Editor’s note: Following Oregon Ballet Theatre’s abrupt severing in June of its ties with Artistic Director Kevin Irving, two major foundations that support the ballet company – the Miller Foundation and the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation – sent a joint letter of concern to the company, and later met with the ballet company’s board and executive leaders. (For background, see ArtsWatch dance writer Jamuna Chiarini’s June 25 story OBT and Kevin Irving part ways and her Aug. 25 story OBT: More questions than answers.) On Friday, Aug. 27, Chiarini talked via phone with philanthropist Jordan Schnitzer to get his views, as a major donor, on how the situation was handled and what a board’s duties are. Following is a transcript of their conversation.
Jamuna Chiarini: Are you able to talk about why you and the Miller Foundation sent the letter to OBT?
Jordan Schnitzer: Did you see in Willamette Week the letter from Jamey Hampton and the White Bird folks?
I think for those of us that have been supporting the ballet for 32 years and when you’re lucky enough to be able to make philanthropic investments, ’cause you’re investing in the best of what we do in society for the benefit of the community, you just get concerned about governance. Because the ballet, the art museum, Portland Center Stage, the symphony, the opera, in essence, they are owned by the public. Every single citizen, whether you’re on 82nd Northeast, whether you’re in Raleigh Hills … you know, you all own those public entities. Now technically, they are 501c3s [charitable, almost always nonprofit organizations to which donations are federally tax-deductible], but from a moral standpoint, they were created for the benefit of everyone. Therefore the board of directors of these organizations, in my opinion, have the following responsibilities.
First is to define the mission and values of the organization. Is it a ballet, a theater, whatever.
Second, to approve the hiring and firing of the, call it CEO, if that’s the artistic director, if it’s the president of the symphony, if it’s the president of the art museum, that’s their job. Their job isn’t to hire the security staff … and the musicians; their job is to hire the key executive and monitor their performance.
Third, they are there to approve the budget and be a fiduciary of the community and make sure the organization is fiscally sound.
Fourth, they’re there to raise money and be emissaries of the wonderful things the ballet, art museum, and symphony do. There’s what you do; that’s the purpose of a board.
Now, in my opinion, the nonprofits, for years, there was a statement that I followed that said, “Smart people leave their brains on the doorstep before they go into a civic meeting.” And what I mean by that is, I’ve watched on the 20 boards I’ve been on in the 50 years I’ve been doing civic stuff is, let’s say a board is passing a deficit budget, and i’ll sit there and say, how do you run your house, do you spend more than you make? Where’s this deficit getting paid from? There’s a greater responsibility when you’re on a civic board to act above reproach, and there are times to make gutsy decisions but not risky decisions. In your own business, if you want to buy bitcoin, that’s up to you.
So what concerned me and the Miller Foundation when we heard about the abrupt firing of Kevin was not that the board does not have the right to hire and fire their artistic director, the executive director, the president of the symphony, the president of the art museum; boards have that responsibility, but they need to do it with transparency. And do it in a way, unless there is some egregious emergency issue, to honor the wonderful executives that have helped build our nonprofits. If change is necessary, that’s fine; then you do it in a proper way.
Now, from the outside, the Miller Foundation and ourselves were not privy to exactly what happened as to why the firing on a Wednesday night and Kevin Irving being told he had to leave by noon the next day when there was a full board meeting on Friday, why that happened so abruptly. Maybe there were good reasons.
So since we’re two of the largest funders of the ballet, we asked to meet and just ask questions in a very collegial, positive, friendly way. We’re appreciative that [Board Chair] Allison Lyneham and [Executive Director] Thomas Bruner, and the board agreed to meet with us.
JC: When will you be meeting with them?
JS: We met with them three weeks ago.
We just asked for explanations as to what happened, how’s the ballet going to continue, who’s the new artistic director, have you looked at what the cost is for doing a national search for a new director; we just asked questions to get answers.
JC: Is there anything you can share with me that they said in that meeting?
JS: No, they just answered all the questions we had.
What we did say is, Martha Richards from the Miller Foundation explained that the narrative, meaning the perception in the community, was either that Kevin Irving had done something terrible or the board acted capriciously and that they needed to communicate better with the public in a positive way to continue to build the reputation of the ballet and make sure its legacy continues.
JC: Do you think they will be making any more statements since your conversation?
JS: I’m not on their board. I hope they would.
For many of us in the philanthropic, cultural world, Kevin Irving was the face of the ballet, and he did an excellent job communicating with major funders and the community in general, and I think his productions were excellent. I say that as a layperson, I never took ballet, but they sure looked beautiful to me. If it was time for a change, that’s OK. He’s been there [eight] years. Maybe it could have been done a little more smoothly, and we hope they’re all coming together now working through the termination details; we wish them all well. We wish Kevin much success in the future; we appreciate all that he did for Portland. We thank all the board members of the ballet that spent a lot of time doing their best and helping steer the ballet to further success.
I guess for me personally, since we were a major funder of the Oregon College of Art and Craft, when I watched its demise, I was shaken. When I saw a number of problems with Pacific Northwest College of Art, sad, now its merger with Willamette [University] is wonderful; we’re very supportive of that. We’ve made a multimillion-dollar commitment to the combined entity; I’m sure we’ll do more. So I guess I was personally acutely sensitive to governance. And these civic public boards just need to make sure they’re always doing what’s best and doing it in the right way.