Arts Nightmare

After covering UApresents for a decade, our arts writer is concerned by what she sees happening there

In the week after the Arizona Daily Star broke the story of UApresents' financial woes, the once-lustrous arts operation, presenter of some of the best and most challenging dance and music Tucson has seen in the last 10 years, lurched from one public relations blunder to another.

On Monday, Nov. 15, the office announced via e-mail that Natalie Bohnet, interim director since Sept. 1, and her boss, Saundra Taylor, UA senior vice president for campus life, would hold a press conference on Wednesday to address "both the current state of affairs in the organization as well as describe plans for the future."

The "current state of affairs" apparently alluded to changes made in the wake of a serious deficit and poor ticket sales to Hairspray: two key staff members had been laid off; the former interim director had been abruptly re-assigned to another university operation; and Bohnet was already planning to make substantial cuts to next season's programming.

But nine hours later, a second missive declared that the press conference had been called off. Instead, reporters could look forward to a written statement. Two days later, even the promised written statement failed to materialize. The flip-flopping messages seemed designed to invite media scrutiny of the operation at a time when it needs all the good publicity it can get.

It turned out that the communications misfires began the day that Bohnet elevated Chuck Spurling, the UApresents tech guy, to the position of director of communications. After five years working the office computers, holding the titles of network manager and information technology director, Spurling said by telephone, he'd "moved over to communications and marketing as of Monday."

Asked what expertise he brought to his new job, he said that even as the office computer guy, he had done some marketing.

"My expertise is in doing what needs to be done," he said. In fact, he added, every staff member of UApresents could now be construed as a marketing person. "The whole department is marketing and development. We all do it."

The star-crossed e-mailed messages were written by the latest person to join that staff, part-timer Will Seberger, a UA undergrad and Arizona Daily Wildcat photog who identified himself in the first message as media relations director/marketing specialist. Which was strange, as Lewis Carroll might have remarked, because just the week before, UApresents had laid off Joel Aalberts. A seasoned marketing director and publicist recruited from out of state a year ago, Aalberts lost his job ostensibly for economic reasons.

Seberger's assumption of the title was problematic, from both a legal and ethical point of view: It's a violation of university employment policy to hire another party for a job without allowing the previously laid-off person a crack at applying for it.

Reached later in the week, Seberger's new boss, Bohnet, said that the student had used the title wrongly. He was not, in fact, the new media relations director.

"Will was stepping ahead of himself," she said. "He's just very eager to help us out."

If the elevation of a computer wiz to communications director and an undergrad to spokesman, titled or not, for the university's nationally recognized arts presenting program seemed surprising, so did Bohnet's promotion back in September. She's a money person, who for years held the title of director of finance and administration. As the new interim director, she is now in a position to make artistic decisions, and she's already planning the next season herself.

Bohnet said she got the job because Taylor was concerned about the deficit and wanted a money person in charge.

"I was the finance director, and I'm almost finished with my MBA," she said.

Her promotion meant the demotion of Ed Brown, the longtime director of operations who became acting interim after Ken Foster's departure last October. Brown's now been booted out of UApresents altogether, exiled to Taylor's campus life office, for a "special assignment" that reportedly will end in June.

All three who lost their jobs were seasoned arts people, and two--Brown and Aalberts--have been replaced by people who are not. And apparently the third, community engagement director Anthea Scouffas, won't be replaced at all. Like Aalberts, Scouffas was recruited from out of state. She arrived two years ago to take charge of artists' residency programs and bring UApresents' performers out into senior centers, Casa de los Niños, Wingspan and so on. Long regarded as the heart and soul of the university-based arts program, community outreach in theory now will come under the bailiwick of education director Benita Silvyn, who already has a full-time job meeting the needs of teachers and schoolchildren, and scheduling pre-performance lectures.

Her staff choices raise red flags, but Bohnet said UApresents will continue its "commitment to the cutting edge" while reducing the total number of shows. The Broadway shows will be trimmed from five this year to four next season. She's just received word of a new endowment for dance programming from the Fear Not Foundation. Even so, she intends to reduce the number of dance concerts from the current seven to four next year.

Bohnet acknowledged that UApresents has been overly reliant on ticket sales. With only 8 to 9 percent of the operating budget supplied by the university, UApresents depends on ticket sales for some 70 to 85 percent of its money, a figure much higher than in other university arts programs and in local theater. She hopes to step up fund raising.

"The way we can bring in diverse programming is in fund raising and in getting sponsorships for shows," she said. "We need to have a surplus to cover financially deficient shows."

Other plans include reducing box office staff--a move that will be unwelcome to audience members already impatient with long lines before shows--and moving to more online ticket sales.

Even the bad publicity has helped, she said, by letting people known that the university does not fully underwrite the shows.

"So many people from the community have stepped forward," she said. "It's turning in our favor."

Bohnet said that deficits first began creeping up in the 2001-2002 season, when many enterprises, the arts included, nose-dived after Sept. 11. The recent crisis was precipitated by poor ticket sales for the traveling production of Hairspray in late October. UApresents posted losses of at least $225,000 for the critically acclaimed show--compounding an already existing deficit of $470,000 carried over from the previous season. The season's earlier Broadway offering, a non-Equity Oliver production that drew poor reviews, also fared poorly.

The blame game was in full swing last week over Hairspray. The buying public complained of high ticket prices in letters to the editor. Others cited anxiety over the election and competition with the World Series, not to mention competition from the brand-new Broadway in Tucson series downtown in the TCC Music Hall. Over at UApresents, the staff had not yet settled on a party line. Seberger said that Bohnet had booked the show. Then Spurling said it was Ed Brown who had done the deed. Bohnet countered that "Hairspray was booked during Ken Foster's time."

Whatever the truth, it's not clear that the correct heads rolled last week. By Bohnet's own admission, UApresents depends overmuch on ticket sales, so much so that one clunker show can throw the whole program into jeopardy. The task of developing alternative revenues presumably belongs to the money people, including Bohnet, the former finance director, and the development director, both of whom still have jobs.

The chaos at UApresents begins to look more like a power struggle in the wake of Foster's departure than it does a sensible adjustment to economic reality. Earlier this year, Celesta Billeci, who holds a similar arts post at UC Santa Barbara, turned down the UApresents job when she got a strong counter-offer. A new search has been initiated, leaving UApresents going into its second year without a permanent leader.

Mark Rasdorf, for six years director of marketing under Foster, also left last year, to start up the rival Broadway in Tucson.

"Ken was a visionary," he said. "Any kind of change is always going to be an adjustment. Perhaps that transition at UApresents is what we're seeing now."