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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

When you got here there were discussions about a performing arts center, studies done. Then the city hastily recruited [DPAC President] Kathy Ramsberger to sell the idea. Do you dislike Ramsberger?

I have no personal dog in the hunt about personalities, but from day one – you’ll see emails from me about this – I would have loved to have seen someone who had done this in another city hired for the job. Because at one point somebody, they said I should do it. Are you kidding me? I’ve never done it before. The best thing about me is I know what I don’t know. I’m not the right person, I’ve never done this before, but I do think a national search should be done for someone who’s done this before, because it’s still going to be terrifically difficult, but you won’t have this many mistakes. We make mistakes when we go into uncharted territory.

So why are they still posing ballet dancers in front of the construction site of DPAC for publicity shots? It doesn’t seem likely that the ballet is going to be able to fill DPAC’s lone Broadway theater. Isn’t that a little misleading?

It is important for the city and the leadership of the performing arts center to maintain the big picture dream, which is a place for locally owned and operated groups. It is not that at this stage. It is unclear exactly when and how much money needs to be raised to have it go ahead. At one point, does the architect have to make a decision to build the shell for the ballet and philharmonic for the acoustics hall, and when is that dream gone?

Well, some might argue that that point should have been before the financial controversy that the county unearthed back in January in which the architects and designers were getting kickbacks like car allowances. It smacked of impropriety.

I’m a proponent of transparency in every case except where you can make the compelling case that the outcome of what you’re doing is better served by being private. And there are situations like that. But when you’re a nonprofit and you have some choice, I would always err on the side of transparency, aggressive transparency. To the extent that if a county commissioner, which one did a few years ago, questioned what I did and what my salary was, I sent her eight years of salaries and my charitable contributions. Because penny for penny, pound for pound, my life’s an open book, and we exist because of donors and government money, and I’m a big believer in transparency. … Their aggressive secrecy, I think, is troubling for donors, because donors want transparency. I can’t find a compelling reason not to be more transparent. Why not?

What was the breaking point with you and DPAC?

I wasn’t in the room when the decision was made, but I do know, on one day, it was like oh, ancient history, back in 2005, I think, both [Orange County Public Schools Superintendent] Ron Blocker and I got phone calls asking us to resign from the board from [DPAC board Chairman] Jim Pugh, with the rationale that they didn’t want any paid employees on the board – they wanted our volunteers. So they said they’d put my chair[person from the United Arts board on the DPAC board], although they never put the United Arts chair on the board. It happened to be somebody who was already on the board, but they haven’t subsequently added the chair of United Arts on the board. And with Ron, they put on [former school board Chairman] Tim Shea and [current Chairman] Bill Sublette is on the board, and that’s fine. Later on you hear rumors that it wasn’t that at all. But you know what? I didn’t come to you, I didn’t make a big deal of it. People should have the boards that they want. And what’s sad about it is that it was about arts and education, and Ron Blocker and I were, by virtue of our jobs and our résumés, the most knowledgeable at that time about those two things.

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