IT TOOK SIX MONTHS FOR THE BOARD of trustees of On the Boards to decide they needed to fire Mark Murphy. It took less than a month for the rest of the world to convince them that they were wrong. Though it took until late last Friday for a press release to confirm the fact, insiders have known since Wednesday, May 18, that Murphy would most likely reclaim the helm of the organization he served for 12 years as artistic director; that he would "lead On the Boards into the next century," as he'd told a table of supporters weeks earlier at T.S. McHugh's. This is a stunning reversal--and very happy news for Murphy, local artists, On the Boards audiences, and ultimately, one hopes, for the board as well.


For the group of local performers who organized the opposition to Murphy's dismissal, Murphy's pending return is a vindication. Throughout the month of turmoil, a small, organized group, unofficially led by Dayna Hanson and Gaelen Hanson of the dance group 33 Fainting Spells, met regularly in public and private to organize support for Murphy, and then to serve as a liaison between Murphy and the board.

A crucial aspect of their success was their ability to create a broad constituency of local artists, audience members, international artists, and the leaders of On the Boards' peer institutions in America and Europe. They helped force an early meeting between the board and the public to discuss the issue, and hundreds showed up to ask for Murphy's reinstatement. They organized a successful petition drive and letter-writing campaign. They held a protest in front of Behnke Performance Hall, and got Rennie Harris Puremovement, that night's performers, to wear T-shirts supporting Murphy. Then, having established their constituency, they went behind the scenes to meet with Murphy and board members separately, helping to set up direct meetings between Murphy and a committee of the board. But they didn't act alone: Peter Donnelly, leader of the Corporate Council for the Arts and an On the Boards supporter, also met behind the scenes with several of the parties.

The board's about-face was also driven, most likely, by the realization that finding Murphy's replacement had become all but impossible. The heads of the Walker Art Center, P.S. 122, Wexner Center, Dance Theater Workshop, and most every other major American or European institution comparable to On the Boards had already explicitly, in an open letter, condemned the board's decision. These organizations--who were exactly the people the board would need to consult in their search for an executive director--had told the board that Murphy was the right choice for the job, and indicated that any qualified candidate would be foolish to work with a board that had so abruptly dismissed his or her predecessor. The network of contemporary performance organizations was unlikely to assist the board in finding and hiring Murphy's replacement.

To its credit, the board quickly understood their position, and began sending out feelers to Murphy almost immediately. More than two weeks ago, the artists' group and Donnelly had withdrawn from their mediating roles, and Murphy and the board were engaged in real talks, with both sides optimistic they could come to a mutually satisfactory resolution. Since there hasn't yet been any announcement of a firm agreement, it's likely the parties have real differences to work out; still, Murphy's return appears likely.


In the aftermath of Murphy's dismissal, it has become clear that the board needs professional performers among its numbers. While the 23-person board has two visual artists (board president Lorna Jordan, and Gene Gentry McMahon) and one filmmaker (former OTB artistic director Robert McGinley), the board has no performing artists or production staff (stage or lighting designers, producers, etc.), which is strange for an institution almost completely devoted to the performing arts.

One major reason for this exclusion is a conflict of interest provision which says that a board member cannot participate in productions at On the Boards. This rule--which effectively prevents any successful local performer or production professional from serving on the board--must be scrapped immediately.

At OTB, there is no possibility for conflict of interest, as the board has no role in programming. Anyway, such a provision is far from standard practice: as a recent New York Times profile of P.S. 122 executive director Mark Russell noted, the president of that venerable New York performance space's board is also a dancer who performs there once a year (naked and covered in blood, as Russell joked). Last Friday's press release announced the formation of a permanent advisory committee, to allow better communication between the board and that constituency. This is not enough. The board badly needs performers and performance professionals among its ranks if it is to restore its credibility with the performing arts community.

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