Upheaval at Southern Theater latest in a series of blows

Jeff Bartlett served as the Southern's artistic director for three decades.
Courtesy of Jawaahir Dance Company
Jeff Bartlett served as the Southern’s artistic director for three decades.

The departure of Jeff Bartlett as artistic director of the Southern Theater is a body blow to the Twin Cities dance and arts community.

Bartlett, who developed his position over the past 33 years in addition to serving as the theater’s often-outstanding lighting designer, has become an integral part of the dance community through his unwavering commitment to local dance.

By presenting the best and sometimes most-groundbreaking dance here, he made the Southern THE source and pulse of local dance in the Twin Cities.

Arguably, this dance community would not be what it is — culturally and stylistically diverse, nurtured and supported, welcoming to new and experimental artists and steadfast in presenting established companies — without the Southern’s dedication to presenting local dance artists.
 
Did I say the Southern? I meant Bartlett. What I mean, in fact, is that the Southern is Bartlett, that the two are irrevocably intertwined in the hearts and minds of this dance community — and beyond.

Bartlett created partnerships with the Walker Art Center on the Momentum series (emerging local dance artists) and with the McKnight Foundation on SOLO (new works for the McKnight Artist Fellowships in Dance). But he also presented Link Vostok (modern dance from Russia), and collaborated with ODC Theater, Velocity Dance Center and Philadelphia Dance Projects on the SCUBA National Touring Network for Dance (which provides touring opportunities for local dance artists). These initiatives kept local dancegoers on their toes with year-around exposure to new work often by choreographers from outside the region.
 
Seismic changes — and opportunities
This sudden event has set me to thinking — again — about the seismic changes in venues and presenting occurring in this dance community. Consider that the 2008-2009 Northrop Dance Season is a shadow of its former self since the sudden death in 2006 of Dale Schatzlein, who curated the Northrop Dance Season from 1985 to 2006.

Schatzlein set the bar by programming seasons that included the luminaries of the dance world; the companies we’d have to travel to New York (Mark Morris Dance Company, Trisha Brown Dance Company, Paul Taylor Dance Company, American Ballet Theater, White Oak Dance Company), or Miami (Miami City Ballet) or San Francisco (San Francisco Ballet) to see; the companies that showed us — audience members, critics, funders, dance artists — the excellence that our own dance community could strive for.
 
In a recent press release about Schatzlein’s replacement (Ben Johnson), no mention was made of the Northrop Dance Season or its continuance. Instead, emphasis was placed on Northrop, which will close next spring for two years as it is rehabbed into a “dynamic state-of-the-art cultural and academic center” when it reopens.
 
In local dance, the field suddenly seems wide open for the Minnesota Shubert Performing Arts and Education Center, which has raised $32 million in a $41 million campaign to open its doors. Billed as a flagship for dance that would be a home to local companies and present world-class companies from outside the region, the need for such a facility seems more critical than ever — a stable venue devoted to dance that supports artists in our community, while presenting the international, bar-setting modern dance and ballet that we may soon be lacking.

Now, mix in the closing of Theatre de la Jeune Lune and the unexpected resignation of Stewart Turnquist from the popular MAEP (Minnesota Artist’s Exhibition Program) at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The mind reels. Is this panic over the economy? A new surge in the corporate-ization of the arts? A disconcerting turn away from institutional support of local artists?
 
Feelings of disrespect
Emails and phone calls have been coming my way since news of Bartlett’s departure. Local dance artists feel dismissed and disrespected for having agreed to another season with the Southern. Some are threatening to not sign their contracts with the Southern, or to quit performing there. Others have mentioned that the new management, in place for the last year or so, often doesn’t know who they are (this came from someone who’s spent her entire performing career at the Southern), or are curt and difficult to work with. Another, while emphasizing the “abominable” way Bartlett was treated, said he basically sleepwalked through their last show and seemed “burned out.”
 
Members of the dance and arts community hastily convened a meeting Wednesday night to discuss Bartlett’s dismissal. They read a letter Bartlett sent, in which he expressed his thanks for the dance community’s outpouring of support: “I’m trying to address this with the Southern Theater. Some of the decisions about my future with the Southern are in the hands of the Southern. I do hope a day will come when I can tell you more.” He also told them that, “I cannot commit to working with any artists on any production at the Southern Theater” at this time.

The meeting produced a letter to members of the press, sent today by Karen Sherman, whose new work “copperhead” is on the Southern schedule for Oct. 2-5. The group also wants to meet with the board at 7 p.m. Monday.

Excerpts from the letter:
   
“While we respect what may be confidential aspects of the Board’s negotiations with Jeff, we as individuals and community leaders who directly support the financial and artistic life of the Southern  demand a public meeting with the Board of Directors to discuss how this situation was handled, and how it reflects the Board’s vision.
  
“The Southern Theater is a 501(c)3 organization and its board is beholden to public accountability.

“The Southern’s mission statement declares its commitment to artists, audiences and the local community. We expect the Board will honor that commitment by meeting with the community in a timely fashion.”

The Southern’s board vice chair, G. Bryan Fleming, responded to the invitation via email Thursday afternoon that board members are willing to meet with the group:

“Our role will be to listen to any questions, views and/or concerns that may be shared by community members, and to affirm our commitment to both the organization’s mission and to Twin Cities artists. As well, and time permitting, we will offer, within the appropriate constraints, the Board’s collective voice regarding our recent action. However, community members should be advised that unless Mr. Bartlett formally provides to the Board a written and/or public authorization and release, we will be unable to provide any further details surrounding his status with the Southern.  If Mr. Bartlett chooses to provide such an authorization and release, the Board will be happy to provide greater detail.”

Leave of absence or dismissal?
On the advice of his lawyer, Bartlett told me he was still unable to discuss his situation, but that he’s “not expected to return to the Southern.”
 
Wednesday afternoon, I talked via phone with Fleming, who also is associate director of admissions at Blake School. Here’s our conversation:

MinnPost: What’s going on?

Bryan Fleming:
I’ll just start and ask your indulgence. But the board has decided and been advised that we can’t talk; we can’t offer details about what we’re classifying as Jeff’s leave of absence at this time.

MP: So that’s all you’re going to tell me?

BF:
I guess what I would offer is, and hope that you would consider presenting, is that we acknowledge that Jeff has had, and has, a long-standing reputation and affinity within the Twin Cities arts community. We don’t dispute that. I would also want you to know that we are currently, as we speak, we are reaching out to artists that have committed for our 08-09 season to give them a level of comfort and reassurance that we’re still going to be a great venue, we are a great venue, we’re as dedicated as ever to providing quality service to them.

MP: And how are you doing that?

BF:
We have people actually on the phone [calling the artists]. This is not a surprise to us, the reaction. We anticipated it. We did an analysis of it. We have a plan in place to not put our heads in the sand, but to be responsive and respectful.
 
MP: Is there any chance Bartlett would be invited back?

BF:
  I’m not at liberty to talk about that at this time.

MP: Why no announcement or press release on Bartlett’s leave of absence?

BF:
That was a decision, again, on the advice of vis a vis our internal board deliberations and counsel we’ve received, that we would not talk about it. So if we agreed to not have any verbal communication that the same would hold true for any written communication. So we instead decided to release an announcement regarding the arrival of Patricia Speelman.
 
As of July 14, Speelman is the new president and CEO of the Southern Theater. In a press release, Speelman said, “I am eager to work with the Southern staff and its Board of Directors to keep providing the high-quality programming for which the Southern is known; programming that explores new vistas while solidifying the cultural heritage we will leave to our children.”

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