The future of Vancouver’s jazz festival is in question with news its main sponsor plans to stop funding the event at the same time as a bitter boardroom drama has spilled into the public.
Vancouver’s Coastal Jazz and Blues Society runs the annual TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival, but Toronto-Dominion Bank has informed the society its support will end after this year’s festival, which is scheduled to run June 24 to July 3. TD’s contribution is by far the festival’s largest source of sponsorship money.
Franco Ferrari, vice-president of the Coastal Jazz board, told The Globe and Mail in an interview that TD has been generous and supportive to the festival. TD did not respond to an e-mailed request for comment on Tuesday.
“What we’re trying to do is preserve the ability of the society to carry on,” said Mr. Ferrari, who has been on the board since 1994. “And we’re certainly at risk of financial loss or bankruptcy – which, gladly, we’re not that close, but we’re concerned after this year whether we’ll be able to find a title sponsor to replace a significant chunk of our financial support.”
At the same time, a dispute between the board and some members of the society over governance and the leadership structure escalated with the release of an open letter last week that calls for the current board to resign. As of Tuesday morning, the open letter had more than 300 names on it, including musicians such as John Korsrud, Dan Mangan and Jesse Zubot.
“We are concerned that the Coastal Jazz and Blues Society is suffering a crisis of governance that threatens its existence,” states the letter, which was posted on Facebook. “This organization means a great deal to us and to the cultural life of our city.”
On Feb. 4, the organization announced the departure of Rainbow Robert, who had curated the festival’s programming. Ms. Robert, who had been with the organization for 23 years, was most recently one of three managing directors in a shared leadership structure.
Coastal Jazz and Blues, which produces the annual festival and other year-round concert series and events, was founded in 1985. It was originally run by its co-founders and later by a sole executive director.
After what the organization thought was too much turnover in its executive-director role, and with a deficit, the organization had adopted the new arrangement: one person to oversee finance and administration, one for marketing and development, and one to do the artistic programming – Ms. Robert. The team managed to retire the society’s deficit.
In 2020, the board ordered what’s known as a 360 review of senior staff. After that, the board decided the distributed leadership structure wasn’t working, according to Mr. Ferrari.
In October, 2020, the board put the three leaders and a director of administration on 14 months’ working notice, informing them their positions would be eliminated in December, 2021.
“From the board’s perspective, it was a prudent approach that didn’t put the society at extreme risk. It still provided some level of certainty to the individuals involved, and under the circumstances, the best we felt we could do,” Mr. Ferrari said.
But Zahid Makhdoom, who was on the board until he resigned in the midst of the turmoil last year, was highly critical of the move.
He said in an interview that he objected to the employment action happening “in the middle of the plague we are all facing. And these people have been working diligently … under difficult conditions.”
Two of the three managing directors, and the director of administration, left their full-time positions last year.
The issue blew up at the Coastal Jazz annual general meeting in November. The event is usually a sleepy affair attended by board members and a few others. In this case, attendance at the virtual meeting was larger than usual – including people who became members in the days leading up to the AGM.
“When challenging questions were posed by members regarding the reasoning behind these decisions, they were met with derision and profanity from the board,” said the open letter, written by jazz musician Torsten Mueller.
Members at the meeting voted to remove several people from the board executive, including the president and Mr. Ferrari.
Others, including Mr. Makhdoom, put their names forward to replace them. But after the meeting, Mr. Ferrari said, the society’s lawyer determined that the vote contravened the organization’s bylaws.
“We didn’t reinstate ourselves; we remained the board according to the bylaws,” Mr. Ferrari said.
The open letter calls on the board to step down now. It also alleges a toxic work environment at the society that has staff members fearful for their jobs.
“I am not aware of any such thing,” Mr. Ferrari said when asked about that.
The society has hired Nina Horvath, formerly of the Vancouver Bach Choir, as executive director, a position that replaces the three-person structure.
In response to the open letter, the board issued its own letter, saying it “is committed to fulfilling our duties to ensure the sustainability and oversight of the society, and will continue to govern the society.” The board’s letter noted that the bylaws have no provisions to vote board members out.
“Emotions were running high, resulting in words and actions that we profoundly regret,” the board’s letter stated. It said it was actively recruiting new board members.
“Carrying on the legacy and intent of our founders, the board would like to assure staff, society members, and the community at large that we will engage in a thoughtful, transparent, and equitable process to determine the future artistic leadership of the organization,” the board’s letter said.
That prompted Robert Kerr, the festival’s founding executive director, to write to the board.
“I am deeply offended by your statement that you are ‘carrying on the legacy and intent of our founders’. None of you yourselves are founding members and not one of you speak for me,” wrote Mr. Kerr, who is now a programming supervisor for cultural events at the City of Toronto. Mr. Kerr was among those who attended the November AGM.
“If you have a shred of respect for the values and intent of those of us who founded, established and nurtured the organization to international acclaim, you should all resign immediately.”
While Ms. Robert declined to answer questions about Coastal Jazz, she told The Globe she was excited about joining BC Alliance for Arts and Culture as its new executive director.
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