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Sour Notes at the Chicago String Ensemble

When the board cut the budget, Alan Heatherington and general manager Mary Jo Deysach hit the road.

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As it begins its 19th season next week, the small but well-respected Chicago String Ensemble struggles to regain its bearings in the wake of the resignation earlier this month of its only two full-time staff members, music director Alan Heatherington and general manager Mary Jo Deysach. Heatherington, who didn't return calls for comment on his resignation, helped launch the CSE almost two decades ago and has conducted all but one of the group's concerts. Deysach oversaw the group's business affairs. "This organization was a labor of love for both Alan and Mary Jo," says Virginia Graham, who's now acting executive director of the ensemble as well as one of its concertmasters.

The resignations appear to have been caused by the group's deteriorating finances and a major shift in the makeup of its board of directors. According to Graham, "When there was enough money flowing into the organi-zation, there was con-siderable freedom in deciding how to run it, but when the money stopped flowing, that's when tensions devel-oped." By the end of its 1994 fiscal year the CSE had accumulated a deficit of around $37,000. Sources say much of the red ink resulted from a sudden decrease in contribu-tions from individuals and the expenses in-volved in performing at three locations. (In the 1980s and early 1990s, when financial support for the arts was more readily available than it is today, the CSE began performing in the western suburbs and Evanston.) Within the organization financial concerns were coupled with a realization that the 20-odd-member board lacked someone with leadership abilities.

Enter Kurt Christensen, a professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg Graduate School of Management. A little more than a year ago Christensen was elected to the CSE's board with the understanding that he would quickly become its president. "We thought his experience at Kellogg would be wonderful, as well as his contacts in the business community," says Deysach. Christensen says it was immediately apparent to him that the group's monetary woes needed to be dealt with quickly and decisively. "CSE's financial situation had created some very real pressures," he says, adding, "I did a lot more monitoring and focused a lot on making the financial situation less perilous." According to Graham, Christensen "definitely approached things in a more businesslike fashion and began to set up better lines of control where things had been done more informally before."

But Deysach and Heatherington apparently found Christensen's changes hard to accept. "You cannot run a small not-for-profit arts organization like Motorola," says Deysach, adding that her suggestion that Christensen use other arts groups as models for how to run the CSE was "totally disregarded." Meanwhile, Christensen began holding executive board meetings behind closed doors, excluding Deysach and Heatherington. He also added two of his former students to the CSE board: one an accountant, the other with marketing expertise.

Tensions began to escalate this past spring when the board started drawing up the budget for its current fiscal year. Because contributed income continued to fall last year, Christensen and the board decided $10,000 needed to be trimmed from the group's $170,000 budget and proposed cutting Heatherington's $23,500 salary by 40 percent and Deysach's $20,500 salary by 20 percent. When that proposal met with protests the board agreed to reduce Heatherington's and Deysach's salaries by much smaller amounts and make additional cuts elsewhere in the budget.

Though the CSE ended its 1995 fiscal year June 30 with a $10,000 reduction in its accumulated deficit, strained relations between the board and its staff persisted. Deysach says she decided to resign when Christensen gave her only 48 hours notice before moving the CSE's business office from her suburban home to donated office space in the city. "All I was told was that they needed a place to centralize records and to hold meetings," says Deysach. According to a former board member, moving the office out of Deysach's home had been suggested a number of times over the years, but Deysach had always resisted the idea.

At least three board members have resigned since Heatherington and Deysach left, and sources say more may be on the way out the door. According to Bud Kuppenheimer, who joined the CSE board in June and resigned from it earlier this month, "There was an absence of communication, and you gotta have communication in the day-to-day operation of a business." Kuppenheimer says he resigned because he had a "different management approach" than Christensen, adding, "I felt that it was counterproductive for me to remain on the board, though the situation at CSE definitely isn't black and white." Christensen says he doesn't believe personality conflicts caused the wave of departures at the CSE. Guest conductors will lead the ensemble this season while the board searches for a new music director.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Armando Villa.

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