By Bill Hirschman
Alyona Ushe, the founding administrator of the embattled Arts Garage in Delray Beach, is resigning to lead a similar Pompano Beach operation in what an Arts Garage spokesman characterized as an amicable, positive step that is pleasing everyone involved.
Ushe, the president and CEO of Arts Garage, will remain on board during the open-ended replacement search by Arts Garage’s non-profit parent organization, Creative City Collaborative Inc., said spokeswoman Kay Renz on Monday morning.
But eventually, Ushe will leave to develop and manage arts-related venues overseen by the City of Pompano Beach including its amphitheater and the upcoming Cultural Center under construction, Renz said. That project was part of the Arts Garage’s purview in a contract since 2014, but the management will likely move over to a stand-alone entity under Ushe because the Delray Beach Community Redevelopment Agency has complained that it should not be funding competing venues for another city.
Ushe and her board members declined interviews Monday morning because the board first wants to unveil this and other “good news” to the Delray Beach City Commission when it meets Tuesday, Renz said.
Theatre at Arts Garage will remain under the direction of Keith Garsson, who in his first year presented a critically acclaimed theater season that impressed audiences with a new direction.
Ushe has been a polarizing figure, admired for her energy, enthusiasm and humor; the Russian native jokingly called herself the “czarina” of the venue. But her management style alienated several employees and the company has undergone significant turnover. The most high-profile occurred when Lou Tyrrell, who founded the venue’s theater program, left a year ago.
No one event hinted that the change had anything to do with the tumultuous situations at Arts Garage, which has teetered in financial crisis until recently.
The future of the Arts Garage was in serious jeopardy, Ushe said in February, because of a nearly depleted cash flow, crucial operating funds being withheld by a funder, and an impossible-to-meet deadline to buy its home base that otherwise might have meant eviction.
City officials have reaffirmed their support for the venue as part of the burgeoning Pineapple Grove business district, but they said they were concerned whether Arts Garage’s current management could provide responsible fiscal management. Illustrative of its troubles is that the group withholding funds, the Delray Beach Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), said it would release the money if Arts Garage would deliver a new audit – but the company didn’t have the money to pay for one, Ushe said.
Ushe said at the time that it had hired a financial executive to concentrate on the fiscal issues, and a financial report was turned over to the CRA earlier this winter, thereby releasing some, but not all of the CRA money the Arts Garage desperately needed to operate.
The interlocking crises converged just as the nearly 5-year-old venue for theater, art exhibitions and concerts had renovated the space to include a second black box theater, and had increased its offerings and programs. It recently ended a popular and acclaimed production of The Devils’ Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith that will be revived next month.
But on Feb. 16, the City Commission begrudgingly agreed to give the nearly five-year-old multi-disciplinary venue a month-to-month lease for six months when its current lease expired March 15. But the extension was solely to give Arts Garage’s leaders a last chance to make permanent changes in everything from programming to accounting.
Going a step further, the commission informally agreed in principle to extend the lease 2 to 5 years if the venue’s board of directors and city leaders can hammer out requirements on a checklist ranging from an overhaul of the management structure to bringing minorities onto its governing board to quarterly progress reports on the changes.
The non-profit was in danger of losing its lease on the built-out first floor of the city-owned parking garage just east of Old School Square where it presents theater, concerts and art shows. Its current lease with the city was contingent on buying the space by March 15. But Arts Garage leaders said they have been unable to raise any money for a sale and they had decided not to pursue a purchase.
Arts Garage contends that it has been a success that has pumped an estimated $2 million into the local economy. Starting in fiscal year 2011, it had total revenues of $247,271. That grew through fiscal 2014 to $1.56 million. Of that total, $819,000 was earned revenue meaning tickets sales and other sources; $466,000 was contributed from various sources including grants and the pledge of $275,000 from the CRA. The CRA contribution was about 18 percent of its revenue in the past fiscal year as opposed to 41 and 39 percent in previous years.
In a news release early Monday, all the parties expressed pleasure at the development.
“Launching Arts Garage, and catapulting it to the success story it has become, has been exceptionally rewarding,” Ushe was quoted as saying. “I have tremendous respect for our board, the city leaders, CRA members, our fantastic staff and all the supporters who worked tirelessly with me to create this amazing cultural hub.”
“I am very proud of my role with Arts Garage during these past 5 years,” said Ushe. “Managing and programing a venue that grew from concept to a national model was an absolute joy. My career path however has always been focused on launching new venues, and I am beyond excited to be able to put all of my energies on Pompano Beach now.”
“What Alyona has achieved is immeasurable,” the release quoted Robert Schmier, an Arts Garage board member and one of its biggest boosters. “Her vision, programming and dedication created a cultural organization that has become a national model, and a beloved community treasure.”
“We are thrilled that Alyona and her team will be able to devote all of their talents to Pompano Beach,” said Mark Beaudreau, Pompano Beach Parks, Recreation & Cultural Arts Director. ”What they have accomplished for our city with programming the amphitheater has been outstanding, and we are looking forward to their next phase of creativity as we continue to build upon the success of The Amp and introduce our new cultural center.”
Key members will be working with Ushe in Pompano including Vice President of Communications Lyle Cayce, Director of Programming Michelle Gabriel, and Artistic Director and Curator Byron Swart.
“We are excited to be part of the team that will be creating a new artistic force in Pompano,” said Swart.