THE FIRING OF ON THE BOARDS ARTISTIC DIRECTOR Mark Murphy last Monday, April 26, has sparked the largest groundswell of arts activism I've ever seen in this town. Two hundred-some dancers, actors, directors, theater technicians, critics, and patrons gathered at Velocity Dance Studio last Thursday night to organize support for one person, and ask that he be placed back at the helm of the organization he's led as Artistic Director for 12 years.

In this week's Stranger, an open letter calling for Murphy's reinstatement, signed by local and international artists and writers, runs in donated space, and a second, similar letter signed by representatives of dance and performance institutions all over America, was delivered to the board early this week. This Thursday, May 6, supporters will stand outside On the Boards' home at Behnke Center for New Performance to call for Murphy's rehiring.

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The oddest aspect of this dramatic upheaval is that it happens at a time when On the Boards could scarcely be healthier. The current New Performance Series (On the Boards' main season) comes to a close with two weekends of performances by Rennie Harris Puremovement, after having brought to Seattle audiences a range of respected performers from New York, Seattle, Cape Verde, Brussels, and Boston. 12 Minutes Max, the monthly showcase of emerging local performers, has played to sold-out crowds in Behnke Center's Studio Theater, and the Northwest New Works festival showed off more established local artists. Throughout its 21-year history, On the Boards has been a stable, well-run organization. During its three-year capital campaign and move to Behnke Center, the organization continued to be financially healthy, and throughout its first year in the new space, On the Boards has beaten its audience expectations.

So why did the board feel they needed to take such radical steps? The story of Murphy's firing begins with the move by On the Boards to find a new home. Three years ago, at the outset of the $4 million capital campaign, the organization realized that they would need a managing director to administer such a campaign. They found Sara Pasti, then finishing up a stint at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

People familiar with Pasti's work on the capital campaign say it was a smashing success, with the entire $4 million raised before Mark Murphy's first curtain speech at Behnke Center. But those in a position to know acknowledge that Murphy and Pasti did not get along. (Murphy, it should be pointed out, can not speak freely about his firing, as a condition of his severance package with the board.)

"There were millions of small disagreements," says a highly placed staff member. "You could say that Mark was interested in one thing, Sara in the opposite, but it really comes down to a personality issue."

For her part, Pasti downplays reports of tension. "Both of us are strong-minded and opinionated--we've had some healthy discussions. Both of us do not hesitate to speak our minds." However, she insists, "I've enjoyed working with him."

But at some point, the board was called in to mediate the dispute between Murphy and Pasti. According to two accounts, Pasti asked them to involve themselves. Six months ago, the board embarked on an "analysis of structures and issues for growing organizations," according to the press release sent out last week. They brought in a consultant, John Runyan of the Leadership Group, a Seattle-based company which advises non-profits, and paid him a sum that's been estimated at somewhere between $12,000 and $20,000. According to board treasurer and spokesman Dave Roberts, they looked at the organizational structures of similar institutions to attempt to discover a structure that would work best for On the Boards.

"The whole thing has been hard on Mark, and Mark was not gentle with the board," says the staff member. "During that process, Mark angered the board and destroyed a lot of contacts there." But he never expected he'd be fired.

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By the time the board issued their press release, mid-day Tuesday, April 27, phone calls and e-mails had spread the news throughout Seattle. Murphy left town Wednesday to attend a meeting of the National Dance Project in New York, where visiting artistic directors were already beginning to hear what had happened.

The press release said that the moves had resulted from a realization that "strong, consolidated leadership under a single director is required for us to expand our artistic vision and bring in larger audiences to two theaters," according to a quote attributed to Jerry Fulks, chair of the organizational development committee. "The positions of Artistic Director and Managing Director will be eliminated," read the press release. "Mark Murphy... and Sara Pasti... will leave their posts." Pasti has been asked to serve as the organization's interim manager through September.Reached at On the Boards' offices, Pasti does not talk like someone who has lost her job. Though board spokesman Dave Roberts says Pasti's job as interim manager will be on a consulting basis, the terms of her new deal have not been worked out. She says she is not thinking past the challenges of the next four months, and has no ideas about her possible future with the organization. She will not apply for the executive director position. She talks in exactly the same measured, optimistic, information-free manner of the board spokesman.

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The first sentence of the board's press release said the leadership of a single Executive Director was "required to expand [On the Boards'] international reach...." It's hard to see how that could be improved. On the Boards already has an international reach, a broad artistic vision, and large audiences, and Murphy's firing threatens all of those goals. To understand why, we should look some of On the Boards' regular performers.

Spalding Gray first performed at On the Boards in 1980. He was then in his second year as a solo performer, having performed previously with the Wooster Group in New York City. Over the past 19 years, he performed at On the Boards six or seven times, even as his career took off.

"I had always thought of Mark as On the Boards, and that's why I kept going back," Gray told me last Wednesday from Los Angeles, fresh off a weekend of performances at Behnke Center. "Because of that relationship, I never thought of playing anywhere else, while in other cities I kind of graduated to larger places."

This 19-year relationship between Gray and On the Boards has been damaged by Murphy's firing. Asked if the events would cause him to consider not performing at On the Boards in the future, he said, "Yeah, certainly, because I wouldn't have that relationship. I'd have to ask, what does this thing mean to me, why not go to a larger space?"

Others have been more certain in deciding their future with On the Boards. Pat Graney, whose internationally known Seattle dance group has performed all its major works locally under the auspices of On the Boards, declared in an interview with KUOW's Marcie Sillman that she would not return to On the Boards unless Murphy was reinstated. As her next major work, Tattoo, was scheduled to have its world premiere at On the Boards over three weekends in January of 2000, this is a serious matter.

On the Boards has developed strong relationships with performers worldwide, but perhaps its strongest contribution to Seattle has been its nurturing of local talent. As a member of the National Performance Network and the National Dance Project, Murphy, representing On the Boards, has access to the two major sources for funding and support for touring dance companies and performers. He's exploited this access in order to help many local companies.

Many other large local arts institutions offer emerging local artists a place, but none match On the Boards' success in moving local talent up a ladder, giving them a place to grow and also giving them a leg up in other cities. This could not happen without Murphy's 12 years at the helm. Among the major local institutions not wholly devoted to safe, well-known, subscriber-pleasing work--by which I mean Seattle Art Museum, Seattle Repertory Theater, A Contemporary Theater, Bellevue Art Museum, and the Henry Art Gallery--none has artistic leadership with a tenure of more than three years, and all of their artistic directors came from elsewhere to their current jobs. Nurturing local talent requires long working relationships and deep familiarity, along with access to national organizations and institutions in other cities. Only Mark Murphy has that, and it's no surprise that his organization has been so much more successful in growing local talent.

The most recent recipient of Murphy's largesse is the dance group 33 Fainting Spells, led by Dayna Hanson and Gaelen Hanson. Dayna Hanson, whose relationship with On the Boards dates back to a 12 Minutes Max performance in 1988, and who is spearheading the artists' movement to reinstate Murphy, told me, "It would be really hard to say that any of the success that our company is now enjoying is not due in some part, directly or indirectly, to Mark's involvement." That success includes three seasons of touring, both in America and Europe, to rave reviews everywhere from Lincoln, Nebraska, to The New York Times.

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Board members John Kucher and Merril Wright have been charged with forming a search group for On the Boards' new leader. They will seek out members of On the Boards' staff and constituency to join their search committee, which makes one wonder why those groups weren't drawn upon to aid the board in solving the initial problem. In talking to On the Boards supporters and artists, a universal theme is their shock that they were completely left out of the process that resulted in Murphy and Pasti's firing. Peter Donnelly, head of the Corporate Council for the Arts, told me he'd have loved to help mediate the dispute. "Usually you get invited in if there's a significant problem. We don't have an ax to grind; we might have been as helpful as anything."

But the board didn't involve anyone else, other than the consultant. They hide behind their six-month process, hoping it will give them the appearance of having acted cautiously, but they chose a radical solution to a problem which seemingly had no effect on either the artistic or financial health of the organization.

This board has allowed a personality clash to throw a stable, healthy, much-loved 21-year-old institution into the largest crisis it has ever faced. They have failed their responsibility to their staff, their supporters, and the public they serve as trustees of a non-profit institution. Following their success in completing the organization's move into its wonderful new home, they have turned around and made a huge error. If they cannot realize their mistake, and rectify it by rehiring Mark Murphy, they must resign.

A protest in support of Mark Murphy's reinstatement will be held Thursday, May 6, starting at 7 pm, outside of Behnke Center, 100 West Roy, Lower Queen Anne. Call the hotline of the Campaign to Reinstate Mark Murphy, 947-3879, for information on this and other actions.

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