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Furthermore, a new employee handbook which, while providing needed guidance on day-to-day work procedures, also prohibited ASK employees from undertaking outside jobs in theater without ASK's permission and included a confidentiality statement that barred employees from discussing the organization's workings. At least some staff members left after refusing to sign the handbook, while Eisner told the Weekly that all left of their own accord to seek other career opportunities.
Some people connected to ASK have also complained about the role of Dan Miller, who they say went from being a consultant to an eliminator of jobs and then to ASK staff member. (He becomes managing director on July 1.) "That's not necessarily a conflict," says Melanie Beene, program director at the Arts of the Irvine Foundation, which in 2001 provided a $225,000 grant to ASK to distribute over a three-year period among participants in its Hot Properties series. "Things are all interrelated in arts funding, which is a small world. These things happen and sometimes we can't always explain them and maybe we shouldn't try to."
Not everyone agrees. "It couldn't be more of a conflict of interest," says one former ASK employee. "He consulted himself into a staff job."
Adds Merkel: "He and Cora [the other consultant] would say things like, 'You guys are amazing and unique' -- they were all full of compliments and goodwill. But suddenly the staff was shut out from discussions of the evaluation."
"ASK has been trying to go forward but it's frustrating," Eisner says, "because we're still in the middle of these changes and there's been all this gossip about things that are really personnel matters. The reality is that there probably will be a decrease in some of the programs, but I have not said, 'This program is going, so two jobs must be cut.'"
While the May 29 press release scotched the talk about ASK's leaving town, it did nothing to explain the reasoning for the shift in emphasis, which one person familiar with the organization says represents ASK's return to Charles Kenis' personal philanthropic instincts: "Charles once said to me, 'I don't know why we have artistic programs, I just want to give away money.'"
THE ASK CONTRETEMPS, AND THE SOMEtimes apoplectic reactions they have provoked on Internet listservs like RAT and Big Cheap Theater, is a classic case of institutional meltdown, a case made more poignant because ASK has always been highly regarded as a humane team, as opposed to a board of arts bankers. Even the people no longer working there have only fond memories of their days at ASK. "It was paradise," says Hunter. "It'll always seem like a golden age in my life. ASK was the Mary Tyler Moore Show of its day."
But, as in all instances of dysfunction, miscommunication seems to lie at the root of the problem. While none of the departed staff members disputes ASK's right to change direction or even to force them out of their jobs, they claim to be baffled by what they call the secrecy and double-talk surrounding these changes.
"I don't agree with how Kym went about it," says Merkel. "She continued to say she had no idea of what direction the organization would take after her meeting with Mead when she knew exactly where it was going."
Indeed, one ex-employee goes so far as to say that the executive director talked herself into believing everyone would keep their jobs: "She has an almost extraordinary ability to keep information at bay from herself. It's a talent all political leaders have."
Still, many people who spoke to the Weekly agree that it was Eisner's personal and business skills that made ASK the successful organization it is today. "She got Charles on board," one ASK insider says. "We could never have gotten as far as we did without Kym. Her job was to convince him that her ideas were his -- a male couldn't have done that; it had to be an attractive, gregarious woman."
Former project manager Wendy McClellan, who will soon take a job with Louisville's Actors Theater, feels the ultimate losers are not individual staff members but L.A. theater: "It's sad to me that one more Los Angeles organization is cutting out on the individual artist."
It may be true that sooner or later money destroys all trust, but people involved in the ASK controversy claim that either honest misunderstandings or lack of candor between its executives and staff is really to blame here. Others outside ASK are more concerned that the organization needs to explain itself to the public.
"I think ASK very systematically put itself in a leadership position in the community," says Corbett Barklie, an L.A.-based arts consultant. "But now this organization doesn't feel the same responsibility to communicate with that community. There needs to be a conversation, and I'm disappointed they are going out so silently."