Let None Of Them Be Missed

I have returned from the Arts Midwest Conference in Milwaukee which apparently broke attendance records. I can believe it did because I have never had so much difficulty finding a free moment to speak to agents with whom I didn’t have an appointment.

I will have quite a bit to report over the course of the next few weeks after I have had time to reflect.

One thing I wanted to follow up on from last year’s conference is something of a “credit where credit is due” topic.

About a week after last year’s Arts Midwest conference there was a huge outcry over the NY Gilbert and Sullivan Players (NYGASP) planned production of The Mikado which was employing yellow face and other Asian stereotypes in the production design.

I thought I had written about this in my blog, but it turns out I only made a comment on HowlRound regarding the issue. As I note in my comment there, they were pretty quick about cancelling the production but social media response made the two-three days in real time seem like the issue had lingered for a month.

Before going to the conference this year, I had gotten a brochure which made it appear that they had revamped the production and were offering it again for touring this year. I made a point to seek out NYGASP Executive Director David Wannen at the Arts Midwest conference to ask what had transpired.

Wannen told me they had indeed made changes to the production. Part of that included bringing a large number of advisors on board to help guide them in the production design planning as well as the casting decisions.

He noted that one of their loudest blogging critics was encouraging her followers to audition and support the productions. (Auditions are for the company performing in the entire season so persons of color are being considered for all their shows.)

From the way Wannen described the show, there will be Japanese inspired/influenced elements combined with 19th century England, but nothing overtly stereotypical. I saw one picture of the Mikado wearing a dragon like helm that could have as easily come from Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones as a fantasy movie set in China or Japan. (It evoked Smaug from The Hobbit more than a Chinese/Japanese dragon for me)

Wannen said the decision to cancel the production last year was made quickly because there was already a conversation among board and staff that the traditional approach to the show wasn’t going to fly for much longer given the social environment. However, there were many on the NYGASP board who insisted on adhering to the traditional production.

The controversy that emerged last year confirmed for the organization that a change was needed. According to Wannen there was something of a shake up in the board. From what I understood in our discussion, there were some resignations.

By some fortuitous happenstance, I was able to gain some additional insight about the sort of continuous effort required for crisis management.  NYGASP appears to have made a lot of constructive decisions, obtained the investment and buy-in of important and influential constituencies and generated some excellent goodwill for themselves.  We may hear/read a news story about redemption like this and assume all is well and the problems have been fixed.

I was seated next to Wannen on the first leg of my flight home. While we sat at the gate waiting to depart, he was on the phone relating the same things to someone that he had talked with me about — mentioning all the steps that were taken and the goodwill they had garnered in the process.

The lesson I took away from this is that no matter how good the situation may appear externally,  there is always more work to be done after a crisis to regain trust and address negative perceptions.

After I had spoken to Wannen, I walked away feeling optimistic about NYGASP and impressed by the difficult choices they had embraced, including admitting there had been a problem. After sitting next to Wannen on the plane, I realized he recognized despite all the positive response they had received thus far, it was too early to declare any sort of victory right yet.

Even though it may be tempting to put bad experienced behind us as soon as possible, it important for organizational leadership to discern when it is too early to do so.


The title of this entry is a paraphrase from The Mikado‘s famous “list” song, “As Someday It May Happen.” Traditionally updated with current events, it is evidence that the show survives all sorts of adaptation.


About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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