Longtime artistic producer at Dance Victoria (DV) in British Columbia, Stephen White, has returned to the position less than two months after being fired. White was reinstated following a Dance Victoria Society special general meeting on August 1 that also saw DV’s entire board of directors replaced. Within days of the meeting, DV’s executive director of two years, Jason Dubois, announced that he had left the organization.
In a lengthy letter, Dance Victoria’s board of directors disclosed some of the back story leading up to the meeting to its membership, which consists of nearly 200 donors, private-sector sponsors and supporters. The narrative was one of escalating mistrust and turbulence over the past year as DV undertook a course of strategic planning that included a realignment of staff resources.
Several individuals made presentations at the meeting, including White himself, and the evening culminated in the dissolution of the existing board of directors and the installation of a new one led by President Paul McNair. McNair, along with new directors Robert Milne, Regan McGrath, Allana Lindgren, Lynda Raino and John B. Shields, all have a prior history serving Dance Victoria in governance or programming capacities. The new board’s first action was to reinstate White as executive producer.
While it’s not the first time a not-for-profit arts organization has experienced growing pains of this nature due to conflicting ideas about governance, personalities, organizational protocols and vision, this instance seems to have led to an unusual amount of turmoil, speculation about personality conflicts and the loss of some key players.
In a statement, outgoing ED Jason Dubois wrote: “When Stephen’s relationship with the former board of the Dance Victoria Society fell apart, I was unwillingly drawn into an escalating dispute. Over the past few months of instability, as I watched my relationship with Stephen also begin to deteriorate amid accusations of collusion and disloyalty, my future with the society became questionable.” Dubois says that he hung in for a time: “Following the board’s decision not to renew Stephen’s contract, I committed to continue serving the Society during the search for a new producer; however, given Stephen’s reinstatement and the election of the new board this commitment has been fulfilled. It’s a good time for me to move on and seek new opportunities.”
Although Dubois has confirmed that Paul McNair and he are in conversation and White told me that “the door is open” for Dubois to return to Dance Victoria, it seems unlikely that he will.
The loss of the highly regarded Dubois (and earlier in 2013, of Associate Producer Elise Wren, who was being groomed to succeed White upon his retirement) is significant. Yet McNair said in an interview with The Dance Current that he doesn’t believe DV has been truly “damaged” by recent events. McNair pointed out that nearly the entire membership was in attendance at the August 1 special meeting (either in person or by proxy) and that “subscriptions have not suffered and donations have increased.” McNair believes that “the community has really rallied around an organization they value.” McNair and the board are focused on DV’s future and its growing slate of development, presentation and community engagement activities. “I think we’re back on track now,” he says, “… which is not to say we don’t have issues, because this doesn’t happen and you not have issues. But we are committed to addressing those issues.”
If there’s a larger lesson to be learned here, says McNair, “it’s that governance issues don’t just affect the six or ten people on the board — they can reverberate throughout an organization.” While he won’t categorically blame the outgoing board for DV’s recent staffing woes, McNair believes there were problems in the transparent communication of certain kinds of information.
It’s a delicate balance that many arts organizations face, and McNair believes, “You’d be hard-pressed to find a more passionate group in the not-for-profit sector than the arts and artists — but you have to balance that passion with good governance.”
White’s takeaway from the experience of being fired after fourteen years and then quickly rehired with rallied support from the local community? “It’s made my connection to our Dance Victoria Society members, our donors and sponsors even deeper — it’s been humbling to feel their support. And I’m blown away by the commitment shown by the new board.”
As we head toward summer’s end, White is grateful to be back at the helm in Victoria and preparing to launch DV’s mainstage presentation season (one that he programmed) — it kicks off with the UK’s BalletBoyz on November 14. Is this “business as usual” for Dance Victoria? It remains to be seen.