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Farewell, Sun King

It’s striking how often people don’t realize when they’re sealing their own doom. Take Saratoga Performing Arts Center president Herbert Chesbrough, for example. When, under his leadership, SPAC announced in February that they intended to show the door to the New York City Ballet and end a relationship that began during the very planning of SPAC in the early 1960s, little did Chesbrough realize that he was laying his professional head on the chopping block.

It’s now clear, however, that that was exactly what he was doing. The long-awaited audit of SPAC by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation was finally issued on Nov. 22, and the best way to think of the report is as an executioner’s axe coming down on the hapless longtime SPAC honcho—and the board that seems to have cheerfully, thoughtlessly done his bidding.

This audit was the ultimate vindication of eight months of public anger and grassroots organizing to keep the ballet at SPAC. Within days of SPAC’s announcement, as Mae G. Banner reported in these pages [Art Murmur, Feb. 19], “supporters of the ballet began circulating petitions” to save the ballet. Saratogians like John and Janice DeMarco helped form Save the Ballet, and began a summer-long drive to raise both money and awareness.

In less than a month, the tide began to turn against SPAC. Ballet supporters, the city of Saratoga Springs and—probably most importantly—local elected officials like Sen. Joseph L. Bruno (R-Brunswick) and Assemblyman James Tedisco (R-Schenectady) expressed their displeasure with Chesbrough and the SPAC board [Art Murmur, March 11].

SPAC started to get it, slightly. At Bruno’s (and others’) urging, SPAC opened their board meetings to the press. Sort of. The requirements that reporters, including our own Ashley Hahn, had to fulfill to be one of the lucky invitees were precise and restrictive to what seemed like an absurd degree.

Still, the important thing was the audit. The state, which leases the land in the Saratoga Spa State Park on which SPAC sits, had never done their own audit of SPAC’s operations. And, when it was released Thanksgiving week, its conclusions proved devastating.

According to the audit, only 10 SPAC board members (out of 23) were present at the meeting on Feb. 12, 2004, when it was decided to terminate the NYCB’s residency. The report concluded: “[This] caused the audit team to question the process by which SPAC makes key decisions.”

The state wanted to an idea of what each SPAC employee actually does. SPAC did not provide the employee job descriptions and résumés the auditors asked to see. Conclusion?

“Clear duties descriptions for staff with clear delineations of tasks, responsibilities and qualifications are essential to any business. This is an area requiring further investigation.”

The most damning information related directly to the executive style and performance of president Chesbrough. Chesbrough approved his own expenses and signed his own checks, of which the auditors wrote: “Separation of duties in the handling of financial transactions is a basic principle of financial management. This is a potential area of risk.”

“We also noted,” the audit continued, “that trips were made to California and Florida in years when Clear Channel was responsible by contract for booking events.”

Ah, yes. Clear Channel, formerly SFX, the company hired by SPAC to take over the booking of rock acts from Chesbrough.

The auditors found it puzzling that the president’s remuneration was not correspondingly reduced: “Notwithstanding this substantial reduction in his responsibilities, the President’s compensation package was not adjusted accordingly.”

Relieved of this chore, Chesbrough was supposed to fill his hours completing a long-term, strategic plan for SPAC. Didn’t happen, according to the report: “During the period of time reviewed under this audit, the salary and other compensation of the President rose substantially as his job responsibilities were reduced markedly, while at the same time he failed to devise and implement a strategic plan or otherwise successfully deal with the deteriorating financial condition of SPAC.”

Well, well. The rest of the report is just as damning. It turns out, for example, that the NYCB only lost $20,000 more than the Philadelphia Orchestra did in the 2003 summer season—information that was “inconsistent” with the data SPAC presented to the public in justifying jettisoning the ballet.

What’s likely to happen now? The SPAC board will be reorganized. Herbert Chesbrough will be gone. His “separation agreement,” the tres-generous buy-out of the last year of his contract with SPAC, will be—in the words of Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation Commissioner Bernadette Castro—“shredded.” No $400,000. No free SPAC tickets ’til the mid-teens.

There’s no joy in this. But it’s the first step to getting SPAC back to what it’s supposed to be: a public-arts asset for the community.

—Shawn Stone

On Thursday, Nov. 18, Susan Novotny, owner of the Book House and the Little Book House in Stuyvesant Plaza in Albany, celebrated the opening of her new store in Troy among loads of friends and supporters. Market Block Books, located at the corner of 3rd and River streets, will serve as the anchor store for the multi-million-dollar Market Block development project, a mission undertaken by Troy developer John Hadley to help resurrect downtown Troy. The bookstore features modern touches like wireless Internet (meant to attract RPI students), but the atmosphere will be reminiscent of Victorian-era Troy. Saturday, Nov. 20 was the first official day of business for Market Block Books.

 

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