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Alexandra

ABT Executive Director Louis Spisto resigns

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

STATEMENT BY AMERICAN BALLET THEATRE PRESIDENT ED FOX, ON THE RESIGNATION OF EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR LOUIS SPISTO

"During the past two years, American Ballet Theatre Executive Director Louis Spisto has made extraordinary contributions to the Company. Mr. Spisto's resignation resulted from a growing difference in vision from

certain members of the Board of Directors. Recognizing these differences, Mr. Spisto offered his resignation, and it was accepted. At my request, Mr. Spisto has agreed to provide assistance for a period of time. I expressed, on behalf of the Board, our thanks to Lou for his significant

achievements during his tenure: substantial increases in contributed income, a 24 percent increase in earned income, doubling of touring weeks and a three-fold increase in ABT's respected education programs. He leaves ABT with an expanded base of artistic programs and in a strong financial position.

"ABT is a company of world-class dancers and a committed staff. We expect to continue our strong performances and believe that we will continue to grow our loyal donor and subscriber base."

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Does this mean that all the long-time ABT staffers who dedicated their lives to the company, but were driven out by Spisto's vulgarity, will now get their positions back?

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Spisto's background in management of large orchestras didn't prepare him very well for ABT. Whatever the real situation is (and we may never hear Spisto's version of it) at least part of the reality is that symphony orchestras are still much more autocratic organizations than ballet companies--or at least ABT.

The Times article mentions that ABT is a "company where staff and dancers liked to describe themselves once as an informal family." What Tolstoy said about families is familiar enough to not have to quote it.

If the next ABT executive director can get along with the family and raise as much money as Spisto did, he will be successful. Given the deepening recession and the sharp collapse of equity prices it will be difficult for anyone to match his fundraising.

Spisto was executive director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra before going to ABT. He worked very well with major donors in the Motor City--the DSO has a decent endowment and can afford to tour regularly. He had an excellent relationship with Nemii Jarvi, the music director, who is not the easiest person in the world with whom to work.

The Times article is typical of its kind--Carvajal seems to go out of her way to find and quote everyone who had a grievance with Spisto while not bothering with the other side. Which is not surpising, since if Carvajal continues to cover ABT, she will need those sources and Spisto will obviously not be a factor.

Ed Waffle

ewaffle@hotmail.com

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This was just a matter of time. ABT needs a good house cleaning. CONGRATULATIONS to the ABT Board of Trustees for finally displaying a position of integrity and high standards.

Watch for further developments!

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Ed,

I don't know Spisto personally, and I won't comment on the gossip, but I do know that ABT had to cancell its new Sleeping Beauty because of a lack of funds and some other projects and tours. The company also was reported to have lost more money under his leadership than it did under Kaiser.

I think there are a few differences in doing business or raising funds in Detroit and New York. I'm not bashing Detroit, but I understand that Spisto liked to do the dinner thing a lot, and dinners and treats cost a bit more in New York than they do in Michigan. And a lot more costs go into a ballet company than a symphony orchestra. Ex. Some music does not recquire payment, there are no costumes and scenery to buy and maintain, hair dressers, props, toe shoes, physical threrapists etc, choreographers to pay.

I think maybe he expected the two jobs to be more similar and what would work in one would work in the other. They didn't as the books show.

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This was overwhelmingly a political exercise. ABT's Board certainly has its prerogatives, but what I find profoundly disturbing is the incredible distortion presented by the New York Times. The two articles represent a low point in journalism.

Carvajal would have you believe that the company was on a collision course with disaster because of Spisto's management. Some of her claims and some other points of view:

(1) Staff Turnover - it's not unusual in a non-profit organization to have departures in mid and low-level jobs, whichg notoriously pay very little. Secondly, new top management is entitled to make changes. Third, many would agree that some individuals were long overdue for replacement. What no one is discussing is the caliber and performance of the new staff vs. the old.

(2) Cancellation of Sleeping Beauty - this is garbage. A new SB was delayed as an artistic judgment call.

(3) Administrative costs up 10% - so what? If this is part of a long-term strategic plan to improve the infrastructure, it's probably justified, and might be low except that it's a non-profit organization and these expenses must be held down.

(4) New production spending down 41% from last year - 2000 had Swan Lake. 2001 did not. Where is the possible relevance of this comparison? It's a prudent decision not to overspend when you don't have to. Suppose 2001 saw a new Sleeping Beauty at an INCREASE of 41%; you can bet that would have been cited as spending gone out of control.

(5) Bayadere conducting - so you have mediocre conducting for a few performances (against a fairly high level of musical performances for the season), and this is the call to arms to save the company?

(6) Management style - this is the subjective piece the Board has the right to weigh against performance. Personally, I think the more you run the non-artistic side more like a business, the better equipped you are to help an arts organization survive today against the harsh financial realities that currently exist for the arts. However, the performance side was almost ignored in the Times article. Some info. the company has made available concerning the last two years: the spring MET seasons saw successive ticket sales increases of 7% and 8% to a new record of $9.8M, including a 2-year increase in seats sold of 24%. Subscription sales increased from 2000 to 2001. The City Center season saw increases as well. Touring weeks and income have increased. Contributed income has increased from $10.5M to $12.7M from 1999 to 2001. 2002 will see more than 36 weeks of work for the dancers, more than any year since the 80's. New education programs were developed. The Summer Intensive program was extended to two additional cities. New 4-year contracts with dancers and musicians, with the dancers receiving one of the best contracts in the history of the company, putting them (at the end of the contract) very close to NYCB.

I didn't see much of this discussed in the Times article.

Also, on a Board of 55+ members, exactly how many were resigning, and what would you consider normal turnover?

As I said, politics ruled this episode.

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Welcome, Ed, and thanks for post.

I think these are always political exercises, or can be read that way. It's Truth if you're the Ouster, and Politics if you're Ousted -- and either may be accurate.

I've heard two vastly different versions of this consistently for months. There seems to be no middle ground in this one (as with Gielgud and Babcock in Boston). One version is pretty much as the Times portrayed it -- that Spisto is offensively vulgar, is a big spender, and alienated the staff. Some he fired, but some -- long-time employees -- left because they couldn't work with him. The other version is that he was brought in specifically to clean house, not necessarily to get rid of people, but to make them work more efficiently, and they didn't like this.

Somewhere in the middle of that, I suspect lies the truth. I can't comment on the facts of this -- I don't have insider info :) But I would say that losing 30 out of 40 employees -- and the press people were not low level -- is not normal turnover, and I was told quite awhile ago that "Sleeping Beauty" had to be canceled because they couldn't raise the money for it -- which doesn't go with the stories that Spisto was a very good fundraiser.

I do think the dining out charges were politics. Usually what happens in these situations is that someone, or a faction, wants to get rid of someone for Reason A, which won't fly (and is never artistic), so they wait until the person makes a Chargeable Error and gets them. But this doesn't mean that the person shouldn't have been "gotten" in the first place.

I found it puzzling in the reviews that Spisto and not McKenzie was, er, credited with "Pied Piper."

[ 07-29-2001: Message edited by: alexandra ]

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Does anyone know what Kevin McKenzie's position on Spisto is?

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Slightly to the left of Carnegie Hall? Oh, wait, that's the Russian Tea Room. Never mind. ;)

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Well, I can speak the contrast between pre-Spisto and Spisto-era on the press staff and on education.

1) Press. Then -- Prompt, thorough, pleasent and reliable. Press kits the size of phone books. Interviews readily arranged. Now --Not even the nation's largest newspaper doing an advance (an inherently positive kind of story)could get a call back, a usable photo or key interviews in a week.

2) Education. Then -- ABT NYC and Alabama seen as well run programs with serious classes, sensible organization. Now - 5 programs best characterized by many parents so far (Orange County starts Saturday) as a massive ripoff. A rip-off audition tour charging double to trade on the ABT name. Utter chaos in administration. A policy of no returned phone calls or emails. Overbooked classes in all locations. Housing and supervision subcontracted in 4 of 5 locations with one clear disaster on the books --Detroit.

Is this all Spisto's fault. I have no idea. But if 30 in 40 people couldn't/wouldn't/shouldn't have stayed with him, he was certainly responsibly for bringing in quality people to do the jobs.

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I'm trying to stay out of this one, but I completely concur with samba38 insofar as:

" if 30 in 40 people couldn't/wouldn't/shouldn't have stayed with him, he was certainly responsibly for bringing in quality people to do the jobs."

Seems as if there you have it in a nutshell

(Can you imagine any arts organization in a nutshell? Queer prospect!)

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I just got a letter from ABT addressed to "Dear Valued Supporter" regarding Spisto's resignation. The resignation is characterized as resulting from a grwoing difference in vision between Spisto and certain members of the Board of Governing Trustees. It praises Spisto's achievements and disputes the claims made in some newspaper reports as follows:

Met ticket sales have grown from $8.5 mil in 99 to $9.8 mil in 2001. (No comment about whether higher ticket prices are a part of that growth.)

Contributed income grew from $10.5 mil in 99 to $13.7 mil in 2001.

Expenses for the current fiscal year are on budget, as approved by the Trustees, and a small operating surplus is expected. (These figures are unaudited and it will be interesting to see whether they paint an accurate picture.)

Cash reserves are at the same level now as they were at this point last year.

Production costs will vary from year to year, so any report on those costs is meaningless.

I thought this letter was a good attempt at damage control but would have been better persuaded if it had been signed by Kevin McKenzie as well as by Board members.

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Thanks for posting that, liebs. McKenzie's role in all of this seems rather unclear.

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Doreen Carvajal's article missed the mark, not in it's examination of Lou's activities, but in it's complete omission of Kevin McKenzie. Lou was "a" problem at ABT, not "the" problem, and Kevin and his people are thrilled that the press and public are buying the idea that with Lou gone, everything's back on track. As in the last dancer contract negotiation, they've shown that they will do virtually anything to avoid a public examination of Kevin and his staff. A house cleaning is in order at ABT alright, but Lou's "resignation" is tantamount to sweeping the dirt under the carpet. The recent scandals involving Lou and David Richardson, and myriad others of which the public is unaware, all transpired on Kevin's watch. Unfortunately, there is no Harry Truman at ABT: the buck stops nowhere. That is the story that needs to be told. As the Russians say, "The fish rots from the head."

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It is very easy to blame the messenger for missing the mark. However, it should be pointed out that few ABT dancers, if any, are willing to speak in public about their views of Kevin McKenzie and his leadership. And that is part of the problem as well.

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I'd like to add a general note of caution re this thread: I very much understand how dancers are reluctant to speak out about their bosses, or issues that affect their company -- this would be the case in any company (ballet or accounting); it's unwise.

Whenever we have a thread about a backstage problem, there are people who register under pseudonyms and post very strong opinions, sometimes adding "facts." If you are associated with the company in any way -- are the fired dancer, mother of the fired dancer, are a currently disgruntled dancer, or work for the company in any way, etc. etc. -- it really is unfair not to mention that in the post. I don't want this board to become a place where nameless people hurl charges at each other, and people with axes to grind grind them :)

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I agree that the NYT report was very one sided. It was not good reporting. I am very surprised that the paper one printed a one-sided reporting for such an important issue.

No one person can ever be blamed.

I do not think that enough was considered with the large number in attendance, and the increased money rasied and earned.

That is a major accomplishment for any arts organization and particular with dance.

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One dancer did go on the record with her displeasure with Kevin McKenzie -- Amanda McKerrow. In an interview with Time Out New York she said she didn't agree with the direction McKenzie was taking the company, but added she didn't want to go into it in print.

On the ticket sales increase, I'm not sure whether people are counting the income made from the sales or the number of the tickets. Because, at least for the Met season, the prices went up considerably. So, they could conceivably make more money but sell less individual tickets.

I'd also like to add support for Alexandra for wanting to keep this topic safe from a flame war. It's very easy to come on here, sign up under a tag or false name and hurl accusations, and then retreat into lurkdom. But it would really say something to come on under a real name and stand by your words.

[ 08-17-2001: Message edited by: Dale ]

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Originally posted by Dale:

[QB]One dancer did go on the record with her displeasure with Kevin McKenzie -- Amanda McKerrow. In an interview with Time Out New York she said she didn't agree with the direction McKenzie was taking the company, but added she didn't want to go into it in print.

On the ticket sales increase, I'm not sure whether people are counting the income made from the sales or the number of the tickets. Because, at least for the Met season, the prices went up considerably. So, they could conceivably make more money but sell less individual tickets.

I'd also like to add support for Alexandra for wanting to keep this topic safe from a flame war. It's very easy to come on here, sign up under a tag or false name and hurl accusations, and then retreat into lurkdom. But it would really say something to come on under a real name and stand by your words.

[ 08-17-2001: Message edited by: Dale ][/Q

Let me clarify for you that sales were up at the Met this season and that included substantial increases in actual seats sold both in subscription and single tickets. An increase of more than 12%. I'd be happy to show you the audited box office statements.

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My point was not to hurl accusations at Ms. Carvajal or to start some sort of fire fight on-line. In fact, she's the only one who seems to be interested in what's happening behind the scenes at ABT. I simply wished to inject a little reality into this discussion. Clearly, I'm a dancer. However, I was certainly not fired, nor am I "disgruntled," nor do I have an axe to grind. I am privy to a tremendous amount of information and opinion about this topic, though.

If one wonders why dancers are unwilling to speak out publicly on matters such as these, one merely has to look at Alexandra's latest post. Even on a forum like this one, a dancer speaking out is presumed to have an axe to grind, has been fired, is disgruntled, is skewing the facts, etc.. Is it not possible, just possible, that a dancer may have had a fine career with a company, danced many wonderful roles, and garnered much attention and satisfaction from their work, but is still able to recognize tremendous problems in the management of the company?

It's interesting to me that several people posting on this board are clearly "insiders," such as EdNYC and Brett, and yet no one is calling for disclosure on their part.

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My comment is directed at all "insiders," including EdNY, Brett, Peggy and Dancer X, et al. Not a name, but "I work for the company," "I'm a dancer with the company," "I'm a friend of a dancer with the company," "I'm a close friend of Spisto" -- or whatever.

It's certainly possible that someone can have an opinion without being disgruntled -- and a fired dancer, or a successful dancer can certainly have opinions; I agree. I've seen too many topics like this one, however, turn sour and I'd like to avoid it. There's a danger in uninformed outsider speculation, too, of course.

I closed the thread, then came back in and opened it (in case anyone had seen the closure). I'd like to keep the discussion going, but it might be better if the temperature were lowered a bit -- no one is all good or all bad in this, or any instance. It's possible -- and probably helpful -- to question the way a company is managed. Perhaps we could try to stick to that.

[ 08-18-2001: Message edited by: alexandra ]

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I think it would be nigh on impossible for anyone directly associated with ABT to reveal themselves, because unless they ARE Kevin McKenzie or Louis Spisto in mufti, they could be endangering their livelihood, as it is a fair bet that either Kevin and/or Louis or a personal friend of theirs may well be reading this board.

I have no personal axe to grind, but I would say, purely from my experience in the world of the arts and of the world of work in general, that if a large number of people who had been with an organization for a prolonged period of time are suddenly resigning, that is a clear indication of a problem.

With reference to McKenzie's leadership style, I will say that in a discussion I had with one of the men in the corps, he commented that he had been there several years, but that Kevin still didn't remember his name. Now it's not as though Kevin were Cecil B. DeMille and was dealing with a cast of thousands. And this was not the first time I had heard similar complaints.

As an audience member, I think the policy on ticket prices is foolhardy. The young and students can't afford to pay $20 for a standing room ticket and go more than a couple of times. When I was young the relative price for dance was MUCH lower (thank you, Sol Hurok) If the younger generation doesn't get "hooked" on dance, ABT will have succeeded in killing off the audience of tomorrow. :rolleyes:

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Originally posted by felursus:

As an audience member, I think the policy on ticket prices is foolhardy.  The young and students can't afford to pay $20 for a standing room ticket and go more than a couple of times.  When I was young the relative price for dance was MUCH lower (thank you, Sol Hurok)  If the younger generation doesn't get "hooked" on dance, ABT will have succeeded in killing off the audience of tomorrow.  :rolleyes:

If I had to name a reason why NYCB has such a diehard group of core followers, I think it would be that they kept ticket prices lower, and have always been more tolerant of the audience member who wanted to go a lot, but could only afford standing room. Standing room at the Met has always been mroe costly than at the State Theater and is in the orchestra, where there's a good chance someone would be taken aback having paid close to $100 for a ticket and seeing someone sit at the last minute who paid $20. At the smaller State Theater, it's in the fourth ring, where there is often extra room anyway. So the ushers at the Met rope you off and treat you like steerage. There may not be any immediate revenue out of cheap seats, but those standees become writers, choreographers, teachers, future patrons. And when I was a student we went to NYCB many times for every time we went to ABT because we could afford it.

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