The issues surrounding institutional transparency and patron empowerment are examined on a continuing basis here at Adaptistration. Recently, the two issues collided head-first in Richmond, Virginia when the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation (VAPAF) found itself at odds with a pair of local community advocates. The result was something akin to “The Mouse that Roared”…
In this case, the role of the mouse is being played by a pair of local Richmonders: Andrew Beaujon (center, Ewa Beaujon is pictured to the left) and Don Harrison (right). Judging by the picture they submitted for this article, you wouldn’t initially image that they are responsible for exposing questionable spending practices and what Richmond Mayor calls a “misuse of taxpayer funds” for a multimillion dollar private foundation.
Nevertheless, that’s exactly what happened. Their story serves as an excellent case example of how average, everyday patrons can empower themselves and insist that their local nonprofit performing arts groups be accountable for their business practices.
Although this article focuses on an interview with the core members of Save Richmond, every effort was made to verify their accounts. The majority of people contacted promptly returned requests for information and/or interviews, the only exception were representatives from the VAPAF.
On the VAPAF’s website, they feature content which accuses a local Richmond magazine of creating confusion in the community about the Foundation due to misleading reporting. The VAPAF criticizes the magazine’s reporter for not taking the time to make a single phone call to VAPAF representatives for verification. The page also contains the following statement,
“We understand the Foundation and the Performing Arts Center are under a microscope and appropriate scrutiny that resolves questions is welcomed. The media has a responsibility to this community to get their reporting right. Tabloid journalism that creates controversy, rather than reports the issues, helps only the tabloid.”
Unfortunately, numerous phone calls to the VAPAF’s communications manager requesting an interview to verify the following accounts, seek clarification, and gather further details went unanswered.
I spoke with Andrew Beaujon over the phone and communicated with Don Harrison via email about their story about how they formed the street-level community activists group, Save Richmond, and how that organization got from there to here. According to Andrew, the series of events began shortly after the VAPAF was formed in 2001.
“The original idea was that Save Richmond as a counterpart group to bring street-level artists together because performing arts artists are better organized so we thought it would be good if the street-level artists had a voice,” said Andrew. “We wrote an open letter to the city about our thoughts for the planned PAC and we got 400 people to sign and that got us a meeting with the executive committee members of the VAPAF. We had a very surreal meeting in the backroom of an Ukrop’s grocery store and when we arrived for the meeting we found this break room filled with all of VAPAF movers and shakers, including VAPAF board chair, Jim Ukrop.”
It wasn’t very long into that meeting before Andrew felt that something was amiss. He said,
“They wanted to know what it would take for us to support the VAPAF. It became clear during the meeting that these people didn’t know what they were doing. For example Jim Ukrop kept mentioning his concerns about street-level artists by referring a particular musician here in Richmond who was arrested once for allegedly exposing himself during a show. He then said that they didn’t know if they would really include any facilities for street-level performers because of issues like that. Instead, they kept talking about needing a performing arts center to serve as a type of anchor tenant for downtown”
Andrew said they left that meeting uncommitted to any particular course of action but they did obtain a copy of the original VAPAF master plan. But after one of the larger performing arts organizations, Theatre Virginia, declared bankruptcy a few months later, he noticed the VAPAF changed the plan to move away from an anchor tenant philosophy toward one of a renovated multipurpose facility shared by several large performing arts organizations. Furthermore, there were additional plans to build a new concert hall for the Richmond Symphony and some smaller ancillary performing spaces.
It was at this point where Andrew said the VAPAF was beginning to raise money and public awareness in earnest,
“There was a Richmond City Council meeting where I showed up to say it may be better to wait and see what develops with funding before committing to the revised master plan and the VAPAF showed up with a ‘dog and pony’ show of support for the new plan which included kids, parents, teachers, glitter writing on poster boards, etc.”
After Andrew and Don made an appearance at that meeting, the VAPAF encouraged them to join the Alliance for Performing Arts, an organization whose mission statement includes goals such as:
- Develop and maintain a common vision for performing arts facilities in this region.
- Create a forum for the performing arts community to collaborate, share ideas, and design a strategy for sharing [VAPAF] facilities.
- Develop a shared infrastructure (ticketing, procurement, office space, etc.)
- Ensure that the performing arts community is strongly represented in all-important arenas and every major initiative.
At the time, joining the Alliance sounded like a good idea to Andrew and Don but they were concerned that this Alliance of nearly 20 organizations only maintained a single seat on the VAPAF board. They also felt that the Alliance didn’t devote enough time to discuss issues related to street-level performers and was concerned about only representing the interests of large budget, performing arts organizations.
“We did attend those meetings but they never talked about issues we were considered with, they only wanted to talk about shared ticketing systems, etc.,” said Andrew. “At that same time I published an editorial in Style Weekly that mildly criticized the VAPAF and the head of the Alliance for the Performing Arts [Philip Davidson] chastised us over it via email. After that the Alliance voted in rule changes which prevented members from criticizing the VAPAF so we stopped participating with them after that.”
I contacted Philip Davidson to learn more about that situation and he confirmed that after Andrew published his editorial that the Alliance formalized what he characterized as an informal operational agreement between Alliance members. Philip said,
“Before Andrew’s editorial the members of the Alliance had always agreed to come to ‘consensus opinions’ and not to publicly criticize or write about internal affairs of the Alliance or the VAPAF but after that piece was published we made that agreement official by including it in an appendix to the minutes from one of our meetings.
I think Andrew and Don had a problem of not being able to separate their two different jobs; as journalists and artists’ representatives. I wish they had decided that by participating in the alliance they wouldn’t write about those affairs publicly.”
Andrew said it was at that point in time they decided to start using a blog, saverichmond.com, they established in July, 2003 in earnest to help give them a regular public voice of their own. The blog manifesto describes Save Richmond (which consists of Andrew and Don + one other shadowy individual who will be examined later in this piece) as,
“We’re just a few normal, hopelessly middle-class residents of Richmond who want our town to be the best it can be. For waaaay too long, decisions about redeveloping Richmond’s core have been the exclusive province of elite Richmonders. Areas whose rebirths these folks didn’t try to direct…are booming.
We think it’s time to change that. Two years ago we started Save Richmond with the idea that it would be an arts group. Well, none of us had time for that, though hundreds of area artists wrote in to sign our open letter to city council. So now Save Richmond exists mainly as this blog, on which we hope you’ll find honest, unburdened takes on issues facing the city.”
Apparently, quite a few people in Richmond thought the same way. According to Andrew, the site generated a few hundred hits per day right away and now averages around 2,000 hits per day and can spike upwards of several thousand. That’s quite a few people who apparently care about the arts in their local community.
At that point Andrew said they started gathering information about the VAPAF in earnest. He said,
”We sent official requests starting in 2005 after the VAPAF received a grant from the state. We figured that since they claimed more than 2/3 of their funding came from public sources their records should be subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).”
EXPLANATION: The FOIA laws require that government agencies release their records to the public on request, unless the information sought falls into a category specifically exempted, such as national security, an individual’s right to privacy, or internal agency management. To help submit a proper FOIA request, Andrew and Don followed some additional guidelines as established by the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Andrew added that Save Richmond was also becoming concerned when they noticed that the financial information from VAPAF spokespersons kept changing.
This is the point where things began to accelerate. To find out what happened once the mouse found its voice, come back for Part 2 (appearing Monday, October 31, 2005)…