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Buzz, 5-10: Diversion of Acolytes
The Graham Debt & the Protas Enablers
Copyright 2006 The Dance Insider
Lewis Segal of the Los
Angeles Times, presumably responding to a recent column
critical of the current administering of the Martha Graham Center,
sends this note: "Very nice, Paul. All you missed was the fact that
the Martha Graham Center had no legal expenses in its battles with
(former artistic director Ron) Protas; their attorneys were working
pro bono.... Check on it. And look up the salary of their recently
departed executive director -- the one responsible for the departure
of (artistic directors Christine) Dakin and (Terese) Capucilli."
Unfortunately, my respected
colleague is wrong on at least two and probably all of his points.
For starters, the Graham Center has been obligated to pay $3 million
of the close to $10 million in direct legal charges it incurred
defending its -- and the dancers' -- rights to the name and
work of Martha Graham from Protas's lawsuits; the rest were donated.
Second, the myth of Marvin (Preston)'s exorbitant salary as executive
director was a canard thrown up during the trial by a plaintiff,
Protas, who didn't have a case on the merits. I'm so sorry that
Mr. Segal, perhaps the last reporter in America whose ear Ron Protas
still has, has evidently been suckered into believing it.
When Protas's lawyer
in the Federal District Court action, lacking a case on the merits
for Protas's wresting the ballets from the Graham company, first
questioned Preston about his income, I didn't pay much attention
to what was obviously a diversionary tactic. But when Capucilli
and Dakin were fired
by the board last May for reasons that appeared related to the company's
financial problems (board chair Francis Mason declined at the time
to explain the decision), I thought it appropriate to ask about
Preston's salary -- and whether it was overblown -- so I put the
question to him and the fired artistic directors.
In fact, at the Federal
trial, Preston testified that his gross income as reported
on his tax return was $240,000. While I (and many others) would
argue that Mr. Preston, who actually is an experienced and able
executive, would have merited a salary of $240,000 for his work
as Graham executive director during this critical time more than
Ron Protas, who actually is not an experienced and able artistic
director, would have merited even $1 for his work as artistic director,
in fact this was not Mr. Preston's salary. He was never salaried
by the Graham Center, but paid as an independent contractor: $72,000
in 2002, $80,000 in 2003, and $118,000 in 2004. The rest of his
$240,000 gross income came from activities entirely unrelated to
Graham, including investments, other clients, rent from income properties
Preston acquired over time, etcetera. As Preston told me: "Despite
the dramatic revelation that Marvin Preston makes a sizable amount
of money, it happens to not be from the Martha Graham Center, but
instead is derived from the value created in his past accomplishments
that continue to pay dividends."
As for Capucilli and
Dakin, they told me -- after they had been fired -- "The implication
that Marvin is greedy and taking a huge salary is wrong and unfair.
Like many of us, Marvin has made personal and financial sacrifices
for the Center."
Indeed, the sequel bears
this out: When Preston left the Graham Center, his successor LaRue
Allen tells me, he forgave a debt of $265,000. (Several others,
including board members and one attorney, did likewise, reducing
the center's accumulated debt by a milliion to $4 million at the
end of 2005.)
As to Segal's allegation
that Preston was responsible for for Capucilli and Dakin's departure,
that decision was made by the board, following recommendations to
consolidate artistic and administrative staff made by senior staff
after meeting in a retreat. So I would still lay the responsibility
for the unjust decision to fire Capucilli and Dakin and the idiotic
choice to replace them with an (albeit talented) artistic director
who wouldn't even commit to living in the same state as the company
at the door of board chair Francis Mason.
But as we come to blame,
let's talk about relativity. Was this board wrong to fire Capucilli
and Dakin, and to initially try to spin the firing as an 'elevating'
(to 'artistic director laureates')? Yes. Was it -- understandably
and perhaps even admirably so -- over-confident in hiring too many
staff on the heels of its victory over Protas? Probably. Should
it be more frank in not assigning all blame for the current
crisis to the legal debts and Protas? Yes. But where the current
management has made errors, I believe they have been motivated by
good intentions -- not self-aggrandisement, as was the case with
Protas, in my opinion.
We should also not forget
that it was Protas who did, indeed, put the company -- and the Graham
legacy -- in this imperiled position. In addition to the direct
legal costs, the suits Protas initiated placed the company into
a three-year-plus state of legal incertitude that virtually made
it impossible for fiscally responsible corporations, foundations,
and presenters to support it -- at a cost Preston estimates at several
million per year.
If I seem to be contradicting
my earlier column by defending the current Graham administration
in this one, it's my colleague who's brought me to this place. We
should also not forget that it was Protas's media enablers -- most
notably at the New York Times -- who helped him believe he could
get away with it.