Gavin Larsen and Artur SultanovHarsh words. And it seems odd that they were written by someone as relatively on the sidelines as the company historian. You could dismiss it as internal grumbling except that so many major players took the extraordinary step of signing it, potentially putting their own jobs on the line.

I want to make it very clear that I haven’t talked with Ulsh, Stowell, or any member of the board about OBT’s administrative troubles since the letter was sent. My thoughts are based on the news reports I’ve read, past observations, and second-hand reports from people close to the scene. I’m hoping to start a conversation here, not end one, and I hope people inside the company will feel free to respond openly.

It seems telling that while the actual artists in the ballet company are underpaid and thus prone to unrest, so are the musicians in the Oregon Symphony — and from what I can tell, most of the symphony musicians, who have accepted stiff pay cuts and reductions in benefits to help cope with the orchestra’s own fiscal troubles, are solidly behind their leaders, music director Carlos Kalmar and and president Elaine Calder.

So what’s the difference?

Hard to say, except it appears that while the symphony musicians have faith in Calder’s efforts to rethink how the orchestra presents itself to the community, a significant and perhaps majority percentage of the ballet dancers and staff have no such faith in Ulsh’s abilities. The letter, in fact, amounted to a vote of no confidence in Ulsh’s ability to carry out his duties.

Is there an element of scapegoating here? I don’t know. Maybe. I do recall that after the ballet’s emergency call last spring to raise $750,000 to keep it from folding (an astonishing outpouring of generosity brought in more than $900,000) one person extremely close to the company told me, “There’s going to be a scapegoat for this, and it’s going to be Jon Ulsh.”

And here we are. I’ve heard other theories, as dark and murky as a Dan Brown book plot, circling: Ulsh has stacked the board with his own supporters, and Stowell will take the fall. I see no evidence of that. I’ve known Ulsh casually for several years, and he seems both an honorable and an earnest man — and as even Besant notes in her letter, a man committed to the company’s success. Stowell has gained deserved recognition nationally for transforming this small company into a rising force in the American ballet world, and if the board doesn’t understand that, it ought to just give up the ghost and disband. Boards aren’t social clubs. They have strict duties, and the first is to understand the nature of the organization they oversee. The nature of this organization is this: Stowell has reshaped it into one of the most exciting small ballet companies in the nation. Period.

So what’s the trouble? M-O-N-E-Y.

No surprise there. Nonprofit organizations across the country, from museums to major universities, are in deep trouble, and sometimes because they got caught up in the go-go Wall Street frenzy themselves, as Stephanie Strom reported in the New York Times today. That’s surely no problem in Portland, where no nonprofit I know of has enough money in reserve to play the market. Arts groups here are in trouble (partly) because of the market, not because they play the market.

OBT spent some months last year without a development director — a crucial position in a company of the ballet’s size. I asked a board member over the summer how the company was approaching fund-raising. It wouldn’t have a development director, he told me: That was one of the positions cut in the ballet’s budget belt-tightening. Then how are you going to raise money? I asked. Ulsh and Stowell will do it themselves, he replied. Most big donors want to talk with the artistic director, anyway: It’s a big part of his job.

True enough. But the artistic-director shmooze is supposed to seal the deal, not start it. He’s the artistic director, after all, and while pragmatics dictate that he or she has a role in bringing in the bucks, other people (including the board) have to do the major hauling.

I noted with both optimism and pessimism that when the ballet raised more than $900,000 in its emergency drive last spring, no single donation was over $25,000. That meant a huge number of people were sending in their $10, $50, $250 checks. It also meant the big-bucks crowd was keeping its pockets buttoned — and no arts group can hope to thrive in the long term without some deep-pocket supporters. Where are OBT’s deep pockets? And if they don’t exist, why not? I don’t know.

This maybe-divorce proceeding is also significant because, in a sense, OBT has seemed reborn since its emergency bailout in the spring. The company seems to have rediscovered that it’s part of a local community, and that that’s a good thing. OBT dancers have been all over town, taking part in events by other companies, dancing and choreographing in fund-raising events for the beleaguered contemporary-dance center Conduit. Stowell’s been everywhere, shaking hands, giving talks, supporting other groups, being part of things. People have begun to feel that the ballet is connected, and they’ve appreciated it. Why risk that good will? Apparently, because so many members of the company feel it’s necessary.

On a personal level, I want to be very clear here. The rise of OBT to its current level of performance has been one of the most encouraging and thoroughly pleasing arts stories that I’ve covered in the past 15 years. I would be devastated if this gutsy, talented, polished, personality-laden company lost the momentum it’s worked so hard to achieve.

In July I was talking on other matters with Paul Nicholson, executive director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which has seen a steep decline in its own endowment but has maintained its institutional stability. The subject of OBT’s recent bailout came up.

“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” Nicholson told me. “And it would be a shame if Oregon Ballet Theatre did not take this and use it as a springboard to build those stronger relationships with those donors. If they just said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and that was the end of it. … Think of the incredible data base they’ve now compiled. There’s not much more signal that those donors can send to the theater that they care.”

A whole lot of people care, deeply. Can we now please try to solve this thing?