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Artists Rep lays off its artistic director

The company, beset by financial problems in the midst of a major construction project and a suspended season, parts ways with Jeanette Harrison, its artistic director of only a year.

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Jeanette Harrison, Ariists Rep’s artistic director for the past year, has been laid off in a cost-cutting move.

Portland’s financially plagued Artists Repertory Theatre has laid off Jeanette Harrison, its artistic director of only a year, just two months after announcing the suspension of its 2023-24 season because of money woes. The company has also been involved in a prolonged and expensive renovation of its home space and had been presenting shows in other locations.

“Artists Repertory Theatre’s (ART) Board of Directors has made the difficult decision to lay off Artistic Director Jeanette Harrison,” the company wrote in an email sent Friday to the theater’s followers. “While ART deeply appreciates Jeanette’s artistic leadership during her time here, the financial realities ART faces, including the suspension of production for the 2023-24 season, have led the Board to conclude that, unfortunately, ART does not have the capacity to retain her position within the organization.”

As ArtsWatch’s Marty Hughley reported in September 2022, Harrison was hired after a national search from AlterTheater in San Rafael, Calif., a company she co-founded in 2004. She and AlterTheater were known for developing new plays and, as Hughley wrote, “for staging a refreshing diversity of stories, such as those that reflect her own Native American heritage.”

In her brief tenure, Harrison never had a chance to direct a play at Artists Rep, which was founded in 1982.

Artists Rep’s financial problems are longstanding. The pandemic hurt the company as it hurt most arts organizations. But the expensive remodel also has played a part. Despite the sale of half of its property to a developer and an anonymous gift of $7.1 million, costs piled up.  “In April, the second phase of work on the wholesale renovation of its Southwest Alder Street headquarters began,” Hughley wrote when the season suspension was announced in August of this year, “with [capital campaign director J.S.] May stating that the company had raised about $24.5 million toward an overall capital campaign of $30-$31 million.”

And as Hughley wrote in 2022, “In January 2018, Willamette Week reported that the IRS had filed a lien against Artists Rep for $309,000 in unpaid payroll taxes, and that the company, with an annual budget of less than $4 million, had racked up about $1.3 million in deficits over the previous four years.”

“The decision regarding Jeanette’s role arises from the financial realities facing ART,” Friday’s company email to followers said. “With resources being carefully allocated towards the completion of our newly renovated venue, ART finds itself at a juncture that calls for strategic adjustments in the leadership structure. Despite the change, ART remains steadfast in its commitment to the community and is optimistic about the future. Board Chair, Pancho Savery stated, ‘We are grateful for Jeanette’s time at ART. Jeanette’s vision helped us forge a path forward to return to the building.’”

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The same email quotes Harrison: “While my time here was short, I’m particularly proud of the strides we made with IDEA work and representation through the commissioning of Diana Burbano’s Sapience and the development of the script in workshop with PHAME, ensuring that complex characters who are disabled are played by actors with disabilities, in a fully inclusive rehearsal room. … ART’s commitment to access is embodied in its Morrison Street building, which will have a fully accessible control room. I hope Portland will rally around the remaining staff as they focus their attention on finishing the building.”

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Also see Marty Hughley’s Oct. 28 followup story for ArtsWatch, What’s next for Artists Rep?, in which the company’s managing director, capital campaign director, and producing director talk about the company’s construction project and next steps.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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