The Yard moves to reclaim its footing on Martha’s Vineyard

The Yard moves to reclaim its footing on Martha’s Vineyard

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The Shanghai-born choreographer H.T. Chen and his acclaimed New York-based company of dancers arrived on the Island Monday, taking up residence for the next few weeks at The Yard in Chilmark. As they prepare to launch the Beetlebung Corner dance center’s 2011 season, performing their fusion of Asian and American modern movement on June 24 and 25, the dancers wasted no time ingratiating themselves to the Island community, leading a workshop the next morning for Chilmark School students.

Meanwhile, offstage, the Chilmark dance center that next year will celebrate its 40th anniversary, along the way distinguishing itself beside Jacob’s Pillow and a small handful of others as one of America’s iconic dance residency-cum-performance showcases, has spent the past winter attempting to polish the star that has been tarnished since last summer by a financial crisis.

In addition to the plight of many other arts organizations suffering from the economic downturn, and the double whammy of cutbacks from government-funded arts organizations and individuals, The Yard underwent an internal administrative upheaval that left the group owing a number of companies a total of some $230,000. In the wake of what may remain cloudy circumstances and sequence of events, a mix of conjecture, accusations, finger-pointing and blame, Wendy Taucher, who had been artistic director for five seasons, departed from The Yard after undergoing personal health issues. Shortly thereafter it became evident to the board that bills had gone unpaid. Ms Hughes said she learned on Aug. 5, 2010, from the former bookkeeper that she had resigned and been replaced by a new bookkeeper in mid-May.

This past winter the board hired a new artistic director, David White, an accomplished choreographer, among whose credits is leadership of the Dance Theater Workshop in New York. While commuting between his home in New Hampshire and the Island putting this summer’s program together to match his vision for The Yard, he arrived Monday to live and work fulltime in Chilmark through the summer.

“We have redoubled our commitment to cleaning our financial house,” said Sarah Jane Hughes, the chairman of The Yard’s board and an attorney who is professor of law at the University of Indiana at Bloomington (and a summer Edgartonian). “And we have full confidence David is the right person to build on what The Yard has accomplished to date and take it into the future.”

She pointed to several developments that bode well for putting the Yard back on track. Among them:

• The Yard has retained, on a pro bono basis, the Boston office of the international law firm K&L Gates, whose staff is expert, she said, at “helping nonprofits working out its past financial obligations. They are within days of communicating to Island businesses with an intent to retire this deficit on a balanced and fair basis, company by company.”

• A new position of comptroller has been created, filled by Alison Kisselgof, an Island-based financial manager with a background in website and database design, “who will be in charge of record keeping, assuring reports are filled, but not writing checks,” said Ms. Hughes. “We are keeping a close eye on our books.”

• The number of board members has increased from 8 to 12. All the new members have extensive experience serving on boards of arts organizations.

The current board members are: Sarah Jane Hughes, president; Elaine Miller, vice president; Charlotte Hall, vice president; Martha Hart Eddy, treasurer; Elizabeth Keen, clerk; Carolyn Dorfman, Inez Janger, Linda Tarnay, Laura Roosevelt, Jennifer Goodale, Deborah Sale and Coleen MacMahon.

• Most importantly, two challenge donations have been made. One of $100,000, from an anonymous donor who is a longtime acquaintance of Mr. White, requires $150,000 in matching cash gifts or pledges, which Ms. Hughes said has already been raised. The other of a lesser amount, but no less important, comes from Sam Feldman, the seasonal Chilmarker who has been a supporter of a number of Island organizations for 20 years. “My late wife Gretchen was interested in dance and we have supported The Yard for quite some time,” said Mr. Feldman. “Every organization goes through strains and difficulties, and I wanted this grant to trigger others to have confidence that this ship will weather this storm.”

• An unsecured loan of $100,000, by an anonymous lender, has been earmarked specifically for debt reduction.

Martha Hart Eddy, who has been treasurer of the board for four years, responded to a request from The Times for further elaboration, with the following email:

“While similar to many arts organizations we have always run with some deficit, the extent of the deficits for 2009 and 2010 came as a surprise to the trustees, as our prior statements to The MV Times revealed late last year. One may ask how that trustees did not know the scope of a deficit spanning two fiscal years. Let me say in truth we did not know, even though we received financial reports, we queried things we did not understand, and got answers that appeared suitable at the time. Financial reports started coming in late that we permitted because we were having wonderfully strong seasons that were extraordinarily busy. As in many arts organizations the director is responsible for both artistic and managerial direction. We recognized the difficulty of this and allowed for some delay in reporting. This problem grew worse when our former Artistic and Executive Director was hospitalized in late 2009 with a badly broken leg. Her recuperation was important to us — as employers and as friends. The reports we received were on target with what we understood to be the 2009 year-end results and the 2010 third-quarter report we received in early August 2010 showed a surplus. Thus, the trustees had understood that our finances were in relatively good condition — and, as noted earlier, were surprised to learn that the reality was otherwise. It has been a mammoth task to uncover all the facts so that we can systematically work toward debt retirement.”

Among the Island companies owed money since the end of last season include Tilton Rentall, Educomp, the Water Grive Corporation and several individuals.

Perhaps the most vocal of complaints has come from Sandra Lippens, who owns Tilton Rentall. In a two-page letter to Doug Cabral, editor in chief of The Times, dated March 1, 2011, she called for the resignation of all the board members, the reinstatement of Ms. Taucher, and an “expose of all that’s really been going on.” Ms. Lippens claims she is owed $30,000.

In a phone interview last week, Ms. Lippens said no one has contacted her or made a gesture to initiate a repayment schedule.

In an email to The Times, Ms. Taucher said she had no comment “at this time.”

Meanwhile, the shows must go on, as dance and theater people say. And The Yard’s summer lineup — on and off the stage — promises to live up to Mr. White’s vision.

“I see dance, along with other arts, as a prominent identifier to build up a community culturally,” he said. “I notice the Island does it with its theater, music, writing, and art. I’d like The Yard to play a stronger role year-round in promoting dance in schools and throughout the community year-round, not just in the summer months.”

To that end, he’s in conversation with the Island’s YMCA and with the schools to find ways to integrate dance and movement classes into their programs.

As for the performances, there will be several innovative new features intended to show dance as more accessible than esoteric, and a collaborative multi-disciplinary community venture.

For example, The Yard will collaborate with ArtFarm Enterprises and Vineyard Arts Project to present PigPen Theatre Company’s “The Old Man and The Old Moon” for two weeks starting July 14. PigPen is known for theatrical fables that blend shadow puppetry, group movement, live music, and clever lighting effects.

Then, in what is hoped to be a regular and popular event, Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish, the Island blues band, will be the featured act in what The Yard calls “Public Dancing Allowed,” to encourage those who would rather move than watch the movers. That will be on August 14. On August 26-27, The Yard’s own staff will develop and perform their own works. Mr. White has promised not to meddle creatively and will serve only as producer and emcee.