By Bill Hirschman
The board of directors of Arts Garage, the embattled but acclaimed theater and music venue in Delray Beach, has appointed a new and restructured management team late last week to replace its founding administrator who resigned abruptly.
Keith Garsson, who has led the company’s theater operation since last spring, will become the director of operations in charge of programming for the entire venue. Commanding equal clout will be Daniel Schwartz as director of finance, who was hired last year to reorganize the venue’s much-criticized fiscal policies and situation.
They replace Alyona Ushe who resigned early last week 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.
Initially, the plan was for Ushe to remain on board during an open-ended replacement search and transition, but the handoff is expected to be immediate, said spokeswoman Kay Renz.
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.
“The Board is excited about the potential of Arts Garage,” said President Brian Rosen. “We decided to promote from within because of the tremendous positive impact that Keith and Daniel have made during their time here. They understand the strengths of Arts Garage and have strategic plans to implement the programming, educational outreach and financial oversight that will ensure the organization flourishes.”
Garsson was initially hired in May with director Genie Croft to head the theater facet after the resignation of founder Louis Tyrrell. Garsson previously headed the mainstream Boca Raton Theatre Guild and his own edgier Primal Forces, a style he has infused in his first season at Arts Garage. Two of the shows extended their runs, including The Devil’s Music, The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith, which will be returning in May.
But the company news release stated, “Garsson impressed the board, however, with more than his theatre programming, by providing a strategic plan to enhance the venue’s strengths while expanding its community interaction.
Garsson was quoted as saying, “Arts Garage has become synonymous with world-class jazz and blues,” said Garsson. “I look forward to continuing that tradition, while also exploring exciting new entertainment opportunities, beginning community outreach programs and developing a strong arts education component.”
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.
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.
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.