Thursday, June 28, 2012

Who's in Charge Here? Ken Gass and Board of The Factory Theatre

I am not going to review anything in this week's blog post.  I am going to weigh in on the Factory Theatre debacle on this Canada Day weekend.

Last Wednesday night, the  Factory Theatre's board of directors decided to oust the theatre's long-serving and founding artistic director Ken Gass.  Mr. Gass created the Factory Theatre in 1970 to produce Canadian plays.

The link below will take you to the Factory Theatre's webpage.  A link to the board's rationalization for this decision is on the left hand side of the page, appropriately:

A petition signed by close to 2500 members of the theatre community is currently in circulation asking the board to reinstate Ken Gass or to resign.  Many prominent members of the arts community  have signed including George F. Walker who pulled his play from the Factory's upcoming season in protest.

I signed and here's my reason why.

I loved some things I saw at The Factory this season ( HIS GREATNESS was outstanding) was less keen on others (The REZ SISTERS ) but that could fairly be said of most of the theatre companies in town that mount a season.  Some stuff works better than other stuff. Not liking a production is no reason to fire the Artistic Director of a theatre that runs in the black and fulfills its mandate as the Factory has done under Mr. Gass's stewardship.

Apparently the board has dismissed Mr. Gass over a debate about the direction and cost of needed renovations of the Factory Theatre building.

The theatre needs work and I speak as someone who has performed there and produced there during the Fringe in 2007 and again in 2009.

As a board member, and I have been a board member as well as a director of development and a general manager of of more than one arts organizations, it is the board's job to help the staff manage the organization, to help raise money for the organization, to ensure the company's long-range goals and objectives are being achieved in the best way possible and to advise the artistic staff in areas where they, the board members, have special skills and expertise.  This is why many arts boards try to have one accountant and a lawyer:  to help with legal and accounting matters.

As a board member, one can have legitimate concerns about the organization incurring debt and about board liability for debt.  Most larger incorporated arts organizations protect the board from certain liabilities with insurance.

If you would like to be better informed about rules and regulations governing non-profit boards, this link is very useful:

Interestingly, according to the information provided above, one of the instances in which a board or its members can be sued and held liable in a non-profit is wrongful dismissal.

It is my understanding, that in no small part thanks to Mr. Gass, who returned to the Factory in 1996 when it was in serious hot water and rescued the place from collapse with $5000 of his own money, The Factory now owns the building it is housed in, a building and a piece of property worth millions of dollars.

This is no small achievement.  Further, The Factory is in the enviable position of having this valuable land and building to leverage when it needs to go for the financing of things like renovations. With the current low mortgage rates and the value of real estate in that neighbourhood, this is a great position to be in.

The board of the theatre would need to be pathetically risk-averse to not support needed major renovations at this time, given the Factory's situation with respect to the value of its real estate assets.

The Factory could mortgage its building to renovate and then fundraise money to pay off that debt.  The renovations would enhance the value of the property and enhanced facilities would generate more revenue in rentals and from a proposed restaurant.  How often have I wished I could get actual food in a theatre before a show when I've rushed there from work.

In firing Mr. Gass without cause, the board has quite possibly opened the theatre up to being sued for wrongful dismissal. If Mr. Gass is not in breach of his employment contract with the theatre, assuming he had one,  he may well be in a position to sue the board, although given his unswerving devotion to the place, he's unlikely to do so.  Boards are sometimes legally indemnified against liability but this is not always the case.  It likely they counted on Mr. Gass' finer feelings protecting them from the suit they deserve.

Mr. Gass offered to have a mediator come in and negotiate.  The board refused.  This is like an abusive, controlling spouse who refuses to go to twelve-step or see a therapist.  In the face of their shabby treatment, trying to pretend they weren't firing him by fobbing him off with some token "emeritus" appointment, Mr. Gass quite reasonably took the high road and the door.

Tort issues aside, the Factory board's conduct last week has damaged their credibility in the arts community beyond repair.  They have lost the community's respect and trust. 

The board is guilty of mismanagement and abuse of power and they must be held to account.

As Richard Ouzounian pointed out in his article in The Toronto Star earlier this week, government funders, not the board provide the aggregate of the Factory Theatre's funding.  Since no one else can or will, the funders need to force the board to comport themselves in a responsible fashion.

Mr. Gass should be reinstated and as he proposed, a mediator should be imposed on the organization by the funders.  The Chair of the Board and the members who decided to fire Mr. Gass without valid cause for dismissal should step down and be replaced by people who shares the artistic community's support of Mr. Gass and the audience's support of Mr. Gass and his vision for the future of the Factory. He's done a pretty good job so far which is more than I can say for the board.

1 comment:

  1. Regardless of the facts and the history, the decision has definitely blown up in their faces. The board is being viewed as broken, which is a bad place to put yourself.

    My only similar experience was as a board member of the West End Cultural Centre. One of the founders was still on staff, but the organization had grown leaps and bounds beyond his skill set and he essentially served as a handyman and goodwill ambassador. When financial hardships hit, we had to lay him off. It was horrible. I hated that we did it. I still do.

    But this? Dumb, dumb move.

    Most boards have insurance which may or may not cover this type of thing. And who knows what might have been lurking in his contract.

    But no matter what happens, I'm sure he'll be snapped up by a perfectly stable company with a non-batshitcrazy board.