Originally created 05/17/98

Augusta arts community facing leadership vacuum



With a handful of leadership positions yet to be filled, Augusta's arts community is starting to resemble the help-wanted section of the classifieds.

After a series of recent shake-ups and departures in the organizational ranks of several of the area's nonprofit arts groups, one thing is certain: Change is in the air.

"It's a very interesting time right now," said Brenda Durant, executive director of the Greater Augusta Arts Council. "But I think it's a very exciting time. I'm not afraid of change."

Within the first week of May, Norman Easterbrook, executive director of the Imperial Theatre, announced his resignation, Jay Willis, director of the Augusta Players resigned rather than accept a restructuring of his job, and Sharon Gruber White was recently named the Augusta Symphony's new executive director.

The shake-up leaves a vacancy at the Gertrude Herbert Institute, where Mrs. Gruber was the director.

Also, the symphony's marketing director recently left and its marketing assistant, Nash McCutcheon, is leaving in July.

"I don't know if they'll incorporate both jobs, but they're going to have to have someone," said Mrs. McCutcheon.

In addition, the Augusta Players' administrative assistant position will be vacant after Wednesday, because current administrative assistant Cynthia Rice resigned when Mr. Willis did.

And the Augusta Ballet advertised for an office manager, Mrs. Durant said.

"I don't know what's happening in the arts," said Mrs. McCutcheon. "It's just so weird that so many people are leaving at the same time."

Though it may seem a surprising amount of turnover to outsiders, Clayton Shotwell, chairman of the Fine Arts Department at Augusta State University, said it is not unusual for the nonprofit arts sector.

"It's not a new trend. I don't think someone or something is masterminding the whole thing," said Dr. Shotwell, who is also on the Augusta Symphony's board of directors. "I think it's the nature of nonprofit arts organizations. People like to make their contributions and move on."

Typically, he said, people in leadership and executive positions with arts organizations stay on board three to five years.

"Longevity is not something that goes with it. A lot of these executive director positions aren't career-type positions," said Dr. Shotwell.

Therefore, Mr. Willis, who had been with the Augusta Players 14 years, Mr. Easterbrook's seven years at the Imperial, and former symphony Executive Director Pat Finch, who was at the helm nearly nine years, serve as anomalies in the field.

Because arts groups generally have performance seasons that coincide with academic calendars -- from fall to spring -- spring is ripe for job changes as the season concludes, said Mr. Easterbrook, who took a job in Americus, Ga., as director of the Rylander Theatre and Cultural Authority.

"It's somewhat a seasonal thing in the arts," said Dr. Shotwell. "It might seem coincidental, but this is when change happens usually -- not that it happens every year."

Meanwhile, the Augusta Players, which just concluded its 53rd season, looks to put back together the pieces of an organization roughly $27,000 in debt and with no professional staff -- unless Ms. Rice decides to stay.

Clark Lingenfelter, Augusta Players president-elect, said the group will staff the office with volunteers over the summer and look to hire a permanent director in the fall.

In addition, the Players' annual summer acting camp for kids, at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta, will go on as planned.

"It's our moneymaker in the summer," said Mr. Lingenfelter.

The Augusta Players' debt has piled up for a number of reasons, including reduction in government funding, failed fund-raisers and bad financial decisions, according to board members. Also the organization has had to rent venues for productions since moving out of its former home at Lawton B. Evans School, which was razed last summer.

In the meantime, the community theater group needs to spend the summer reorganizing, recruiting volunteers and developing an extensive volunteer database, he said.

But Mr. Lingenfelter feels confident the organization will bounce back from hard times and survive.

Mrs. Durant agrees.

"Community theater is very important," said Mrs. Durant. "The Players will survive, although it's hard to start from ground zero."