Two years ago, in April of 1999, Mark Murphy was fired from his position as artistic director of On the Boards, Seattle's leading presenter of experimental performance, by the organization's board of directors. Following a virulent protest by the local arts community, Murphy was reinstated. Now, to the shock and dismay of the community, Murphy resigned from his position on August 10 of this year. And while the circumstances (the abruptness of his departure, the careful political language used by everyone involved) suggest that his resignation was imposed upon him, Murphy does not wish to return. "Given the differences between the board and me, this seems to be the best choice.... I think it is time for me to move on," Murphy told The Stranger.

Murphy's departure leaves the artists who rallied around him two years ago hanging in the air. "I don't trust [the board's] decision-making processes," says Pat Graney, a nationally recognized choreographer and longtime participant at OTB, "and I don't trust the motivation behind them." Graney's statement reflects the artists' desire to have a voice in the running of OTB--a voice that, legally, they don't have.

This is an ongoing issue. In the wake of the 1999 protest, OTB attempted to address this very issue by forming an advisory committee called the Artist Resource Team (ART). ART was conceived as an informal body that could give the board feedback from the artists' perspective; unfortunately, as the current circumstances make clear, the committee's role was ill-defined. The members of ART felt that they were largely being ignored and rebuffed: "It was like walking on quicksand," says ART member Crispin Spaeth, a choreographer. "The responsibility for communication got passed around and fell down to the ground."

The board, on the other hand, felt they were being scrutinized with prejudice, and that their actions were routinely misperceived. In July of 2001, ART felt that the relationship between Murphy and the board had improved; hoping that a clearer mission could be articulated soon, they went on hiatus. A month later, Murphy resigned. Mickey Gendler, spokesperson for the board of directors, defends the board's lack of disclosure about the departure: "There are things that, outside an organization, are better left unsaid... the way [problems] get resolved should not be talked about with other people--out of deference to him, out of respect for the organization." Graney disagrees: "The point [of ART] was to have a dialogue concerning major changes in the organization. I don't want to demonize the board, because there are some great people on that board, but this is a major change and nobody knew about it."

Graney's frustration lays bare the intense attachment artists feel toward On the Boards, and shows why the current situation seems like such a betrayal. OTB is not simply a booking agency (like Seattle Theatre Group, which presents shows at the Paramount and the Moore), nor is it a producing organization like an individual dance company or theater. OTB has fostered entire careers, as local artists have moved from 12 Minutes Max to Northwest New Works to the New Performance Series (Maureen Whiting, whose recent show Wreck Tangle exceeded audience expectations, is one of many examples). OTB has become a place where an astonishing number and variety of Northwest performers feel both supported for what they've done and challenged to go further. National artists have similarly spoken of how crucial OTB has been to their careers.

Many artists have been part of OTB for longer than the current board members, so it's not surprising that they want a voice in OTB's decision-making. Dayna Hanson of dance troupe 33 Fainting Spells, a founding member of ART, argues, "The long-term redemption of the organization depends on the same conditions that were important two years ago: that the board recognize the need for an artist advisory board--in other words, it can't be imposed from the outside; the organization itself has to recognize that this would be of value and seek it out--and to have representation by performing artists on the board of directors. It's vital."

While not all local artists share this stance, it's safe to say that the community at large is uneasy. While the particulars differ, there are several examples from across the country of boards taking control of arts organizations from long-standing leaders, often following an increase in budget or a transition into a new building, with disastrous results. Boston's Dance Umbrella (which was, along with OTB, one of the earliest members of the National Performance Network, an affiliation of arts presenters) closed its doors this past April, a year after an acrimonious parting with its founding artistic director.

What makes the schism so acute is that throughout his tenure, Murphy was the public face of On the Boards. The relationships that board members and various managing directors have forged with performers over the years do not begin to compare with the deep roots Murphy has established. As a result, it's difficult not to see the role of artistic director as the sole embodiment of OTB's mission and values. Thus, what will most likely resolve this situation one way or the other is the selection of the new artistic director. The board intends to include performing artists on the search committee.

While trying to sort out this struggle, it's essential to keep in mind that everyone's goal is to create art. Calling for a collaborative atmosphere, board member Tyler Engle pleads, "The question I want to ask the community is, do they want this organization to thrive and grow within the current mission, to continue producing work that's risky and on the edge? It's not about Mark, it's not about me or any individual board member, it's not about individual artists--it's about the stewardship of the organization. And what I mean by 'it' is our compassion and involvement." This conflict could accomplish nothing more than crippling one of Seattle's most vital arts organizations.

Support The Stranger