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A Board Divided

By Michael Blankenship · February 3rd, 2000 · Power of One

Let's start with the obvious: Maestro Erich Kunzel needs to take a chill pill or remove himself as chairman of the Greater Cincinnati Arts and Education Center (GCAEC). Kunzel cannot continue to operate the board in the manner displayed at its Jan. 31 meeting, or his long-standing dream of a comprehensive professional training school for the arts adjacent to Music Hall will be irreparably torn by distrustful factions on his own board.

I attended the meeting expecting that doubts looming over the future of the Drop Inn Center, which had sparked the main opposition to what many regard as a worthwhile if not necessary project to replace the School for Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA), would be eliminated. Kunzel and his board, it was hoped, would not seek the Drop Inn site in their bid to build the school.

This was the message floated to popular belief (and homeless advocates' temporary relief) via Kunzel's Jan. 3 letter to Cincinnati Public Schools Superintendent Steve Adamowski, as well as GCAEC Executive Director Norma Petersen's comments in The Cincinnati Post on Jan. 7.

I had hoped to write a column on the success of an ad hoc bunch of artists and activists in persuading the movers and shakers to work with the existing community and its institutions, instead of engaging in behind-the-scenes plotting to design replacements. I had also hoped to write that it was the general consensus of all parties involved that the two institutions -- the one in existence and the one being dreamt of -- would peacefully coexist as neighbors, acting in concert for the benefit of the whole Washington Park neighborhood.

It appears that column will have to wait.

The first noteworthy bomb of the meeting was dropped when Petersen, delivering the treasurer's report, disclosed that GCAEC, with less than $2,000 in the bank, owed upwards of $96,000. More than $80,000 of this was due to the architectural firm of Steed Hammond & Paul for its feasibility study for the project, while another $14,000 was due to none other than Stanley Aronoff, a GCAEC board vice president, as an "honorarium" (at $2,000 per month) for his lobbying efforts in Columbus to secure state funds.

Now, last I knew, board members of not-for-profit corporations worked for free -- hence the phrase "not-for-profit." But I trust Aronoff knows much more about ethics than I do.

That's why he resigned from the state senate, right?

Apparently few members of the GCAEC board saw much of a problem with this expenditure; only board members Pat Clifford and Bonnie Neumeier, both from the Drop Inn Center, raised concerns, and they were quickly shut up.

It's clear from what I witnessed on Jan. 31 that honest communication between board members is simply not happening. Members of one faction sit on one side of the room, and members of another faction sit on the other. They don't talk to each other -- they talk past each other. Each word is a strategy, with Kunzel trying to orchestrate the strings and woodwinds while ignoring the brass.

After a while, the board was able to adopt the four recommendations on the agenda, including the one that had caught so much notice and sparked so much optimism: "It is our understanding the final report of the feasibility study will indicate the school can be built ... without the need to extend the school to the property occupied by the Drop Inn Center." The board's executive committee had decided to concentrate just on the "school" portion of the planned complex at this time, calling it "the cornerstone" and "Phase 1."

Clifford and Neumeier sought clarification, a clear indication that their institution had nothing to fear from Kunzel et al in the future. "Does this mean the GCAEC is accepting us as a neighbor," Clifford asked, "or are we only being put off 'til Phase 2 or later?"

Kunzel could have replied, "Of course we'll be neighbors" or "That's what this board needs to discuss now, and that is my recommendation" or some similar statement as a conciliatory gesture to ease the tension and initiate a dialogue among his board. Instead, he heaped disdain upon his challengers and touted the nobility of his efforts.

"Your question is out of order," Kunzel smugly replied, before launching into a litany of complaints and charges against the activists. "You have instigated this campaign, directed against me personally ... beyond the bounds of civilized conduct. At no time did we ever say the Drop Inn Center has to go! Ever, ever, ever! (The architects) recommended it. We never adopted it. ... I've received threats on my life, been insulted in public, and all I've tried to do is get an excellent school for this city."

Thankfully, just behind me sat Barbara Wolf, the videographer who helped form Artists for the Drop Inn Center, which brought the issue into public awareness barely six months ago. Wolf captured Kunzel's performance on video, and I'm sure the tape will get plenty of play.

Perhaps the GCAEC board would like a copy of the tape as well, to consider whether the featured performer should remain at top billing. Regardless of who had the initial dream, they should consider who has the skills needed to make their shared vision a reality. Such a person should have a genuine interest in the concerns of all parties. He or she should be able to make statements in public that don't reek of self aggrandizement or contemptuous disdain and should have the political sense to accept compromise as a necessary part of reality.

The GCAEC now has six months to get its act together and make a dent in the $26 million needed to match the $26 million pledged by Cincinnati Public Schools. "If not," school board member Harriet Russell told the Jan. 31 meeting, "CPS will use the money for other schools. We have great need."

Can Kunzel's board heal its self-inflicted wounds, establish an internal dialogue and raise $26 million in six months? Perhaps. There are indeed some sensible heads not firmly entrenched in either board faction and willing to explore common ground in this debate, most notably SCPA Principal Jeff Brokamp, fellow trustees Trish Bryan and Jan Leslie and even the politically savvy Aronoff.

With a concerted effort from a few more members like this, and perhaps the services from a good professional mediator, the board might yet accomplish Kunzel's dream. But with warring factions, the outcome can only be a nightmare.

Nothing can be built on a foundation of distrust.

POWER OF ONE is the political made personal. Contact Michael at CityBeat, 23 E. Seventh St., Suite 617, Cincinnati, OH 45202, or e-mail him at letters@citybeat.com.


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