Intiman says it's taking 'corrective measures'

The theater company, after stonewalling, admits to "management missteps" and slow payment of bills. Isn't it time to address the financial distress of many Seattle arts groups more openly and creatively?

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Intiman Theatre's former artistic director Bartlett Sher.

The theater company, after stonewalling, admits to "management missteps" and slow payment of bills. Isn't it time to address the financial distress of many Seattle arts groups more openly and creatively?

Intiman Theatre has explained a little bit of the context for the abrupt departure of managing director Brian Colburn earlier this week. Colburn left "for personal reasons," but was unavailable to the media. Intiman spokespersons said they could not comment further but that everything was going ahead as usual at the theater.

Now board president Kim Anderson has explained more, telling the Puget Sound Business Journal about the need to correct for "management missteps." The theater is negotiating with key vendors and creditors, communicating with union representatives, conducting a full financial audit, and "taking immediate corrective measures." Anderson said there were some late bills and that it will take "some time to sort through the impact of these management missteps."

Intiman has struggled for years to get out of debt. A campaign a few years ago, when Laura Penn was still the managing director, made some progress. (The most recent tax filing, for the 2008-09 season, shows Intiman losing $518,000 for the year.) The company has also had to deal with succession issues as artistic director Bartlett Sher's career took off in New York and he was increasingly absent. It ended up with a plan where Sher's choice, Kate Whoriskey, with very little management experience, was named co-artistic director, apparently with some Sher involvement, and then the full artistic director. The page was not turned cleanly, as for example it was done at Pacific Northwest Ballet and now (belatedly) at the Symphony.

Backstage at Seattle's major three theaters there have been many discussions about merger, collaboration, or other cost-saving steps. At one point, the Rep and Intiman talked about combining, with Sher as the artistic director of the merged entity's three stages. Sher was not interested, having outgrown Seattle, and because the Rep has so many seats to fill that it makes it harder for an experimental director like Sher to spread his wings with risky productions. (Intiman, with a small house and a very large stage, is far better for him.) ACT had lengthy, ultimately abortive discussions with Seattle Theater Group (Paramount and the Moore) whereby the latter would take over one of the two ACT stages. Seattle Children's Theater has also been part of some of these talks.

In the end, all that came of the discussions (not surprisingly) was an agreement to combine on some educational programs; the theaters already swap costumes and props and they agreed jointly on a ticket-management system. One reason for the failed talks, aside from pride and the threat to jobs, is that the three main theaters have distinct approaches. The Rep concentrates on production values, ACT on acting, and Intiman on its edgy directors.

Many Seattle arts organizations are in financial distress. Few talk about it publicly or even to their major donors, for fear of scaring off audiences and donations. Local media oblige by not probing the story. But it might be an interesting time for some high-level summit meetings. Consider: new leadership at SAM, the Symphony, the Ballet, Intiman, and others; a sudden opening for the directorship of the Seattle Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs; disarray between two contenders for visitor tax money for King County arts (4 Culture and a low-profile entity known as the Cultural Access District); a new mayor who alarmed wealthy arts supporters with his willingness to attack MOHAI as elitist; and a new county executive with excellent cred in the arts. Throw in a few organizations in fiscal tailspins, and you have enough urgency to talk, at least.


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