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The Big Picture

Was Ed Burgess's art really too hot for Bailiwich patrons to handle? Or was teh dispute over lobby art just a symptom of deeper problems as the theater?

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The Big Picture

"Based on discussions with my legal counsel, I am going to court," says Ed Burgess. The local artist contributed 13 "solvent transfers" with images from gay pornography to a show in the lobby of Bailiwick Arts Center, but a week before the show was scheduled to close, his artwork was taken down. Debra Hatchett, managing director for Bailiwick Repertory, also runs an art-placement agency called Anatomically Correct, and in early August she contracted with Burgess through the agency to exhibit his work at Bailiwick through September 23. But after the show was hung on August 22, says Hatchett, she began hearing from David Zak, executive director for Bailiwick, and artistic associate James Pelton, director of the company's current production, Present Laughter: "They were getting worried the graphic images of male genitalia and other things in the work would be offensive to the more mainstream audiences coming to Bailiwick." On September 16, Hatchett asked an assistant at Bailiwick to take down the show (which included work by two other artists) and replace it with a series of celebrity photographs. Two days later Burgess learned that his art had been removed, and now he insists that his contract has been violated.

The fracas may have all the earmarks of a classic First Amendment debate, but behind it lies a more complicated tale of political infighting between Bailiwick's staff and board of directors. Since founding Anatomically Correct nine years ago, Hatchett has done business with Steppenwolf, the Goodman, and the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, among others, but she had no experience in theater management when she was hired as Bailiwick's managing director in spring 1999. Three months ago she received a call from Bailiwick board member Ray Coronado, who suggested Burgess's work as the perfect lobby art for Bailiwick's revival of David Dillon's Party. Hatchett was anxious to accommodate Coronado, whom she considered one of her bosses, and arranged to meet with Burgess, but she wasn't impressed by his work and asked him to come back in a couple weeks with something else. Soon after that she received another call from Coronado, who again urged her to display Burgess's work at Bailiwick.

At the same time, though, Hatchett was apparently becoming a lightning rod for a disgruntled minority on the board. According to Larry Osburn, president of the board, he asked each of the nine members to evaluate the Bailiwick staff so that he could compose a document to be used in performance reviews. Of the nine responses he received for Hatchett, he says, four were positive, two were neutral, and three were negative. Coronado says that Hatchett "presented a negative attitude and was not cooperative....We had an ongoing problem with her attitude and her being very pessimistic." But Hatchett passed her performance review anyway, and Zak dismisses the board's criticism of her as "a lot of pissing and moaning."

Burgess met with Hatchett again in early August, this time showing her work that used a process called solvent transfer to lift images from gay porn and other sources. Hatchett liked what she saw, and on August 10, Burgess signed a contract with Anatomically Correct to exhibit his work in Bailiwick's lobby. The agency hosted a reception for the show on August 27, the night Party opened, and Burgess remembers talking to his friend Ray Coronado that evening about his unhappiness with the board. "Ray was nervous about it," says Burgess. "He wasn't sure if he should resign or how he should go about it." A day or two later Coronado submitted a letter of resignation. One reason for his decision, he says, was "the whole issue with Debra"; another was his belief that Bailiwick was unwilling to "adhere to the mandates of its board of directors."

Hatchett says she intended to notify Burgess when his work was taken down in mid-September, but she was stricken with kidney stones and hospitalized. Burgess is skeptical: "Someone could at least have called me to say what was happening." After nearly a decade representing artists, says Hatchett, she hates to see an artist denied what he considers his due, but she had to choose between two masters and in this case acceded to Zak's request. As for Burgess's legal position, she says neither she nor Anatomically Correct is liable, because the contract grants her agency "the right to refuse any piece of artwork for display or consignment from the artist."

Two more board members, Colleen Geier and John Robak, have since quit, and Osburn says he expects as many as four more resignations. A theater's board of directors is supposed to serve as its support system, and losing seven out of nine board members would be a sobering development for any small arts group. But Zak says he's glad the dissatisfied board members are leaving: "This board just wanted to zap people....They were relatively negative to start with, and they inspired each other to greater negativity." Others on the Bailiwick staff have leaped to Hatchett's defense: Pelton calls her the best managing director Bailiwick has had in ten years, and artistic associate Jeremy Wechsler points out that Hatchett is "the one keeping the theater alive day to day." This isn't the first exodus from Bailiwick's board, and Osburn hopes to have five new members installed soon. According to Zak, the rebuilding comes at a time when the theater is in good financial shape. "Sometimes, though, you feel you're repeating the same battles again and again."

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

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