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ASK Won’t Tell 

Turmoil and uncertainty rock an L.A. art mainstay

Wednesday, Jun 12 2002
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Photo by Debra DiPaolo

WHILE OUT-OF-TOWN CRITICS SOMETIMES DESCRIBE LOS Angeles' arts scene with vague condescension, it wasn't all that long ago that their tone was one of absolute scorn, a time when, if asked to name an L.A. painter, a New Yorker might as likely have answered "Earl Scheib" as Ed Ruscha. Los Angeles began to assert itself on the cultural atlas in the late 1980s and early '90s, thanks largely to ambitious construction and acquisition campaigns led by the Getty Museum, LACMA and MOCA, and through generous funding for performance from the Audrey Skirball-Kenis Theater Projects (ASK), a private nonprofit group that appeared on the horizon just as the National Endowment for the Arts seemed to implode when it became a piñata of the radical right.

In 1990 philanthropists Audrey Skirball-Kenis and her husband, Charles Kenis, wrote a check for $500,000 that saved the 1990 Los Angeles Arts Festival's theater and performance programs. The moment was staged in Mayor Tom Bradley's offices, as Skirball-Kenis and Kenis, along with Councilman Michael Woo and festival director Peter Sellars, held up a giant replica of the check. Skirball-Kenis and Kenis' donation did more than preserve a key part of the festival -- it also signaled the arrival of ASK as the town's main funding player for new and adventurous theater.

Besides supporting theater over the years, the retired couple have also established the Audrey Skirball-Kenis Center for Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and are avid horse owner-racers. While Audrey keeps a hands-off approach to ASK, Charles, a former importer, serves as president of ASK's board of trustees and appears daily at ASK's West L.A. offices.

Compared to institutions like the Ford or Irvine foundations, ASK is a small nonprofit, but as a local theater-funding source it's considered a veritable blood bank. Besides providing grants to needy theater groups, ASK produces its annual Common Ground and New Play Weekend festivals, and, in association with the L.A. County Arts Commission, organizes the Hot Properties play series at the John Anson Ford Theater. ASK receives most of its money from its New York­based parent, the Skirball Foundation, which provides ASK with a little under $2 million annually; in 2000, ASK spent or dispersed $1,849,136 on charitable activities. Since 1992, ASK has evolved into a rare hybrid organization that doesn't simply throw money at projects but also nurtures them by programming plays, readings and conferences, as well as through its biannual journal Parabasis.

But a May 29 ASK press release announced that the organization was going to "clarify its mission" and "move away from doing what other organizations already do well." To many, the release's bony sentences confirmed rumors that had been swirling around town -- that to raise its national profile, ASK was ending its involvement in stage production and literary programming to concentrate strictly on distributing grants.

HOW AND WHY ASK DECIDED TO CHANGE COURSE IS THE kind of he-said/she-said story that makes reporters and participants alike tear their hair out trying to sort out the facts from spin doctoring and misunderstandings. ASK executive director Kym Eisner doesn't believe the changes are a real story and hopes all the attention will go away, while some of those involved are reluctant to be quoted because they had signed confidentiality agreements before leaving ASK and have expressed fear of being sued by the organization.

What no one involved disputes is that in late 2001, following its 10-year anniversary, ASK hired two outside consultants to conduct an organizational assessment, followed by an evaluation of its programs. By March the consultants -- Dan Miller and Cora Mirikitani, both former administrators at the James Irvine Foundation -- had concluded that ASK should indeed move in a new direction, and four staff members soon found themselves unemployed: literary programs director Mead Hunter; his assistant, Alison Merkel; literary manager Matt Almos; and projects manager Wendy McClellan.

The quartet's exit unleashed a tornado of gossip and speculation, including a rumor that ASK was going to decamp to New York. "I started to get the creeps when Matt Almos left," says Bart DeLorenzo, artistic director of the Evidence Room, which has partnered with ASK in the past. "It's like Coca-Cola going out of business."

Merkel is one of the few people who agreed to be interviewed on the record for this article.

"On March 5," Merkel claims, "Mead [Hunter] had a meeting with Kym and came out of it saying that Kym was envisioning a shift to be solely a granting organization with no programming and would just need a staff of four people for the whole organization. A week and a half later we were told he's leaving."

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