Ex-Strand executive director speaks out

ROBIN CAUDELL/PHOTORobert Garcia discusses his departure from the Strand Center for the Arts during an interview at the Press-Republican newsroom. 

PLATTSBURGH — Former Strand Center for the Arts Executive Director Robert Garcia had no clue that a board meeting to discuss employee concerns would lead to his ouster.

Bookkeeper Marilyn Dwyer was also dismissed this past Tuesday by the Board of Directors, which includes President Courtney Chandler-DeLaura, Vice President Alice Schonbek, Secretary Thomas McNichols and Treasurer John Zielinski.

‘VISION QUEST’

“It should be a community theater,” Garcia, 62, an entertainment industry veteran, said.

“That’s the problem. That’s what I realized my problem was in a nutshell. The foundation of funding that not-for-profit didn’t exist. I should have done my homework.”

He was eager to get out of South Carolina and return to familiar terrain where his daughter had attended a North Country summer camp for seven years.

“When I arrived, it wasn’t zero, but it was pretty near zero as far as the banking account,” Garcia said.

“I said to myself, ‘How am I going to pay my small salary when there is no money in the bank to pay my salary plus everybody else on staff?”

For him, it was an awakening where he didn’t sleep for a couple of nights after his August 17 arrival.

“What am I going to do?” Garcia said.

“There’s no money. The memberships are really thin at best as far as community members and businesses members.”

SHAKY GROUND

It was late August/early September, he called his agent friends in New York City to see who was available.

Dave Mason was the gig.

“So, I used that money to pay the bills, the ticket sales revenue,” Garcia said.

“That was really the mode of operation since day one was using ticket revenue to operate the company, which should not be the case. Any business has an investment, capital base to function and operate.”

That didn’t exist at the Strand.

Garcia said that, at every board meeting, he told the members the organization needed to fundraise and bring in business memberships because the base foundation of the membership was not strong enough to support the operating costs of the Strand Theatre or the Arts Center.

Garcia had an at-will, no-term contract for $45,000 a year.

He walked into the unknown and hung out with his girlfriend at Olive Ridley’s to meet people in the community.

“It took me time to build that liaison relationship with the business community, which is what I was really going after,” he said.

REACHING OUT

Garcia went to the current Strand sponsors and reached out to the ones that had retracted.

He got more in-kind trade than funds.

“At the end of the day, the membership from businesses was $60,000 at best on an annual basis,” Garcia said.

“That had fallen off to $45,000, even less. A lot had fallen off because Leigh and Stephens (Mundy) had left.”

He left the world of Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall, so he wasn’t used to the world of nonprofits.

“But when I did my homework, it was all expectations from the executive director to the board,” Garcia said.

“Expectations are to help fundraise and generate income, capital. I expected that to be ingrained in their pattern of governance, their mission, but it wasn’t. From day one, it was micro-management.”

In response to an inquiry from the Press-Republican, the Strand Center board sent the following statement:

“ Due to employment laws and out of respect for the privacy of former and present staff, we cannot discuss personnel issues.

Those same laws allow employees to make statements for which there can be no public response.

We can assure the community that a unanimous vote by a 9 member board was not made lightly. Change is difficult, but necessary. The board has a primary responsibility to ensure the long term sustainability of all components of the Strand Center for the Arts so that it can serve the Greater Plattsburgh area next week, next year, and next decade. “

ROLE REVERSALS

Garcia found the Strand’s bylaws loosely written, so he referenced more prevalent not-for-profits’ bylaws, which were based on fiduciary responsibility and governance.

“No day-to-day,” Garcia said.

“No micro-management. You hire the executive director to run the company. Your overall duty is to make sure the overall picture is what it should be. We just didn’t have a good relationship from the start.”

Garcia restructured membership levels with increased discounts, more perks and higher visibility for businesses.

“This is the crux of how these companies survive is donations from donors and business memberships as well as the community memberships,” he said.

EVERYDAY JOE & JANE

Garcia’s first vision was to grow the blue-collar base of the community.

“Nothing was presented there that was blue-collar,” he said.

“Those are the people that I didn’t see come through the door.”

The first bunch of shows Garcia inherited, he sat in the back wondering why there wasn’t an opening act, two sets, an intermission where people buy things, and diversity.

“It was the same people,” he said.

“People who lived on the lake. People who had money. People that were friends of the board.”

He was motivated to book tribute bands because that’s what the everyday people wanted to see.

Dave Mason filled 700-odd seats in the nearly 950-seat theater.

“It was a great night,” Garcia said.

A New Jersey contact vetted tribute bands, and Garcia only booked the best.

“I knew I was getting something that was quality,” he said.

“I wanted something that had production quality, and that’s when we started generating income.”

GAINING TRACTION

“Garrow” was a sell-out in January.

Pink Talking Fish, a Northeast tribute band, sold only 450 seats but $7,000 in profits were realized at the bar.

“That’s unheard of,” Garcia said.

He was building the awareness that the Strand was coming back alive.

At the same time, he worried about the capital base for operating costs.

He was breaking down barriers and running up against some.

“They (board) said to me, the perception is that we are an elitist group,” Garcia said.

“I said, yeah. Look at your programming.”

STATUS QUO

Fifteen to 18 shows were offered a year with a sprinkling of films formerly.

“You’re not doing anything that is touring nationally that has a name recognition,” Garcia said.

“So, no regular Joe is going to come to a show that they never heard of because first of all they don’t have the money to spend on something they don’t know about.”

The small advertisement budget, less than a $1,000 per show, was another point of dissension.

“That’s when I started going around town making not-for-profit deals with radio, just trying to get awareness to build,” Garcia said.

“I started slow, very slow, and it just kind of took off.”

LOOKING GOOD, THEN NOT-SO

Eagle Mania and the Gibson Brothers were highlights of a great spring.

There were a bunch of rentals, which featured local programming in April.

Things went south in May with The Outlaws and Lisa Lapanelli.

Afterward, the board’s micromanagement increased.

He was asking where are the fundraising committees?

They suggested a bar crawl. He suggested a gala benefit but let that go for a burlesque show that didn’t materialize.

He and the board were at odds about tribute bands, even though that’s what was bringing in the fans and revenue.

“I kept saying, ‘We have to generate money first,’” Garcia said.

“‘We really have to bank our money.’ On top of that, I always thought and really felt there was going to be a time when the business community was going to start coming.”

BLINDSIDED

Garcia worked the room at June’s Business Expo, spoke at civic organizations and did radio spots.

In-house, morale was low and there was discontent.

He wrote a letter to the board to schedule a meeting with his management staff to discuss areas of concern.

The Aug. 27 board meeting was rescheduled for Sept. 3.

The meeting devolved to one-on-one sessions.

“Marilyn and I were told that the company was going in a different direction, and we weren’t meeting job performance requirements, so we were being let go,” Garcia said.

“Just like that.”

Email Robin Caudell:

rcaudell@pressrepublican.com

Twitter:@RobinCaudell

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