After “Miss Saigon” (again): Examining our large nonprofit arts institutions

Re-posted from http://www.tcdailyplanet.net/community-voices

After “Miss Saigon” (again): Examining our large nonprofit arts institutions

The decision to run “Miss Saigon” amid vocal protest prompts the question: Who’s running the Ordway?

The Ordway’s Board of Directors appears to primarily reflect a narrow demographic group of the Twin Cities.  Of the 38 members of the Ordway’s Board of Directors, 34 are white and hold positions as CEOs or VPs in large corporations or businesses, as lawyers, or as politicians.   Twenty-one members—over half—can be described as wealthy, white men.  All members of the Board hold positions of power in the community.  A significant number of them work in positions related to politics, business or finance.  None of the members work directly with the Arts or work in a position that reflects the amount of power the average citizen holds in the community.

Additionally, the President’s Council has 11 members.  Nine of the 11 members are white, five are men and four are women.  Within the Council we have a few politicians (including the chair of the senate finance committee), a corporate senior VP, a couple executive directors, a CPA, and a few members from multi-generational wealth.  All live within a very comfortable income bracket, or what average folks would call wealthy.  Who in this power structure represents people outside of this demographic?

What happens when the Board of a large, nonprofit Arts institution is heavily representative of corporate culture and the business sector?

It is reasonable to acknowledge that it will be heavily influenced by corporate culture, and that this will influence how a major nonprofit Arts institution in town will shape the local nonprofit Arts community.  A homogenous board, such as the Ordway’s, may not adequately respond to the voices in the community that seem less relevant to them.  If this is the case, which it appears to be, members of the community at large must ask: Does this large, nonprofit Arts Institution then naturally reflect the culture of its board members and not of the local community at large?

At the onset of CEO Patricia Mitchell’s tenure at the Ordway, a 2007 MinnPost article discussed the tasks that Mitchell would be undertaking in her new role as the head of the Ordway.  One of these tasks was to take on the “identity challenge” that the Ordway faced in the community.

The article stated:

“Mitchell has heard these claims. “People say they’re not clear about what the Ordway is supposed to be. Well, it’s a performing arts center; that seems clear to me. But the perception may go back to our not making our message clear to the community,” she says. The Ordway is conducting research on its public identity, she adds, and expects preliminary results in January.

Mitchell acknowledges that because of the direction it has taken as a presenter, “the Ordway has become identified as a place where you come to see touring musicals.” That concerns her because it “confuses the philanthropic message.”

Confuses the philanthropic message, indeed.  Against a backdrop of  financial reports from 2012 showing a net revenue loss of about 2.6 million, and the promotion and celebration of a commercial musical like “Miss Saigon” amidst vocal community protest, Mitchell appears to have had a change of heart since 2007.

While deficits have not been uncommon to the Ordway during the last decade, in the same 2007 article Mitchell stated:

“Broadway hits come and go. Corporate support comes and goes. We need to strengthen our reliable contributed income base. To do that, we need to demonstrate that we merit support, that individuals perceive us to be hugely important to the city.”

What has Mitchell demonstrated to the individuals of the city through her handling of “Miss Saigon”?  In 2007 she stated that, “Musicals are not the “economic answer” that they were 15 years ago”.  What then, would drive her decision to promote an outdated, offensive musical like “Miss Saigon”?  She continued further in the article to say, “Change can be challenging, but we are positioned to be at the leading edge, taking a positive direction.”   Well, apparently, that was then.

More current statements from CEO Mitchell in a recent September 5th MPR article portray a different sentiment.  In a dismissive response to the protest against “Miss Saigon”, Mitchell stated, “Women are sacrificing themselves up one side and down the other. And if you eliminated that story line from theater and opera, you’d eliminate a lot of the literature”.

Though her flippant remarks are meant to convey her confidence in the decision to feature “Miss Saigon” at the Ordway, she also inadvertently makes an excellent point about the pervasively negative portrayals of women in Literature: We should eliminate that story line and that literature from popular culture.  Outdated relics like “Miss Saigon” ought to be reserved for the educational and critical dissection of racial traditions in the Arts, not applauded at the Ordway as “A tragedy of passion and beauty” which will “appeal to all our senses and emotions.”

How much does the average Arts consumer really “get to decide”?

Former mayor of St. Paul and member of the Ordway’s President’s council, George Latimer, wrote in defense of the Ordway in a  Pioneer Press column by saying that “you get to decide”, as in, individual Arts Patrons should decide for themselves whether “Miss Saigon” is offensive and oppressive, or worthy of celebration on stage at the Ordway.  However, there is an inherent fallacy to this declaration.  It disowns the Ordway’s endorsement of “Miss Saigon” and in essence claims a degree of impotence regarding their influence in the Arts.  The Ordway marketed “Miss Saigon” as a masterpiece, not as an outdated piece of sexism and racism to be deconstructed and critiqued.  As a major influence and power-holder in the Arts community, by condoning and celebrating “Miss Saigon”, and disregarding vocal protests against the musical, they clearly demonstrated their approval of and support for an offensive musical.

To both celebrate the Ordway as a centerpiece of the Arts in the Twin Cities, and then deny its role in shaping public thinking is contradictory and irresponsible.

The New (and Old) Outlook

At the end of the 2007 MinnPost article Mitchell was asked about her outlook on the future of the Ordway in the coming years.  She stated:

“By then, she says, “Significant plans will have been articulated by the artistic partners, the Ordway’s own programming will be more diversified, there will be more Ordway programs outside of the building, there will be more audience members and donors, and there will be no more confusion about what the Ordway is. If there is, I’ll shoot myself.”

While certainly there is more flippancy in these comments, I would urge CEO Mitchell and the Board to take a hard look at who is executing the Ordway’s priorities and strategies, and how they are attempting to do it. There are a number of intelligent, passionate people in the Arts community who would be more than capable of providing guidance on how to better connect with audience members and individual donors.  The Ordway has alienated a significant community of Artists and Arts patrons by basing decisions on commercial bets instead of on artistic integrity and social consciousness.

As Ordway Board chair, Thomas Handley, says in his Leadership Message in the 2012 report:

 “Arts organizations like the Ordway help companies to attract the most talented employees. International programming that reflects the widely diverse makeup of Twin Cities companies helps employees feel at home and exposes them to new cultural experiences as well. The Ordway is crucial to the Twin Cities’—and Minnesota’s—quality of life.”

Attracting new employees to the Twin Cities reflects a business mindset, and Handley’s statement is focused on the corporate community, not the local community as a whole.  It is the diverse, local Artists and Arts Patrons that make the Twin Cities Arts community truly flourish and make it feel like home.  Understanding and respecting that fact would do a world of good for helping the Ordway achieve their stated missions and stabilize their still shaky identity.

Andrea Jeong Wood

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