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Down the Drain

Last week’s announcement that the privately funded A.S.K. Theater Projects would shut down on September 30 came as particularly unwelcome news in the wake of huge cuts in public funding of the arts. But was the demise of the nonprofit — an organization originally conceived as a hybrid of a performing-arts funder and creative developer — entirely unexpected? It certainly was to executive director and board member Kym Eisner. “I don’t understand it,” she said. “Nevertheless, I have to respect their right to [shut down A.S.K.].”

Others were less shocked. According to former A.S.K. literary-programs director Mead Hunter, “What’s amazing is that the organization continued on for 18 months after the systematic dismantling of its arts programming.”

Hunter was referring to the gutting of readings, workshops and new-works development, in which Hunter, among others, lost their jobs so that A.S.K. could award more grant money.

That direction also seems to have irked co-founder Charles Kenis, who told the Weekly, “All we’ve been doing for the past year and a half is channeling money from the foundation to various arts sources. We don’t do any readings, we don’t do any development, all we do is channel money. The foundation in New York can do that.”

But Eisner argues that Kenis was never personally invested in the creative programs, and that he told her that the organization “had fulfilled its mission . . . He was tired,” she suggests.

The recent death of Kenis’ wife, co-founder Audrey Skirball-Kenis, may have also contributed to the organization’s demise.

Established by the couple in 1989 with money (but no permanent endowment) from the Skirball Foundation, A.S.K. assumed a pivotal role in the development of new theater in Los Angeles. Programs such as “Common Ground Festival,” “Playwright-Composer Studio” and “New Play Weekend” contributed to A.S.K.’s reputation as an intellectually and creatively charged hotbed for new works.

But former A.S.K. literary manager Matt Almos suggests that the institution’s redesign helped pave the way to its destruction. “It’s hard to believe that the closure isn’t somehow related to last year’s reorganization,” Almos says.

Hunter is more direct: “In the guise of streamlining A.S.K., Kym and her cohorts drove it into the ground.”

A.S.K. will award six $45,000 TIME (Time for Inspiration, Motivation and Exploration) grants before closing shop. Though the previously announced Audrey Award will not be implemented, “Hot Properties,” a partnership with the L.A. County Arts Commission and the James Irvine Foundation, will continue through 2004.


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