Never Say Goodbye

Last week brought the news that Fidelma McGinn, former executive director of 911 Media Arts Center--around whose unceremonious dismissal the organization nearly imploded--is leaving Seattle to become the executive director of Film Arts Foundation in San Francisco.

McGinn's firing revealed a huge rift in the organization's organization (the members, as it happened, had no power to eject a rigid and, many felt, unreasonable board) and to 911's everlasting credit, the members worked very hard to pull things back together. This process involved writing new bylaws, electing a new, more active board, a mad bout of fundraising in order to move 911 to a new, larger space, and holding on to a stressed-out staff caught in the crossfire between the board and the members.

I called McGinn to have one more conversation with her about, among other things, the survival of an organization after such upheaval, and being the galvanizing force at the center of it all. I asked her if the whole ordeal, although certainly unpleasant, hadn't ultimately left 911 in better shape.

"Undoubtedly," McGinn said. "The tables turned, but in a positive way. Afterward, it was clear that there were problems in the governance of the organization, that the board wasn't responsible to the membership." After the shakeup, the new board went about stabilizing things: "We hired a new executive director [Karen Toering] who helped stabilize the staff and mobilize them, and [as it turns out] there was no staff attrition."

McGinn was retained not in a staff position, but as an elected member of the board, chairing the committee to find a new space for 911 ("work," according to McGinn, "that had been left undone"). Eventually they settled on a 5,000-square-foot space, right near Cinema Seattle, that can be custom-built to 911's needs, and also lowers the organization's operating costs. And 911, it seems--defying the model of arts organizations that never quite recover after the idealistic founders depart--is as strong as ever.

Which is not to say that those events didn't leave their mark. "The main lesson," McGinn said, "is trust. In many ways it's a rite of passage you go through, to recognize your own blindsidedness. Now I ensure I don't have misplaced trust in people I consider loyal. I'm gun-shy for sure.

"But ultimately I have no hard feelings. This is a bittersweet departure. We get parochial, in our little communities; we think our thing is the only thing that's important." In that spirit, McGinn is looking forward to possible partnerships between 911 and Film Arts, which is the Bay Area's oldest and largest resource center for indie filmmakers. "Never," she said, "say goodbye."