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ASK Won’t Tell

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."  

Eisner flatly dismisses the accusation that there has been a paradigm shift and insists that programming will continue for at least the next two years.

"It wasn't," Eisner says, "that the evaluation said, 'This is a good program and this one is bad' -- there was no connection between the report and people leaving."

Yet other sources said Hunter, the literary programs director, emerged from his meeting with Eisner believing he would be on staff for at least another year to oversee the projects already in the pipeline. Not only that, when he was soon after dismissed, sources said, his severance package was made contingent on others at ASK not discussing the events surrounding his departure. His three colleagues left during the next two months.

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."

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