When the Money Keeps Rolling In, You Don’t Ask Why — Or Should You?

Cronyism is disgusting – and a way of life for large Seattle nonprofit arts organizations

There are some that get it and some that don’t want to. It’s hard to hear over a sinking ship. (Photo by Philippe Serrand on Pexels)

As we discussed last week, the Seattle nonprofit arts-mosphere is imploding and re-forming. Seattle Repertory Theatre is merging with Seattle Children’s Theatre. ACT (A Contemporary Theatre) is merging with the Seattle Shakespeare Company. These mergers appear to be strictly back-office cuts that will remove excess waste from all four companies, which is a good thing considering the artistic focus of the four companies couldn’t be more dissimilar (Romeo and Julio? How I Learned to Drive a Big Wheel?). The full-time artistic staff at Seattle Rep is also receiving full-time labor cuts, but will be replaced by hourly contractors, if I’m reading the press releases correctly.

So, that means that the people who are losing jobs will be in the development office of Seattle Rep (again, in lieu of some hourly contractors), which already appeared to be bloated, but that’s just me. I know lots about bloat. I used to work at the Rep, too.

Also exiting the building will be box office people at Seattle Children’s Theatre, it would appear. Or, by merging, they can lay off whomever they wish, starting at the highest salary and moving downward.

I’m assuming similar cuts will be happening at Seattle Shakespeare and ACT. Merge, sift, and throw away, to be blunt. I hope (but don’t believe) they’ll get nice severances.

locke defenestration
Or maybe not.

I believe this merging is a way to forestall the inevitable, but I’ve been wrong about such things before. The real reason that the nonprofit arts sector in Seattle is that, in the past, leaders across the city felt duty-bound to tie their organization’s hands to their structures. In the past, we’ve called that “The Edifice Complex.” But it’s more than that. The Kreielsheimer Foundation, among others, was decidedly pro-building, causing more space to be generated than was necessary.

In 1963, upon founding immediately after the Seattle World’s Fair, Seattle Rep performed its work in the approximately 500-seat theater that is now the Cornish Playhouse (back then it was called the Seattle Playhouse). They opened a second stage for more adventuresome works in downtown Seattle. In 1983, thanks in large part to donations from the Wright family and some from the Kreielsheimer Foundation, they moved to what is now called the Bagley Wright Theatre. Then they built a second space that opened in the late 1990s, generously funded by the Kreielsheimer Foundation and major donors and called it the Leo Kreielsheimer Theatre, shortening the name to the “Leo K.”

But that’s just one company. ACT moved from its popular (if rustic) space in the densely-populated Lower Queen Anne part of town to a completely renovated Eagles Auditorium in downtown Seattle, where no one lived. The Kreielsheimer Foundation paid for a lot of that construction, and the building was re-named Kreielsheimer Place (although most people in Seattle still refer to it as “the old Eagles building”). Three theaters replaced one. And zero residents replaced thousands.

It is telling that, according to the then-managing director of the performance art nonprofit On the Boards, which took over the Lower Queen Anne space from ACT, over 40% of the capital campaign to renovate came from people who had never attended a production of theirs in the past, but happened to live in zip code 98109 (Lower Queen Anne).

The now-defunct Empty Space moved into a new space in the Fremont neighborhood, paid in major part by the Kreielsheimer Foundation.

Seattle Symphony moved into Benaroya Hall, where Kreielsheimer Foundation contributions were supposed to be there to name the recital hall, something that didn’t happen because the music director of the Symphony broke the company’s word and promised the name to another family foundation after making a deal with Kreielsheimer. Messy. That hall is currently known as the Nordstrom Recital Hall.

Seattle Opera and Pacific Northwest Ballet moved performances into McCaw Hall after a winning city election provided funding to augment that of the Kreielsheimer Foundation.

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While all that new building was happening (and there was more), musical chairs and avarice caused movement from theaters across the city. Dozens of theaters and arts organizations opened, moved, closed, and merged. At the end of the day (meaning today), there are more seats than customers to fill them, while arts organizations now base their earned revenue streams on unrealistic notions of seat-filling.

All this could have been solved, of course, and in a city with high growth, it made sense to increase venues. And executive directors and board chairs across the city were lauded for their ability to get money from this generous foundation in order to build more buildings.

Smaller companies got little support from Kreielsheimer, following the same pattern of the other funding apparatuses in the city: PONCHO (Patrons of Northwest Civic, Cultural, and Charitable Organizations) and the Corporate Council for the Arts (today, they are combined and are called ArtsFund). ArtsWest, where I served later as its executive director, received a donation toward its $3 million capital campaign to transform a five-and-dime into a 150-seat theater and art gallery (That campaign was never completed, so the company opened with a $300,000 deficit on day one.). PONCHO and the Corporate Council (and later, ArtsFund) notoriously gave about 85% of their annual millions in funding to a half-dozen large “core” organizations and forced other grant writers to finish dozens of pages of an application to fight over the scraps.

This isn’t the whole story, of course. When the Kreielsheimer Foundation finally gave its last cent in 2011, $1,460,776 was donated to ArtsFund, presumably to be distributed to nonprofit arts organizations in the region. In theory, that sounds equitable.

BUT, with some of the same people serving on both the board of the Kreielsheimer Remainder Foundation and ArtsFund simultaneously, including its then-CEO, the conflict-of-interest flags should have risen high. That same CEO had once been the head of Seattle Rep’s capital campaign to raise money for the Leo K. But after scouring every page of the 26 years’ worth of records of the Kreielsheimer Foundation, I found no conflict-of-interest statement, although that doesn’t mean that one didn’t exist.

One hand feeds itself.

Was this alleged wrongdoing kosher? Maybe. Maybe not. There were allegations that foundations themselves were bamboozled by the Intiman Theatre’s leadership, for example, allegedly leaving the company in millions of dollars in back rent owed to the city of Seattle and forcing them to move out of the Seattle Playhouse, which estimates revealed that over a million dollars in renovation was required to restore the building to its original state after they left.

I doubt anyone but a real investigative journalist will ever know and I don’t know if there any left. If there are, you’re welcome to my notes, and I have hundreds of pages. But let me ask: in today’s world, where receipts are kept, it just looks bad, doesn’t it?

Cronyism and nepotism are nothing new when it comes to alleged inside deals from foundations to organizations, no matter how impactful (or non-impactful) the nonprofit arts organization actually is. There is more than this article reveals, of course. It feels slimy.

All this is to say, funding for nonprofit arts organizations must come from non-arts funders to be successfully independent of such alleged shenanigans. And the only way for that to happen – and it’s happening in other cities – is for the organizations to stop producing art for the sake of the art and to concentrate on making the people in their own communities tangibly, measurably better off. Not just from watching a play, no matter how “cutting-edge” it is or how many “untold stories” it reveals. For nonprofit arts organizations in Seattle, now with fewer people raising the money and fewer still on the front lines with the members of the neighborhood, storytelling has to have a purpose, and can’t be passive entertainment, interest, or even engagement. Nonprofits have to prove worth with impact and by showing the data of that impact. That’s the way it is for all other nonprofits. Why should nonprofit arts organizations be allowed to be exempt from helping people?

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