September 23rd, 2009 | by KELLY CLARKE News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP

Oregon Ballet Theatre's Red Letter Days.

Christopher_Stowell_0809

Update 4 pm Thursday, Sept. 24: WW has obtained a print copy of the letter to the OBT board from OBT staffers. Here it is: http://blogs.wweek.com/news/2009/09/24/obt-staffers-call-for-ouster-of-director-jon-ulsh/

Original Post:

A letter signed by at least 20 Oregon Ballet Theatre staffers, including dancers, that was delivered to the dance company's Board of Directors last Thursday, Sept. 17 is ruffling feathers inside OBT. According to OBT spokesman Erik Jones, the letter essentially called for a hard look at how both executive director Jon Ulsh and artistic director Christopher Stowell are running the two-decade old company.

According to multiple anonymous sources inside and outside OBT, the letter, which WW has not yet been able to obtain, may have been penned more in reference to Ulsh's financial management skills and job performancethan Stowell's work. No OBT staffers would respond to WW's calls for comment. In fact, employees were told to button up about the missive or face termination. [See clarification at the bottom of this post.]

According to the staff page on OBT's website, the ballet company employs about 30 people in its admin, marketing and production departments, plus 26 dancers. So about one-third of the company felt strongly enough about forcing internal change to sign the document.Spokesman Jones confirmed that it did indeed call for "a review of the leadership of both executive director Jon Ulsh and artistic director Christopher Stowell."

The OBT Board met last night to discuss the letter among other company business. Rumors were flying through the arts community that the meeting would lead to the ouster of either Ulsh or Stowell. This morning, OBT Board Vice Chair Kathleen Cosgrove told WW that didn't happen. "Neither of the two gentlemen are leaving. We have a great deal of respect and confidence for both of them." she said.

As for the fact that so many OBT staff signed a letter demanding a review of its leadership, Cosgrove refused to answer direct questions about the letter, noting it was an "internal matter." But she did say that Ulsh and Stowell are currently receiving their "annual review" and acknowledges there was an issue: "If there was an [OBT] Board failing, it was that the Board needs to do a much better job communicating inwardly of what we are doing. It was a great chance to listen to what people [staffers] had to say."

It's not the first time this year that OBT's internal workings have made headlines this year. In May the company revealed it needed to raise $750,000 to keep afloat. OBT blamed the recession and poor Nutcracker. ticket sales on the cash shortage. But insiders grumbled that financial mismanagement and bloated budgets were also at fault. Thanks to a star-studded Dance United benefit, the company succeeded in raising more than its $750,000 goal this summer. Cosgrove, who is also the president of Skyline Consulting Group, noted that the OBT board is working hard on a new way of thinking about its budget.

"It's a revenue-based, data-driven budgeting process. We are being more conservative about projecting fundraising dollars. Before anything gets spent we have to identify where those resources are coming from. That sounds basic, but often in the arts world you develop a program and then go out and market it," she said. "I jokingly said to the board [about our new budget process], this is a novel idea."

I'll have an update if OBT's leadership situation changes.

Photo of Oregon Ballet Theatre's Artistic Director Christopher Stowell courtesy of obt.org.

[Update- 11:30 am Wednesday, Sept. 23: Erik Jones emailed me to clarify he did not tell staffers they'd be fired if they talked to media. He sent OBT staffers an email yesterday that noted that they: "are not at liberty to talk to the media about internal company issues (as outlined in your contracts and on page 12 of the employee handbook)." Staffers were told to direct all media enquiries to Jones.]
 
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