Intersection for the Arts: Looking to the Future
Thursday, July 17, 2014
Text and photos by James Nelson
The mood was anything but somber last Tuesday night, as attendees packed into Intersection for the Arts for an open community discussion, the first of a series of talks scheduled in the wake of the organization's recent drastic restructuring. The restructuring plan, announced in May, effectively cancelled the majority of Intersection's programming and called for numerous layoffs, including many senior and supporting staff members. (This KQED news story contains the full press release from Intersection.) But this week, in spite of all this, the room was filled with smiles, hugs, and handshakes as attendees greeted each other, helped themselves to wine and filled out Post-It note responses to the open-ended prompts "Questions" and "Dreams," written on large sheets of paper next to the door. The energy was palpable; the Bay Area arts community, often proudly spoken of in abstract terms, felt markedly tangible and present in the room.
In fact, it took some effort for board chair Yancy Widmer to bring an end to the mingling. When the room had settled, however, he came right to the point: "We all know the past couple of months have been really difficult, and challenging, and very emotional," he said. Widmer then introduced Intersection's transition team, which included former program directors Rebeka Rodriguez, Sean San José and Kevin Chen, all of whom are currently on furlough as a result of the restructuring. Describing the purpose of the evening, Rodriguez said, "Tonight is really about listening. It's a brainstorming session. [We are] figuring out a process. Today is your chance to be part of this process." The team emphasized that this meeting was not about the past; rather, they would be firmly looking ahead to Intersection's future, and that the thoughts of the community would be instrumental as they moved forward.
At that point, the transition team divided the gathering into five groups, each led by a member of the team and centering on a specific theme: performance, visual arts, fundraising, community engagement and new models. The attendees earnestly voiced their hopes and concerns from their own perspective as artists, patrons, theatre-makers and administrators; the Intersection team listened intently and vigorously took notes. Some common topics emerged from these conversations: the importance of having spaces for artists, the value of nurturing artists and art groups, and the question of whether it was within Intersection's means moving forward to be able to provide these things.
When the whole assembly reconvened, Widmer launched the discussion with the biggest question in the room: Why did this happen? "That is a question that I personally struggled with, and one that is not easy to answer," Widmer admitted. He described Intersection as being "underfunded and undercapitalized in many ways," with little unrestricted income (income not dedicated to specific projects), no significant reserve to support the organization in lean years and expected income and contributions that fell through at inopportune times. Widmer also mentioned the "very significant leadership change" that took place when former executive director Deborah Cullinan departed from Intersection last year to serve at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, ending a 17-year tenure. Widmer also acknowledged that part of the fault also fell to the administration. "We spent a lot of time…trying to understand the dynamic and the complexity of the situation," he said humbly. "We probably, and I believe that we did, spend too much time trying to figure that out, and not enough time trying to actually do something like we're doing tonight, bringing all of you together." Empathetic murmurs of "thank you" filled the room, leaving Widmer at an emotional loss for words. "I don't know how to respond to that," he replied quietly.
Cullinan, who was in attendance, voiced her support for the transition team and echoed their sentiments about focusing constructively on moving Intersection forward, urging all present to "take a leap and believe that there is a better future for artists and arts organizations that we need to integrate into our city."
Toward the end of the evening, another notable attendee was introduced: Jonathan Perdue, whose mother, Henrietta, cofounded Intersection for the Arts almost 50 years ago. "I think she would be extremely proud of all of you, the diversity of what you are," he said warmly. "And she'd also want to know what the plan is."
On that, it seemed the whole room could agree.
James Nelson is field services associate for Theatre Bay Area. He also works as a freelance theatre director; visit him at jameskelseynelson.com.