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Exit Stage Knight

Departing United Arts President and CEO Margot Knight recounts her decade of creativity amid chaos

Photo: Chieu Nguyen, License: N/A

Chieu Nguyen

Photo: Rob Bartlett, License: N/A

Rob Bartlett

Speaking of public deaths, we can sidetrack our way into the Jim Ireland, Orlando Opera situation – namely, that the opera company was on the verge of folding [it closed in 2009], and that Ireland [its president and CEO] really didn’t like you. There was obviously a personality issue with him. But you kept very solid records, and you did try to advise the opera through this process. You were waving on the horizon saying there’s trouble ahead.

That situation was a result of an unstable executive director with a weak board. To see a 51-year-old organization completely dissolved? It was completely not necessary, that was the pain for me. And I stayed up at night thinking about this. What could we have done without interfering with their day-to-day operations? In fact, as a result of that, United Arts has now contracted with an outside consultant who we have to work with groups we think are fragile. To know that things are not going well, that we as funders probably shouldn’t know – that we don’t want to know but can help to stabilize. And that was my response to that because I felt terribly bad about that. It’s rehashing, but artistically they were fine. [Former Orlando Opera Director] Robert Swedberg did a great job. And when the chair of the board told me that ‘Margot, that production is so much better now we’re using real hair wigs instead of synthetic ones,’ I knew the Kool-Aid had been drunk. And all you have to do is look at the changes and expenditures from one year to the next to see that they just spent more than what they were bringing in … and they just did it in such a grand scale that they just destroyed their organization.

Meanwhile, the Orlando Ballet seems to be gaining traction by going ‘sexy.’ Do you think that kind of commercialization of a classic discipline is healthy?

I love the intersection between populism and the arts, and I think artists push it all the time. We can’t be too pure. Some of the greatest art of mankind has sex as a theme, it’s certainly a human thing. I think it’s a balance issue, and it’s a mission issue.

We’ve spoken of the opera and the ballet, two groups that aren’t going to be utilizing a certain new performing arts center any time soon. We’re going to get to that performing arts center, you know.

I know. I feel like I’m at the dentist. Can I have some Novacain first, please?

Is building more structures in a fragile arts community, more structures that require public funding, is that not a recipe for disaster, when it’s been proven a recipe for disaster in other markets?

We do need these spaces. We need a new Broadway performing arts center – there is no question in my mind. We also need, I think, and I don’t need it for today, but if I were here in 2015 or 2016, we need it then: a solid operations plan and my guess is a pool of funding created from a dedicated source or just saved over the years, because there is no question in my mind that the performing arts center will need in the five- to six-million-dollar range in operations. It’s happened in every city, in every single city in this country. And we’re not that special, and because of our geographical diversity and because we don’t have 4.5 million people within 30 minutes like Newark does, we would be wise to plan for that now. The endowment is at a little under $2 million now and then they’re looking at $25 million. They’ll need closer to a $50 million endowment over time. I just want to make sure it competes. And right now the path of pushing so hard, they made decisions that are not in the best interest of the community being happy in 2015. … We need to plan for it realistically now and not have rose-colored glasses on about it.

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