The Yard regroups in the new year
The off-season gives Vineyard nonprofits time to regroup after the busy summer. For The Yard, internationally recognized choreography and dance performance colony for residencies, on the Middle Road in Chilmark, the last few months have been unusually challenging, and the New Year promises change.
In December, the board announced that The Yard had finished the summer of 2010 with a $230,000 deficit and that Wendy Taucher, artistic director and executive director, announced her departure. Yard leaders said, in recent conversations, that they are working to tighten financial controls and bring new leadership to the 40-year-old institution.
The news of the deficit came in a December emailed newsletter, in which board members admitted they were unaware of the size of the deficit.
"Frankly, the last two seasons left the Yard with a large deficit of $230,000, the scope of which was unknown to the board until recently," the newsletter said.
The Yard's annual operating budget is $365,000. The same newsletter included an announcement of top level personnel changes.
"As of November 29, Wendy Taucher is no longer Artistic Director and Executive Director of the Yard," the newsletter said. "Alison Manning has stepped up to become general manager along with her duties as development director."
Board members said they have appointed an interim artistic direction team to work with the staff and board "to ensure that the momentum of the past few years will be maintained."
Yard leaders say that the leadership changes were mutual between board and employees. In a phone interview last week with The Times, Ms. Manning said Ms. Taucher had accomplished much for The Yard.
"The Yard and Wendy made the decision together that it was time for the Yard and Wendy to part ways. It was a mutual effort, and we're all wishing her well with her endeavors whatever they may be.
"Wendy did an incredible job with her artistic direction for this organization and not one person would say otherwise," Ms. Manning added. "She brought new art, new audiences, and new excitement to the Yard. We really want to maintain this idea that we have a high standard and high-caliber of talent that comes through our door, but it is all contingent on whether we have the funding to support it."
In a telephone conversation, board president Sarah Jane Hughes said of Ms. Taucher's departure, "She's pursuing new artistic opportunities, and we are pursuing new artistic directorship."
Ms. Hughes said that a couple of exceptional candidates have expressed interest in becoming involved in the artistic directorship of the Yard, and in an emailed statement, Ms. Taucher wrote, "I love the Yard and am so proud of the magic we created there during my five-year tenure. As to my future, I am in New York, pursuing my own creative endeavors as a choreographer, director, and author. The meetings and projects being brought to me are fantastic."
No clear answer
In separate conversations, Ms. Manning and Ms. Hughes pointed to the difficulty all nonprofits have experienced in a weak economy and to organizational weaknesses, to explain why the deficit was allowed to balloon before it was revealed.
"It's been a very hard time for arts organizations nationwide," Ms. Hughes said. "We got whipsawed a little by that. This isn't that different from what other groups are looking at, and we're looking to fix it."
Ms. Hughes, who has extensive experience fundraising for arts nonprofits, both on- and off-Island, said The Yard booked some wonderful talent, but donations lagged, and there were expenses that were not anticipated. She said that, like other performing arts organizations, expenses are incurred early on in the planning stage with the hope that revenue and donations will cover the costs.
Fundraising and organization
"There's a point of no return," she said, referring to the practice of signing of contracts in advance for talent. According to Ms. Hughes, the 2009 and 2010 box office receipts were strong despite the weakened economy, but that was not enough.
"No one can expect to make it on tickets alone and even tickets and rentals," she said. "Every arts association depends heavily on donations."
She said that the time of reckoning is typically toward the close of the season. The Yard has had a deficit at the end of the season for most years and typically steps up fundraising then.
"The last two months of the season are a really big fundraising time for us," she said. As for why the size of the deficit took so long to come to light, Ms. Manning pointed to organizational weaknesses and a hands-off approach by the board, and in particular, the fact that for the last five or six years the job of artistic director and executive director were combined.
"Both the artistic and financial sides of the day-to-day business were all on the same desk," she said. "That's really why there was not knowledge of what was happening, because on the outside it looked so smooth."
She said that from the outside, the operations appeared to be running smoothly and the board "fell into that smoothness."
The Yard also changed bookkeepers in the early summer, and the new bookkeeper was put in the difficult position of familiarizing herself with a new organization's structure during the busy season, board leaders said.
Ms. Hughes said that the board was alerted to the situation in late August or early September when members were obliged to become more involved for a brief period.
"Wendy had to be hospitalized in August, so in her absence the trustees took over the day-to-day management of the operation," Ms. Hughes explained.
Erasing the deficit
According to the December newsletter The Yard has stepped up efforts to erase the deficit.
"We have launched a major fundraising campaign that has already made progress in putting The Yard on the road to a more stable position. We have two purposes in mind — paying our creditors and preparing for the 2011 residencies and summer season, with hopes to raise an additional $100,000 by the end of February to meet our goals," Ms. Hughes told The Times.
"The board's primary responsibility at the moment is raising money and paying our creditors. We are focusing on paying people who provided services to us and getting on with the future, and that's what this organization has tried to do always."
According to Ms. Manning, The Yard was in touch with its creditors, who include several local businesses, as early as October, with promises to honor the debts as soon as the organization could regain its financial footing.
Going forward, Ms. Manning emphasizes that the Yard would like to continue offering the high-caliber performances that its audience and donors have come to expect but will focus on staying within budget. She said that, in response to the disclosure of the Yard's financial woes, several artists have stepped forward with offers to lead workshops and perform gratis.
"I think that it's really about budgeting more carefully ahead of time and if it's going to be expensive, to think of some creative ways of funding."
One of those vendors, Sandra Lippens of Tilton Rentals, told The Times that she had done business with the Yard for years and had a good working relationship with Ms. Taucher. That ended with the departure of Ms. Taucher and unpaid bills.
Ms. Lippens said she received emails that stated the Yard was in trouble but offered no solution to unpaid bills. She declined to say how much money she is owed but said it is substantial.
"I handed in the invoice on September 20. Sixty days later I had heard nothing," she said. "They've always paid upfront on time. The year before it was a little slow. Everything was okay by me — the way it was handled until this season."
Ms. Lippens said she has not heard from any members of The Yard. "I have never been personally called since I submitted the invoice. Nobody, nobody has called to say we're aware of this. Please be patient."
Ms. Lippens characterized the departure of Ms. Taucher as anything but smooth and amicable. "What the board didn't do is mostly everything," Ms. Lippens said. "The responsibility for everything fell on Wendy's shoulders. As well as all of her duties as artistic director, she was doing all of the fundraising, everything."
"The board refused to acknowledge their contribution to the financial situation due to a lack of participation and with that failure chose a totally negative path instead of a positive path which was Wendy and her proven abilities."
Plans for the 2011 season include a performance by the Beijing Modern Dance Company from the People's Republic of China. Ms. Manning stressed that the visit is contingent on receiving the majority of funding from the Chinese government and the Asian Cultural Council, and that is likely.
The members of the board in addition to Ms. Hughes are vice presidents Elaine Miller and Charlotte Hall, clerk Elizabeth Keen, treasurer Martha Hart Eddy, and
Carolyn Dorfman, Inez Janger and Linda Tarnay.
The Yard, which was founded more than 45 years ago by choreographer Patricia Nanon is nationally and internationally recognized as a choreography and dance residency, and Ms. Hughes stressed that supporting that capacity is the organization's primary purpose.
Ms. Nanon donated the 2.6-acre property that the Yard occupies. Says Ms. Hughes, "We have Patricia's legacy, and other people's to honor. We're trying to protect a lot of legacies here."