Before #MeToo, before the allegations about Albert Schultz struck Soulpepper and rippled through the Canadian arts community, there was Jeff Melanson, the Banff Centre and the non-disclosure agreement. In 2014, the one-time great hope of Banff ended up stepping down as president and CEO of the organization, citing “family reasons.” He was moving back to Toronto, he stated, to be close to his new fiancée, Eleanor McCain, and his three children from his first marriage.
Details would later emerge that a Banff Centre employee who reported to him had accused him of sexual harassment.
The woman lost her job at the Banff Centre and, after threatening to sue, she reached a settlement with the Banff Centre, which included an NDA. The harassment allegation kept quiet, Melanson moved back to Toronto, where he accepted another high-profile position, as president and chief executive of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
If this were to happen today, things might play out quite differently. Sparked by allegations of sexual harassment and assault by Hollywood powerhouse Harvey Weinstein, the #MeToo movement has led to a grand reckoning in the boardrooms of organizations around the world. And at some arts and cultural institutions, boards – tasked with behind-the-scenes governance and oversight – have found themselves in a new, unwanted spotlight, scrutinized for their handling of such allegations, or for allowing an organizational structure that may have enabled bad behaviour.
When four women filed civil lawsuits accusing Soulpepper co-founder and long-time artistic director Schultz of sexual harassment, the board launched an investigation and instructed Schultz to step aside. He subsequently resigned. His wife, Leslie Lester, who was Soulpepper’s executive director, also left. As the scandal became public, questions quickly arose about the board – including how much they knew, or should have known. (Soulpepper declined to be interviewed for this story.)
If the passionate, dedicated bunch of volunteer believers who sit on arts boards had not already received the memo, they most certainly have now: Keeping one’s house in order is about more than ensuring the books are balanced and the art is attracting a sufficient audience. Failing to ensure a harassment-free workplace could lead to accusations of complicity and enabling, rising to the board level. Looking the other way is not an option.
“I would be shocked if there are any arts boards that have not had serious discussions on this subject, let alone implemented changes,” says Daniel Weinzweig, co-founder and managing partner of Toronto-based Searchlight Recruitment Inc., whose areas of focus include the cultural and entertainment sectors.
“[Boards] are focused on making sure our donors are properly nurtured, securing grants, contacting potential donors … bringing more people into the tent,” says Lawrence L. Herman, a Toronto lawyer who is on the board of Business for the Arts and is also board chair for the Toronto Summer Music Foundation. “#MeToo and the Soulpepper issue have added an extra dimension.”
A hunt for #MeToo skeletons in the closet
At its first meeting of 2018, the board of Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach had the conversation that by then, people across the Canadian theatre community – and far beyond – were having. After the fall of Weinstein, followed by revelations elsewhere – especially the Soulpepper scandal, the board of the Shakespeare festival knew it had to ask some difficult, but crucial questions.
“The dialogue starts with where are we right now, what are we doing for best practices and then do we need to look back? Do we need to go back? Have there been any [issues] with anyone?” board member Marlie Oden says. “You have to do a little bit of a retrospective and be very relieved that nothing comes up.”
As virtually everyone knows by now, that’s not always the case. This month, the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton – Alberta’s largest theatre company – issued a statement delivering an apology for “any harassment that has been a part of the Citadel’s past” and announced a new safe disclosure process for reporting such behaviour and other corrective measures. The Montreal Symphony Orchestra has launched an investigation into sexual-harassment allegations involving former music director Charles Dutoit. In New York, the Metropolitan Opera this month fired superstar conductor James Levine – its long-time music director who stepped down two seasons ago – reporting “credible evidence” of sexually abusive and harassing conduct.
Arts organizations, big and small, have been engaging in a necessary hunt for #MeToo skeletons in their closets, asking tough questions around boardroom tables about their own companies.
“Absolutely, we discussed it,” says Margo Randles, board chair of Theatre Calgary. “We talked and assessed: Do we have any risks?”
Theatre Calgary’s board had reviewed its policies around this issue in October, a process under way before the Weinstein scandal and #MeToo movement blew up. Still, it was revisited after Soulpepper.
“Our first response always is that we go to our leadership team, our executive director and artistic director and ask them if we have any concerns,” she says.
The discussion was mirrored at arts boards across the country, including the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, where Pauline Rafferty is board chair.
“I don’t think any of us think we have the perfect solution, but there’s a lot of discussion and I think that’s healthy,” Rafferty says. “Because I think there’s a lot of discussion just generally around dining-room tables around this topic.”
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t
For boards at arts organizations, finding the right balance between overseeing the organization and ensuring its financial health but not meddling in day-to-day operations can prove tricky. It would be unusual for board members to be privy to interpersonal relations among staff members, but in a scenario where such details do rise to the board level, it’s likely a high-level problem that demands attention.
“All the more reason why it’s very important for organizations to ensure that, if they haven’t, they’ve updated their policies with respect to workplace harassment,” says D’Arcy Levesque, a former Enbridge executive who sits on numerous boards, including the Calgary International Film Festival board, which he chairs. “Because at the end of the day, if you find yourself in a situation where an employee may have acted inappropriately … then you’ve got to be in a position to use those policies to guide your decision-making.”
But a board facing a crisis is often trapped in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation, criticized for not taking responsibility on the one hand or of micromanaging or interfering with the art on the other. Today, the board of Soulpepper has been accused of poor governance, allowing a couple to run the theatre and failing to perceive internal problems that staff felt they could not bring to at the attention of Lester because she was Schultz’s partner.
Compare that with the situation at Toronto’s Factory Theatre in 2012. The issue was different, but the criticism directed at the board was also harsh and headline-making: The board’s heavy-handedness was panned when artistic director Ken Gass was fired because he was wedded to an expansion plan the board judged fiscally impossible. The artistic community was outraged, took Gass’s side and organized a boycott of the theatre.
In a healthy organization, a certain distance is required between the board and management. Boards are there for oversight; not to meddle. Rafferty, for example, speaks with her CEO weekly and communicates with him perhaps twice weekly by e-mail. “It’s making sure that there are no surprises,” she says.
“It’s always related to power, isn’t it?”
When it comes to dealing with unexpected allegations – such as sexual harassment and bullying – many arts organizations, if they hadn’t already, are now quickly getting with the program, implementing or devising policies, and getting a handle on best practices. The Citadel is aiming for as much transparency as possible as it deals with its own issues.
Daryl Cloran took over as artistic director at the Citadel, in September, 2016. In the new position, Cloran, who had been artistic director at Western Canadian Theatre in Kamloops, began meeting with members of Edmonton’s theatre community to familiarize himself with the landscape and form new connections. But in these meetings last year, he also heard something alarming: talk of a negative workplace culture and allegations of harassment.
Cloran went to his board and they took immediate action, securing a safe disclosure specialist and reviewing the Citadel’s workplace policy. “We’ve really been in constant communication ever since then to make sure that we continue to be in lockstep in terms of how we’re handling things,” says Wendy Dupree, who has been on the board for three years and was appointed chair in January.
When the Citadel received additional reports this year, they made the decision to make the process public and pro-actively invite people to discuss the matter. (They declined to go into specifics, but Cloran said it wasn’t about a specific person, but rather “a workplace culture here that we won’t tolerate.”)
Dupree says the process was informed more by these disclosures to Cloran than what has been happening at other theatre companies. But she believes the cultural shift has created a more receptive environment for people who wish to report.
“Perhaps for the first time, people are going to feel that they have that ability to come forward and be heard and not have any stigma attached to that,” she says. “It was just the right time for all those things to happen. I’m really quite proud of the board and the board of governors for supporting what was going on right from the get-go.”
At Bard on the Beach, the Weinstein issue had come up briefly at its final meeting of 2017 in November, but the board was focusing on year-end issues then. In the meantime, the festival administration was working on policies to bring forward.
“It should be a management-driven exercise, not a board-driven exercise, but the board certainly should talk about it openly,” Marlie Oden says. “And one of the discussions we had was these policies should be for the board as well, any board. Because it’s always related to power, isn’t it?”
Oden, who has sat on many boards (she currently sits on the CBC board as well, but made it clear that she would not speak about that), has personally dealt with the issue elsewhere, in the past decade. She had heard talk of possible sexual harassment, brought it to the attention of the executive director, and the person was investigated and terminated after a thorough investigation, she says.
The board shouldn’t be knee-jerk about such matters – even if that might be tempting – but if the investigation turns something up, it is incumbent on the board to look at it.
“If there had been a complaint about someone and dealt with in a manner that was appropriate, then … that would be fine,” Oden says. “If it was a complaint that had been brushed off and someone patted on the head, that would be something that you need to look at. Fortunately, we didn’t have that [at Bard]. But it’s something that we did take a hard look at.”
Oden says the men and women were equally engaged in the topic, but for women on a board, it can be a particularly intense discussion.
“We have anger very close to the surface right now because of all these things that have come up,” she says. “Because we’ve all faced them: We’ve been talked over, we’ve been bullied, we’ve been paid less.”
A new leader can take the organizatioin to new heights – or unimagined lows
In this new climate, a candidate’s behavioural track record has become top-of-mind for arts organizations looking for fresh leadership.
“Now, the work of a search firm has an even greater weight than ever before,” says Sara Angel, board member and chair of the Canadian Stage search committee for a new artistic director. CanStage is looking to replace artistic and general director Matthew Jocelyn, who will step down in June.
“You really have to look at every component of a candidate, everything that is being said about a candidate and his or her history in a professional context,” Angel says.
Weinzweig – who, incidentally, adds that he was Harvey Weinstein’s first Canadian distributor – says these issues should be considered during the recruitment process and that boards, often aided by firms such as his, must do their due diligence.
“We do as much as can be humanly done without breaching privacy regulations or privacy conditions. We do what we can to ensure that. And certainly it’s something that arts boards are increasingly aware of, and [they’re] asking the right questions.”
This decision is imperative; the new leader can take the organization to new heights – or unimagined lows.
At Banff, chair Jeff Kovitz and his board chose Melanson.
“We thought that Jeff had the skills that it took to do the job and the facts show that it didn’t happen, to my great disappointment,” Kovitz says.
A window into Melanson’s Banff chapter was opened by a legal document filed by McCain, who married Melanson in 2014, and filed for annulment less than two years later. The filing alleged personal and professional wrongdoing, and exposed the sexual-harassment allegations at Banff.
Melanson “started freezing [the employee] out at [the Banff Centre.] He made her position at TBC untenable,” the document alleged.
The career of Melanson’s accuser at the Banff Centre, a world-renowned arts and culture incubator, “was destroyed,” the document said.
She was fired, according to the filing. After she threatened to sue, a settlement was reached.
“The board – it never crossed their minds that he was anything but forthright, honest and capable,” says Kovitz, who was no longer on the board at that point. “From my vantage point, the board believed in him in good faith.”
He adds, about the allegations contained in McCain’s court filing – dealing not just with the Banff Centre, but also the TSO and National Ballet School: “If 50 per cent of those allegations were true, I felt sorry for all of the arts organizations that were impacted.”
McCain and Melanson settled their litigation last December; all claims were dismissed except for Melanson’s claim for a divorce. Through her lawyer, McCain declined to speak with The Globe. Melanson did not respond to e-mails from The Globe.
The Banff Centre declined to comment on the settlement it reached with the woman who was fired, as it is a “confidential personnel matter” and also cited a non-disclosure agreement. The woman involved declined to speak with The Globe. The Globe reached out to several people who were on the board at that time; those who responded declined to speak.
If the rise of Melanson can be seen as a case study in the importance of boards – or a cautionary tale – look next to the TSO, which hired him after the allegation of sexual harassment was made at Banff. (Also after Melanson announced a $900-million redevelopment proposal for the Centre before quitting prematurely.)
It’s unclear whether the TSO knew about the sexual-harassment case at Banff. “Information about an individual’s employment is treated with appropriate confidentiality by the TSO and therefore, we do not make any public comment on such matters,” it told The Globe in a statement.
Richard Phillips, who was on the TSO board when Melanson was selected and chair when he stepped down, also declined to comment on the hire, or on how the board dealt with the crisis caused by McCain’s allegations, which ultimately led to Melanson’s resignation.
Speaking more generally, Phillips (who resigned from the TSO board in 2016) told The Globe, “I think boards can actually really come together in times of crisis. People often rally around. I think that that’s probably happening at Soulpepper and I think in a … constructive way. People on that board are probably spending a heck of a lot of time figuring out what the best steps are.”
The work to be done
In May, the Citadel will hold what’s meant to be a forward-looking healing event for members of the community. “It will be an opportunity to acknowledge the past, and to plan together for a safe and inclusive future at the Citadel,” its statement reads.
The TSO remains under the leadership of interim CEO Gary Hanson, brought in as a temporary measure after he retired from the Cleveland Orchestra. He has said he will depart in September, as planned.
Soulpepper is searching for new leadership, operating under acting artistic director Alan Dilworth and interim executive director Kevin Garland. At the end of February, it quietly named Vanessa Morgan board chair, taking over from Shawn Cooper.
“I think and we hope that Soulpepper will survive, because it does great work and it’s an important cultural institution in this country,” Weinzweig says. “But there are arts organizations that are less well-heeled than Soulpepper that would have disappeared. And that’s not an outcome that anybody wants, including, I’m sure, the accusers.”
The Banff Centre told The Globe in a statement that its board of governors, new president and CEO and senior executive team have continued to review and strengthen anti-harassment policies over the past several years and recently instituted mandatory campus-wide training to ensure people who work, teach, learn or visit the centre know it is committed to providing a safe environment.
After the Melanson mess, the Banff Centre hired Weinzweig’s firm to find a new permanent president and chief executive. “They were looking for somebody who could stabilize things. There was a lot of turmoil at that point,” Weinzweig says.
The choice was Janice Price, hired from Luminato in Toronto, where she had been CEO. “She was the right person at the right time,” Weinzweig says.
It didn’t take her long to announce that Melanson’s grand plan for campus renewal was being shelved.
“She had a lot of work to do to get the organization working well,” Weinzweig says.
There is work to be done at Soulpepper, too – and countless other arts organizations, internally and in their communities, as they wade through the messy but necessary mire of this showstopper of a movement. It seems inevitable that there are more allegations to come, more revered leaders to fall, more healing to do.
With files from Kate Taylor and J. Kelly Nestruck.