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The Buzz, 5-10: Diversion of Acolytes
The Graham Debt & the Protas Enablers

By Paul Ben-Itzak
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.


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