Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Well...When You Put It Like THAT...

A lot of what we do sounds really, really bad in black and white. And in terms of things like, you know, the law. As the folks of the New York State Theater Institute apparently just found out.
An obscure upstate theater group that receives far more state aid than any of New York’s world-renowned cultural institutions is rife with corruption, mismanagement, nepotism and possibly illegal conduct, according to a scathing report released on Tuesday by the state inspector general’s office.
The report alleges that the artistic director, Patricia Snyder, treated the group as a personal fiefdom, routinely doling out acting roles, directing jobs, production work and other benefits to herself and her family members. Ms. Snyder steered a total of more than $700,000 in payments to her husband, her two sons, her two daughters-in-law and to herself, the report said.
The big-ticket items? Patricia Snyder hired herself as a director and double-dipped on her pension fund through the SSDC (which the article makes sound like some fly-by-night outfit run by either the Chicago Combine or gypsies). She produced an audiobook written by her daughter-in-law, composed by her son and co-produced by her husband. There's some implied stuff about an apartment in the city supposedly for the company but used by her family...which appears to include a number of the artists involved. That's pretty much it.

Now, I don't know these folks or the particulars of this case and there may be real actual shenanigans afoot. If not shenanigans, sketchy business practices with state money, which is, obviously, bad. But...at the same time...where's the line between nepotism and what's essentially a small family business? (Again, I'm not saying they should be enriching themselves off of the public teat or not serving their community; but the entire article treats all of this like a RICO indictment and these "jobs" making "theatre" were essentially no-show or no-work jobs that Tony gave to Chris.) Where's the line between building and becoming a part of a community and being a flim-flam artist who's soaking them for their hard-earned dough. I've heard that Diane Paulus has run into some of the same questions up at Harvard with her production of The Donkey Show and when I read the Globe article a few weeks ago, I had some similar reservations. Certainly there are some questionable aspects to it...but part of it is...well, it's the business of show. We marry people we work with. Sometimes we work with people so that we might...um...marry them. We raise our kids in the theatre, teaching them the trade. (Yeah. Let's put it that way.) Our work is often underfunded, undersupported and, because artists are at the shallow end of the payment pool, underpaid. So we figure out ways, sometimes sketchy ways, sometimes less than totally above-board ways, to get paid. When the hammer comes down, though, it's always on the chiseling individual who's betrayed our trust, never on the system that makes it possible...and sometimes necessary.

But when you look at it in cold, black-and-white letters in the paper of record...yeah, it does sound more like Tony Soprano than William Shakespeare. But how do we fix it without making doing theatre an onerous thing that separates families rather than brings them together?


Scott Walters said...

I tend to agree with you on this. What would this report have said about, say, Moliere's troupe or a commedia troupe?

cgeye said...

But this is upstate, right? Well, there you go -- "An obscure upstate theater group that receives far more state aid than any of New York’s world-renowned cultural institutions". State aid, state legislature, world-reknown for insularity and corruption. Hell, even L&O shys away from putting stories there -- they could lose their in-NY tax benefits, you know....

The problem ain't the nepotism alone; it's the closed-circle effect of *no one else* getting close to the abnormally large cash available. No one objects to working on the family farm; it's when your farm is a relative Cargill, with relatives, in your area that the fish begins to smell.

Scott Walters said...

I hadn't noticed the NYLACHI mindset on full display. How DARE an "obscure upstate theatre" get more money than anyone else in New York City. There MUST be corruption involved, because if it were on the level, they wouldn't get SQUAT. Sheesh.

Anonymous said...

So it's ok if it happens in the theatre but not if it happens on Wall Street. What an asshole this 99 butts is.

99 said...

Hmm. Aren't we mature, Anon?

For the record, my actual point is that, what looks like corruption isn't always, but that a lot of what we do does indeed wander into a grey area. If it turns out that the Snyders are indeed robbing the public coffers blind, throw 'em in jail. But if they're actually making theatre and earning a living wage doing it (and it doesn't matter to me where they're doing it), leave 'em alone.

But, you know, thanks for dropping by!

cgeye said...

This has absolutely nothing to do with NYLACHI or non-NYLACHI prejudice. The same questions hopefully would be asked of any company with sweetheart deals directly tied to a State legislature.

This theatre company's built like the Transit Authority -- chartered by the state, funded by the state, accountable to no one but the state. That's not making a living in a poor theatre market -- that's making a sinecure, since the AD's an AD-for-Life.

These are not artistic decisions being questioned: This is a shakedown crew masquerading as artists, and because we ask for so little accountability for non-charitable not-for-profit groups, they get away with it.

What part of this has anything to do with artistic license?

"It also spent $38,317 on chauffeured limousines and thousands of dollars on lavish meals, many with no discernible business purpose, the report said.

Ms. Snyder was also accused of arranging for the institute to buy the theatrical rights to “Miracle on 34th Street,” then quietly transferring them to herself and one of her sons. Each of them reaped $38,000 in royalties, according to the report.

“This is an outrageous misappropriation of public funds,” Mr. Fisch said in a statement. “A public authority is not a family business, not a family employment agency.” "

This is a almost-no-show job where the workers barely did what their charter said they should -- create theatre for underserved kids. Their crimes make it harder for *any* theatre company to get state funds without jumping through hoops and being buried under blizzards of reports. Any non-NYLACHI state legislature can point to this corruption and say, "see? Why bother?" *That's* why it matters, just as the NEA Four mattered, as a chilling effect.

Scott Walters said...

Fraud is one thing, and it should be punished. It is the leap to say that fraud is due to family ties that is problematic. Focus on the fraud.

The NYLACHI thing was a side issue. I feel it is necessary to point out that ideology whenever it arises.

I'm unclear about the NEA 4 connection...

99 said...

I see the connection...sort of. Though they were pilloried FOR their art, but they became stalking horses and easy excuses.

I see it somewhat differently, cgeye, as much as I can, without the benefit of hearing the Snyders' side of the story. There absolutely should be accountability for wrongdoing and being a theatre isn't a license for larceny. If they've done wrong, let them held accountable. BUT. I don't know that we're getting the full picture here. With the Miracle case, how do you define quietly? What did the theatre pay for the rights? How were they assigned? If Ms. Snyder and her son wrote the adaptation for the theatre, shouldn't they receive royalties? If her son or husband were the best people available for the job AND the audiences loved them, where exactly is the fraud? They were hired to make theatre for the people and they did.

Yeah, it's money stuff, but it's also artistic decisions, too. If she couldn't work with her husband and he was the best person for the job, and she makes worse art because of it, who wins?

RVCBard said...

I hadn't noticed the NYLACHI mindset on full display. How DARE an "obscure upstate theatre" get more money than anyone else in New York City. There MUST be corruption involved, because if it were on the level, they wouldn't get SQUAT.

Damn straight. Everyone knows that producing theatre outside NYLACHI only costs $100. Seriously, it's not like they need to rent a building or anything. Don't they put their shows up in barns?

And yea, who do those backwater rejects think they are taking all the money from us Serious Artists?

isaac butler said...


One of the defenses the family used for their nepotism was that they were well known artists in their field:

"Mr. Jones, Ms. Snyder’s lawyer, called the nepotism accusations “bogus, because every single family member is nationally recognized in their field. They are better at what they do than anybody else is, or at least as good. To try to make something ugly about the talent these people represent is really destructive and mean.”

That both they and the theatre they run are obscure is actually germane to the corruption complaint and is not about some perceived slight on people outside of New York City.

This story is at its core about the Republican Senate Majority leader funneling money to a corrupt, largely unaccountable "authority" in his home district that uses tissue-paper-thin excuses about art to cover up gross mismanagement. The chip on your shoulder is blinding you to that.

And to anon: I disagree with 99 in this post. There's a lot of things in that complaint that are pretty clearly wrong (using company money to pay for a lavish condo, arranging to have the company buy the rights to a work and then transferring it to your own name etc.) and I think this post accidentally glosses over that.

But the idea that he's excusing corruption is silly. I think it's a side effect of trying to use this case as a jumping off point to talk about how family operates in the theatre, and that of the charges against the company, the nepotism one might be the weakest because, well, there's a lot of nepotism (some of which is positive-- look at Rebecca Hall!) in theatre.

99 said...

Issac - I see your point and there are definitely some shady and possibly illegal/corrupt things going on here. I don't mean to gloss over them. BUT, and maybe it's my natural distrust of authority figures coming through, we're basically just getting the prosecution's side of it. A "lavish apartment" by one standard might be a perfectly normal, acceptable apartment by another. They insinuate that it was reserved for Snyder's family only, but we also see that she has a tendency to hire her family to work at her theatre. If they were using it for non-theatre business, by all means, ding them. Unethical is unethical.

You're right about my larger point: a lot of what we do might appear unethical or a bad business practice, but, for theatre, is par for the course. I'll be interested to see how this plays out.

Scott Walters said...

Isaac -- My point about the "obscure" NY theatre was not in response to the story itself, but to the commenter who made it.

cgeye said...


Isaac said it better than I could -- this company is deliberately obscure. Albany's not that far from NYC, and nothing stopped the Institute from having a bigger national footprint, especially as one of the few children's theatres with solid funding.

And, wouldn't those generous funds help the theatre gather critical acclaim? I'm not talking about the Times and the Post; I'm talking about gaining a national reputation, which theatres outside NYLACHI can afford to cultivate, if they've got that much cash to play with.

I think the point this scandal brings out is that money can't buy a critical reputation; it can start the process, but it's not sustained without quality in the work. The Institute, like most criminal enterprises, cultivated its amazingly lucrative nepotistic enterprise in relative obscurity, which is what its family liked. I refuse to engage in NYLACHI bashing when it's not relevant to the corruption investigation taking place.