Disjecta’s Founder Bryan Suereth explains the story behind his ouster
Disjecta’s Founder Bryan Suereth sent out an email today with an account of his ouster by Disjecta’s board, effective December 31, 2016.
I won’t hope to duplicate some of the classic Disjecta graphic design in the message. But here’s the text.
+++Email sent January 18, 2017 at 10:13 AM+++
There are no rules we must abide by in the art world. This is a call to action. A story. A question of who decides. The details are obscure and yet obvious. There is no predestination. No mandate. Push the buttons. Make Noise.
By now, the news has been broadcast: after several months of intense behind the scenes grappling, the Board of Directors at Disjecta has terminated my services as Executive Director effective December 31. I greatly appreciate the efforts of our intrepid arts reporters—April Baer at OPB and Richard Speer for the Oregonian—for shedding light on the machinations of the art world. We’re a small segment of the city, the economy, the intellectual curve…yet surely our imprint deserves attention and critical debate. However, the story of Disjecta is not fully told as our news outlets have limited inches and airwaves with which to convey the unfolding histories that surround us. I want to share my perspective on what transpired–in the spirit of Beckett, in hopes of putting things right–because I believe in Disjecta and its immeasurable potential.
QUICK HISTORY The path of Disjecta was seldom paved with roses—contemporary art efforts have always faced a daunting route to prosperity in Portland. There were plenty of naysayers, insults, setbacks and financial barriers over the years. But with the community’s support, I stayed focused on the vision I had for Disjecta—one that didn’t succumb to the typical trappings of art world paradigms and the glossy sheen of temporary fads (although there may have been some of that). I wanted Disjecta to last and serve the community with impartiality, with unique principles and a rich, engaging physical presence (see the making of Clyde Park here). I wanted to build substantial programs that met the needs of artists but also provided an inviting and friendly environment for a diversity of patrons.
Today, there is a big, beautiful building that serves many thousands of people and two important visual arts programs that support hundreds of local and international artists. Disjecta is incredibly unique in that it was hand-built with sweat and belief and the help of friends and strangers alike—certainly a shared sense of potential must exist to rally so many individuals to collaborate and sacrifice. I’m proud as I consider the immense odds overcome to be here now, a place of success, stability, and growth. And there was much more on the horizon from artist residency initiatives to partnerships with national organizations to a revisioning of the Portland Biennial. It seems surreal therefore that my tenure as the chief architect could end so tersely, behind closed doors and without community input. It seems more absurd still to accept an extreme outcome without empowering the affected parties through debate, candor and moderate subjectivity.
THE NONPROFIT MODEL When I decided to convert Disjecta into a nonprofit organization in 2004, I hoped to access greater funding sources and expand the opportunities Disjecta offered. A necessity of such a transformation is the convening of a Board of Directors, a group of engaged and supportive community members assigned to oversee the mission of an organization and, importantly, to contribute and raise money to bolster its efforts. One entrusts these individuals to act equitably and to exercise exceptional stewardship over the operations and growth of the nonprofit. To become nonprofit also meant I would no longer “own” Disjecta. And though a board would be in charge of making fundamental organizational decisions, they also would not “own” Disjecta. In essence, it would become a product and commodity of the community it served. For many years, Disjecta had vigorous, if not wealthy, board members: they actively cultivated relationships and sought out funding. They helped build community. And, perhaps most importantly, they maintained a healthy perimeter outside of programmatic decisions—a place boards should not meddle.
Two years ago, the composition of the board began to change. Longstanding members made way for new faces, conveying the ethic of the organization they helped establish and relaying the challenges faced with growth as they departed. But suddenly board contributions dropped by over 60%. Donors associated with board fundraising efforts essentially evaporated. And unwarranted incursions into programmatic arenas became more and more prevalent. I addressed these problems and asked for a redoubled effort in the fundraising arena and tried to demarcate appropriate board boundaries…to no avail. As I lamented the spiraling performance, we were losing ground in the key arenas of donor cultivation and fundraising.
A BIG GAMBLE Unbelievably, this all occurs while Disjecta is achieving some of its greatest success: our programs have blossomed and our partnerships, attendance and recognition are at an all time high. Instead of actively seeking solutions for an overburdened staff of 2.5 employees, the board began to criticize minimal shortcomings associated with such limited organizational capacity and continually failed to respond to concerns about their own performance, setting the table for a turbulent summer. Thus, an ambitious (perhaps overly ambitious, though largely successful) Biennial ruptured the increasingly fragile balance between the director and the board.
After a grueling summer, the schism had grown to the point that the board trumped up charges that I was not capable of fulfilling the role of executive director. Do I have my weaknesses? Absolutely. Do I fail sometimes? Definitely. But given the extensive volume of responsibilities that fan out in every direction and the lack of resources available to me, I argued I was performing at a remarkably high capacity, pointing to the very tangible accolades Disjecta had received over the past year alone. I pleaded for more help, better fundraising, additional staff. The result? Termination…promoted in the guise of a “transition”.
TRANSITIONS The concept of transition had come up in the past and I agreed it was certainly on the horizon—but in a few years. It had never been substantially discussed or researched. I was insistent that any transition needed to be a fully considered and strategic one that was well planned, accounted for change at the board level and respected my contributions to Disjecta. Under the thumb of an overeager board, the abrupt route was taken…a decision I (and others) advised against. It is reckless to make such a drastic change and disregard the needs of the community, particularly when the objectives of both sides could have been easily met with a more harmonious approach. I did not, and currently do not, see a plan that places organizational success at the forefront of the conversation. I was concerned that alienating me would affect support the organization currently enjoys and prolong any rebuilding process. And I was clear that I could not participate in a transition that was not collaborative.
DEBUNKING CHANGE Disjecta has never operated in the red, a small miracle for an arts organization. Still, we’ve only ever been a mere notch above sea-level financially speaking. Our earned revenue business model has been the great bulwark against insolvency. Over the last two years our revenue was $837,000; grant income accounted for 51%, earned income for about 27%, and fundraising and in-kind about 11%. Corporate and individual donors account for 9% and board contributions net out just over 2% (and of that, only a little over 1% came from the current board).
This is where we get back to stewardship—and frankly legitimacy. Only in the weird world of nonprofits would a group that invests 1% in a business feel empowered to upend a flourishing entity and remove the founding director without cause. While I’ve been aware of flagging board support over the last few years, the final tally occurred after the board refused to work with me on a reasonable succession plan. During the discussions, I suggested that the board step down—I felt confident I could replace them with more productive members. They declined and issued a press release announcing my departure after our annual art auction in mid-November. April Baer’s story come out shortly thereafter on OPB, and that’s when several individuals approached me asking how they might help.
CRITICAL MASS Within two weeks, we’d assembled a truly experienced group that was ready to not only contribute $50,000 per year, but raise another $50,000 as well. This is not something that happens every day—in fact it’s incredibly rare. In total, the amount pledged was $300,000 over three years—a seismic shift in the capacity of Disjecta that would resolve our most long-standing deficiency; board and individual giving. The caveat was that ten individuals would need to be added to the board and I would return to my role as Executive Director for the next two years. This would allow the organization to immediately add critical staff and strategically plan for transition. Existing board members that could meet a minimum annual contribution were invited to continue their service. Of course the group that collectively accounted for 1% of the organization’s income would lose its voting block, but the upshot was overwhelmingly positive for the organization’s future health. This offer remains on the table. You may read the Open Letter to the Board of Disjectahere.
At this point, the board has rejected the offer, a taciturn and unprecedented rebuffing of a plan that adds more experienced board members, increases financial contributions and generates a plethora of new resources for Disjecta. Instead, they are currently conducting a national search for a executive director position that isoverworked and underpaid, has little to no staff support and no benefits. Given the current composition and resources offered by the sitting board, these circumstances are not likely to change in the next few years, making the path they have chosen unrealistic.
All told, I spent 16 years establishing a stable, inspiring and respected institution…an impossible feat without so much support from this community. Yet I fear this board has made an ill-informed choice that jeopardizes the institutional fabric that was so carefully woven over all these years. Seldom have changes of this kind found successful outcomes—we should all be worried. (See the curious case of Seattle’s Consolidated Works here or here.)
MAKING VOICES HEARD Thank you to everyone who has expressed their support on social media, to all the friends, artists and donors who have made their voices heard. We can do more though. Email firstname.lastname@example.org and tell them to accept the offer in front of them.Encourage, cajole, vent…but please be polite. We all want Disjecta to be successful and sustainable. There is a solution in front of us. I am confident adding new board members and constructing a comprehensive transition is the right path forward. As with anything in the public realm, it is important to make your voice heard.
I have tried to act with equal perseverance and compassion, tried to give opportunity and share meaningful cultural experiences. I hope you’ll find it worthwhile to support the Disjecta I endeavored to build.