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ABT Executive Director Louis Spisto resigns

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#1 Alexandra


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Posted 25 July 2001 - 04:13 PM



"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."

#2 Dance Fan

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Posted 25 July 2001 - 10:16 PM

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?

#3 Alexandra


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Posted 26 July 2001 - 09:47 AM

What? Is this a candle I see before me? :D

A board member so upset because of ARTISTIC ISSUES that he starts a campaign against the boss?

#4 Ed Waffle

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Posted 26 July 2001 - 11:04 AM

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

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Posted 26 July 2001 - 03:57 PM

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!

#6 Dale


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Posted 29 July 2001 - 08:46 AM


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.

#7 Guest_Edwin Bacher_*

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Posted 29 July 2001 - 11:50 AM

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.

#8 Alexandra


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Posted 29 July 2001 - 03:57 PM

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 ]

#9 Melissa


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Posted 30 July 2001 - 09:50 AM

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

#10 Mel Johnson

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Posted 30 July 2001 - 04:57 PM

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

#11 samba38



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Posted 30 July 2001 - 05:29 PM

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.

#12 Juliet


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Posted 30 July 2001 - 09:17 PM

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!)

#13 Mel Johnson

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Posted 30 July 2001 - 10:24 PM

Nutshell, no; nuthouse, yes!

#14 liebs


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Posted 06 August 2001 - 07:27 AM

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.

#15 Alexandra


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Posted 06 August 2001 - 09:54 AM

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

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