Winnipeg arts groups have been, for the most part in recent decades, models of responsible management. One would have to go back to the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra's near collapse in the early 2000s to find the last time a major arts organization could not seem to get its act together.
The problems that have come to a head this past week at Manitoba Theatre for Young People also have their roots in those years, when the company's board of directors fell $1 million short in their capital campaign to pay for their new $5.25-million building at The Forks.
The legacy of that failure has burdened them since. Carrying an accumulated debt of $1.8 million against an operating budget of $2.2 million, the company could not meet its payroll last month, and not for the first time. The board poured oil on the fire of its public relations woes this week by dismissing its founding artistic director of 31 years, Leslee Silverman, a recognized leader of the children's theatre movement in North America.
The larger question of the company's survival should not be an issue. Under Silverman, MTYP has become a necessary component of the provincial arts scene, training performers, commissioning plays and providing tens of thousands of children with their first taste of live theatre. The time has long passed for funders to step in with an advisory committee to refloat the ship, a body similar to those established in the past for the WSO and Manitoba Opera.
As for the Silverman execution, what was the board thinking? With her obsessive dedication to her calling and a string of national honours, she is in the mould of such Winnipeg arts visionaries as the Contemporary Dancers' Rachel Browne, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's Arnold Spohr and Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's John Hirsch. Personnel issues are seldom black and white, but surely a woman of Silverman's distinction deserved a softer landing. Perhaps the wrong person was shown the door.