by PAMELA HULSE ANDREWS Cascade A&E Publisher
The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.
~ George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950 Irish playwright, a co-founder London School of Economics)
In a letter dated May 23 emailed to a select group of supporters of the Nature of Words (NOW), Board of Directors President Chuck Mohler and Executive Director Amy Mentuck stated that the organization would “close its doors and transition its literary arts programming to the Deschutes Public Library.” This announcement comes as a complete surprise to me and numerous other supporters of the festival.
Acknowledging that Central Oregon is a growing environment for cultural entities that add to the quality of life and economic vitality of Central Oregon, the closing of NOW is both alarming and disappointing. The letter announcing the closing did not give the reason for closing the organization although some have suggested that fundraising was challenging (it always is, but the economy has improved and other arts organizations including BendFilm, the Sunriver Music Festival, Caldera and the High Desert Museum are flourishing).
Certainly other arts organizations have struggled during challenging times. In 2008 the Cascade Festival of Music closed but not without a thorough vetting of the difficulties with numerous community volunteers, sponsors and advisory members. The festival was $190,000 in debt, the economy was tanking and perhaps through some mismanagement of the organization (both the director and the board president were criticized for not asking for help sooner), it was not able to recover. The community was saddened by its departure, but the decision to end the festival was not done under closed doors and without community input.
There certainly was a time when BendFilm Festival was seeing troubling times through numerous director and board changes. Yet, despite the turmoil, the community has been asked and has risen to the occasion to support independent film in Central Oregon for over 10 years.
Not so with the Nature of Words, which was founded in 2005 by author Ellie Waterston who was not included in the decision making process to give the literary arts program to the Deschutes Public Library, a public agency. No large group discussions were held as to the fundraising challenges nor where the organization would best fit into other entities such as the High Desert Museum, that was intimately involved in the festival at one point nor COCC or OSU-Cascades, longtime supporters.
Mentuck says that the decision to close was a difficult but necessary one to make. No doubt. Following Waterston’s departure in 2012, the firing of the next director, Robert McDowell in 2013 and then the hiring of Mentuck last year, it appeared the organization would be on solid footing. In fact, as an advisory board member, I asked the staff point blank if there were money challenges, and I was absolutely assured that: “We are financially stabilized and have sufficient funds to maintain our space and all of our educational outreach programs through the year.”
In defending the secretive decision, Mentuck says: “The board and staff discussed all possible options at length and reached out to many close allies. The library was ultimately selected because we believe they are a strong steward with the infrastructure and capacity to continue bringing literary arts programming to the community in a vital and growing way. Initial talks had to be in confidence. We believed the news of our decision had to be careful, thoughtful and strategic as well.”
Why was this all done behind closed doors? No communication about the problems was ever provided to the advisory board regarding the scope of the change… the advisory board should have had an opportunity to weigh in on the transformation. We have had numerous other occasions where the organization was in trouble, often community leaders came together to help the organization and it happened through a collective and collaborative effort on many factors. But not so this time: this was a complete surprise to me and numerous other supporters of the festival.
According to the board president at least NOW is closing without a deficit, but answers to the financial situation and what happens to the endowment fund have gone unanswered.
I respectfully disagree that this was handled in the most appropriate and ethical manner.