Artists Repertory Theatre, trying to navigate a time of both turbulence and promise, has hired a steady hand to guide the ship. Portland’s oldest and second-largest theater announced Tuesday afternoon that J.S. (John Stuart) May, a respected figure in non-profit management in the city, has been hired as the company’s new managing director.
May is set to start immediately as co-leader of the organization, alongside artistic director Damaso Rodriguez, replacing Sarah Horton, who left the managing director post at the end of 2017. “His impressive management experience with nonprofits in Portland, and his proven marketing and fundraising skills, make him a great fit at the right time for our organization,” Mike Barr, chair of Artists Repertory Theatre’s board of directors said in the company’s news release.
“I can’t think of a better choice for ART,” said Jim Fullan, a former marketing director for Portland Opera and former VP for marketing and communications at the Oregon Symphony. “J.S. has always been one of the most respected and effective arts administrators in this region. His warm personality, his smarts, and his extensive experience in the Portland arts arena make him the perfect choice to lead the organization into an even brighter future. I have no doubt that he’ll be very successful.”
With a resume featuring stints at the Portland Art Museum, the Metropolitan Group, the Doernbecher Children’s Hospital Foundation and Oregon Public Broadcasting, May brings a broad background in fundraising, marketing, communications, and strategic management. He’s served on boards for numerous non-profit and civic organizations, including the arts-focused Creative Advocacy Coalition.
Such a range of experiences and the connections that come with them could be crucial for Artists Rep, which is in the midst of the most complicated transition in its 36-year history.
In February, the company announced that it had received the largest single donation in its history, a whopping $7.1 million gift from an anonymous source, with no restrictions on how it may be used. The company also is in the process of completing a complex deal with Wood Partners, an Atlanta-based developer, selling off the northern half of the Southwest Alder Street headquarters it has occupied for more than 20 years and purchased entirely in 2004.
Along with those windfalls, though, come lots of tricky logistics, especially regarding the division of the building: Wood Partners plans to erect a residential/retail high-rise, while Artists Rep intends to renovate the southern part of the block so that it still will include two performance spaces, plus rehearsal rooms and offices. And these plans also need to accommodate the dozens of other organizations that use the space as what’s called the ArtsHub.
“Our beautiful lobbies and high production values mask a long list of expensive ‘must-do’ projects behind the scenes that range from seismic upgrades and a new roof, mandatory electrical upgrades and better accessibility, to comfortable theatre seats and the replacement of outdated technology,” Rodriguez wrote in a letter to the theater’s supporters announcing the anonymous gift. “This exceptional contribution means that Artists Rep has paid off our mortgage and other debt, and the proceeds from a half-block sale can instead be used to address our list of ‘must-do’ projects, launch a capital campaign and establish an operating reserve.”
Even so, there may also be lingering effects from the bad news that preceded the good. In January, 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 the $4 million, had racked up about $1.3 million in deficits over the previous four years. And though Rodriguez has said that the timing was coincidental, Horton — who had led the business side of the theater since 2010 — “left to pursue other interests.”
No doubt Rodriguez and the theater’s board believe May has the varied skills to pull all these moving parts together and get them running smoothly into the future.
“Artists Rep is at an extraordinary moment in their history,” May is quoted in the announcement of his hiring. “From the $7.1 million gift that allowed the organization to pay off the mortgage and provide financial stability to the potential sale of half the block, Artists Rep is poised to be more than just a theatre. With world-class artistic leadership from Dámaso Rodríguez and continued collaboration with ArtsHub partners, Artists Rep has the potential to foster more arts initiatives as a thriving arts center in Portland. All these elements enable Artists Rep to expand their mission of providing intimate, provocative theatre, and I am delighted to be joining this team.”