Last week, Bess Kaye, the artistic director of Riotous Youth — a local Shakespeare company for young actors — received a surprising email from the nonprofit New Spire Arts, announcing the sudden cancellation of its spring classes.
News of the cancellations and the firing of full-time staff members spread quickly, sparking questions about the future of the nonprofit.
The decision seemed surprising for a nascent organization that explicitly listed arts education and programming in its mission statement. It also startled a community of performers that had formed around the roughly three-year-old organization.
A News-Post investigation revealed details of an arts nonprofit with rapidly changing strategic directions, struggles with fundraising, and a precedent of setting lofty goals with few strategies to meet them.
For about a year, everything seemed copacetic at New Spire Arts.
The fledgling nonprofit — officially formed by the Ausherman Family Foundation in 2016 — was formally introduced to Frederick with an announcement by developer Marvin Ausherman at the final Artomatic exhibit at 115 E. Church St. Ausherman Properties had recently purchased the building, and rumors were circulating, according to previous reporting in The Frederick News-Post, that the space was being considered for a brand-new performing arts studio.
In a keynote address at the start of the month-long event, Ausherman laid out plans for an ambitious new arts organization that would link the E. Church St. property with another Ausherman-owned building at 15 W. Patrick St. That space — the former Cultural Arts Center of Frederick County — was acquired by the developer in 2013. The same year, Ausherman had announced another arts venture, called “15 Squared,” that would transform the historic building into a new theater space.
For three years, the space stood empty, waiting to be renovated. And when Ausherman made his announcement at Artomatic, the vision seemed even bigger than before. Not only would the W. Patrick St. space be transformed into a new venue, the building at E. Church St. would be rehabilitated as a performing arts education center. If all went well, the Ausherman Family Foundation would eventually help to finance the renovation of the entire 24,530 square-foot building for classes and performances. From the ashes of “15 Squared” rose New Spire Arts, a splashy new nonprofit that promised to breathe new energy into the local arts scene.
“They were like a beacon from heaven,” said Lindsey McCormick, a former instructor at New Spire Arts, in an interview last week. “Their mission statement was everything that we needed in Frederick.”
Her hopes for the nonprofit made it all the more jarring when, on March 1, New Spire Arts suddenly announced the cancellation of its spring classes just three days before the start of the new session. After a year of teaching belly dancing at 115 E. Church St., McCormick received an email stating that the building would no longer be available.
Two days earlier, on Feb. 27, full-time staff were called in one by one to meet with board chair Gordon Cooley. As The Frederick News-Post reported last week, all but two employees were informed that their positions had been or would be terminated.
In a letter to the editor published Saturday in response to the News-Post’s reporting, director Leigh Adams of the Ausherman Family Foundation objected to the term “widespread firings” used in the headline of the original article. Only one part-time and two full-time positions were eliminated, she wrote. In a Friday interview, however, Adams said she was unable to comment on the staffing changes.
“We are not involved in the operations of that organization, so we would not be able to speak to anything that has to do with personnel,” she said.
According to multiple former staffers at New Spire Arts, a total of five people were fired, including executive director Daniel Singh. Of the seven positions formerly listed on the New Spire Arts website, only three remain, including general manager Nadege Noel and facilities manager Rob Amarosa. The third position — listed as the arts integration specialist — will be eliminated as soon as New Spire Arts concludes its remaining winter and outreach programming, according to several sources.
Sources also confirmed that Singh was fired before his colleagues, sometime around the grand opening of New Spire Stages on Jan. 19. Staff were not informed of the news, however, until several weeks afterward.
“I was told that he was no longer available,” one said. “Basically from January to March, I was told to respect his privacy.”
The News-Post also tried to reach Singh at his office on two different dates in February. Noel said Singh was “on leave.”
Former New Spire staffers agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity based on fears of retaliation from their former employer. Multiple sources with knowledge of the internal changes at New Spire confirmed that staff were asked to sign nondisclosure agreements as a condition of receiving severance payments.
So ... what happened?
According to a statement released last week by the New Spire Board of Directors, the nonprofit is in the process of forming a “strategic partnership with the YMCA of Frederick County” to deliver arts education. The statement did not provide details on how those classes would be planned, or delivered, given that New Spire no longer has an executive director or a supporting staff.
Board secretary Matt Livelsberger suggested that the YMCA might take over some of the classes previously offered by New Spire Arts. But in a separate interview with YMCA CEO Chris Colville — who also sits on the New Spire board of directors as vice chair — she said there were no plans for her organization to replicate New Spire’s programming.
“Not right now, no,” she confirmed. “We have some summer camps that were developed with New Spire last fall. But I think as far as the classes go, they’ve kind of been suspended.”
What is clear is that the decision to transfer education to the YMCA — whether or not classes remain the same — was largely responsible for the subsequent choice to fire staff members. In an interview last week, Livelsberger described the eliminated positions as “duplicates” to jobs “already handled by the Y’s infrastructure.” Board chair Gordon Cooley disputed claims that New Spire Arts was turning away from education, but also blamed the programming changes for the terminations.
“We decided we would discontinue our current education program,” Cooley said. “And once we did that, we had no need for the services of the people affected.”
Cooley also declined to comment on the specific circumstances of Singh’s departure or why staff were told he was no longer available. But, like many of his colleagues, Singh was concerned over the board’s plans to transfer education to the YMCA.
According to several sources within New Spire Arts, the move was seen as a conflict of interest based on Colville’s dual roles as the CEO of the YMCA and the vice chair on the New Spire board. Both organizations receive funding from the Ausherman Family Foundation. The YMCA is actually one of the philanthropy’s largest beneficiaries. According to a 2016 tax return from GuideStar, the Ausherman Family Foundation gave the YMCA more than $445,000 in 2016. The Frederick Union Rescue Mission — the philanthropy’s next largest beneficiary — received about $175,000 the same year.
The YMCA is also currently exploring the possibility of taking over the East Church Street space, according to Adams and Cooley.
Both Colville and Livelsberger said that the CEO recused herself from board conversations and decisions about the new partnership. But for some former staff members, the optics of the move seemed questionable at best.
“You’re talking about a nearly $1.5 million building that the Y might get to take over,” one said.
“I think we just always questioned, like, ‘How is this benefitting New Spire Arts?’” another echoed. “The classes were supposed to be the part that brings us money.”
Plenty of bills, not a lot of fundraising
Funding — and fundraising — were another set of issues facing New Spire Arts since the beginning. When the nonprofit was first announced in the spring of 2016, it was funded solely through a catalyzing grant from the Ausherman Family Foundation, according to Adams. From January 2017 to June of 2018, the philanthropic organization contributed $462,000 for New Spire operating expenses, including staff salaries, marketing, and classes according to Adams.
The foundation also spent a total of $134,070 for consulting work and a strategic plan from AMS Planning and Research, a Connecticut-based advising firm for the arts and entertainment industries. The News-Post first requested a copy of the plan in January before the opening of New Spire Stages at 15 W. Patrick St. In an email, Adams responded that she could not find the original copy of the plan. A later request for the plan, on March 7, never received a response.
According to sources familiar with the details, though, the plan also listed fundraising as an immediate priority for New Spire. Even before the groundbreaking of the Stages space in January 2018, the nonprofit needed to raise supplemental funding for operations and renovations, said Peter Couchman, the director of community benefit projects for the Ausherman Family Foundation. At the groundbreaking, a total figure of $700,000 was cited as the amount needed to fully cover costs for the nonprofit.
“We approached that very vigorously from the end of 2017 on through 2018 at the capital campaign project while 15 W. Patrick St. — Stages — was being renovated,” Couchman said. But according to New Spire’s most recently available 990 — a public tax form that nonprofits are required to file with the Internal Revenue Service — no fundraising revenue had been listed as recently as fiscal year 2018.
“No fundraising income outside of the catalyzing grant from [the Ausherman Family Foundation] happened in those early years,” Adams clarified by email. She, Couchman, Cooley, and Warner all stated that the first year and a half, at least, was mainly focused on developing a strategic direction for the nonprofit.
For staff, though, the lack of fundraising — and a perceived emphasis from the board on creating self-sustaining programming within New Spire’s first two years of existence — made it seem as if they were being “set up to fail” (a phrase repeated by every background source interviewed for this article). The New Spire board never hired a director of development to handle fundraising, despite it being listed as a priority in the strategic plan. Cooley and Warner said that the board went through the hiring process on two separate occasions, but never found a suitable candidate.
For staff, it seemed as though the lofty aspirations set for New Spire Arts also contributed to the nonprofit’s financial problems. Many emphasized that the organization was responsible for two historic properties, both of which required extensive renovations. At one point, Cooley confirmed, the board requested that the Ausherman Family Foundation shift funding originally slated for New Spire’s 2021 budget to the fall of 2018, in order for the Stages space to be completed in time for its planned opening in January this year.
The mission of the organization also seemed broad and ever-changing, staff said. When New Spire first began, it was planned as a producing house that would stage its own shows. Elizabeth Lucas, a film and stage director from New York City, was hired as the nonprofit’s first artistic director.
That mission changed fairly quickly after the board realized the full scope of such an endeavor, Livelsberger said. New Spire was re-envisioned as a presenting house — one that would host outside acts within the planned theater space. Lucas left the organization soon afterwards, and was replaced by Daniel Singh in December of 2017.
Construction on New Spire Stages officially began a month later. With only one usable space, staff said they were pushed to build the education program quickly and rent out the East Church Street building as much as possible. That task became more difficult, many added, given the fact that the East Church Street space also required extensive renovations. Only the first floor of the building was open for use. The space still wasn’t compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which sets accessibility requirements for public buildings.
“Essentially, we’re given this massive building and told to fill it,” one source said. “But we weren’t given the time to build a following. So, you have this brand-new organization that’s trying to build an education program while running a capital campaign for a theater at the same time. Instead of starting small and expanding, we’re starting huge and trying to immediately meet that capacity.”
Challenges in education, and a renewed focus on the theater
Cooley and Warner both acknowledged the difficulties in fundraising, even with financial contributions from the Ausherman Family Foundation (in total, the organization has committed just over $5.2 million to New Spire Arts, including the purchase, upkeep, and improvement of the West Patrick Street building, according to figures provided by Adams in a Jan. 10 email).
That’s a large part of why both men objected to the News-Post’s initial story on the changes at New Spire. “You should get more facts before you can be critical,” Warner said. Both agreed that the decision to transfer education to the YMCA was made out of a sense of fiduciary responsibility to the community. According to Warner, New Spire only had 12 students enrolled in a total of nine classes this spring. With such low enrollment numbers, it seemed impossible that the nonprofit’s education programming would ever become self-sustainable. Rather than wait for enrollment to improve — and run the risk that it wouldn’t — Cooley said the board made the decision to focus primarily on New Spire Stages.
Former staff members confirmed that spring enrollment numbers were low when the board decided to cancel the education program. But they also stated that registration was increasing overall, especially over the previous two seasons. Most classes were sold out in the summer of 2018, they said. There were paid registrations for most of New Spire’s winter programs the same year. That’s an accomplishment, they added, given that staff previously offered free registrations just to fill class space.
Cooley could not cite specific enrollment numbers, but said he was under the impression that registrations had remained stagnant. The practice of offering free enrollment to students unable to pay class fees also cut into the profitability of New Spire’s retail education program, he said.
Both he and Warner agreed that the main focus should be on the board’s renewed commitment to New Spire Stages, a “state of the art” performance space that just celebrated a successful grand opening, Warner said.
“Our focus is on that black box theater,” he added. “And I don’t really understand why that’s not your focus, as well.”
According to former New Spire staffers, though, the Stages space has its own set of issues. Even on its opening weekend, staff were forced to cancel the third matinee performance — scheduled for Monday, Jan. 21 — based on low ticket sales.
Cooley and Warner also confirmed that the building had opened in January without a soundboard or risers. Six separate sources confirmed that the Stages space still doesn’t have its soundboard or theater platforms. When local musician Lorenzo Nichols used the space for a concert earlier in February, a contract technician provided the sound equipment for the show, staff said.
The building was also constructed without a sprung floor, a special type of flooring that absorbs shocks and reduces the risk of injury for performers. Without that amenity, it’s difficult to stage dance or theater performances in the space, sources said, unless troupes bring in their own portable flooring.
They also questioned who would be responsible for booking and recruiting performances without an executive director — and how those performances would be held without a theater staff. New Spire never had full-time ushers or box office attendants, but the nonprofit also no longer has a volunteer coordinator. Without the position, it’s unclear who will enlist and assign those roles.
Cooley and Warner said that the current staffing at New Spire is sufficient for the organization’s needs. The board is currently searching for a new executive director, they added, and is open to the possibility of filling new staff positions as the nonprofit expands.
Several former staffers also stated that the theater would be dark for the month of March. Cooley and Warner objected to those statements, but did not point to any specific acts booked at New Spire Stages this month. The online calendar lists one event on March 1 that appears to have been rescheduled for April 28. No other events are listed. Neither Cooley, Warner, or Livelsberger named specific acts they hoped to book in the future.
“Again, neither Gordon or I are theater people,” Warner said. “We still need time to understand the community.”
Why it matters
At a fundamental level, the last-minute decision to cancel spring classes left instructors and teaching artists at New Spire in the lurch. McCormick had spent months looking for an affordable space to hold belly dancing classes before New Spire officially opened the East Church Street building in 2017. The space felt like a godsend for her and other “homeless artists,” McCormick said, who had ideas for arts programming in Frederick but no place to stage them. It helped that New Spire seemed committed to paying its instructors a living wage. McCormick said she was paid $60 an hour as a teaching artist, and no longer had to worry about paying support staff or rental fees for privately owned studios.
When New Spire canceled her class, McCormick had to scramble to find a new rehearsal space. She eventually coordinated with Dublin Roasters to hold classes in the coffeeshop after hours. Bess Kaye, another teaching instructor at New Spire, had a similar experience when she learned classes were cancelled, just eight days before the first spring rehearsal for her children’s Shakespeare company, Riotous Youth. The news was especially devastating given that Kaye had just dissolved the company’s LLC.
“I dissolved the LLC because New Spire was handling insurance, registration, and artist compensation,” she wrote in an email to a parent. “I am literally back at square one.”
Beyond broader concerns over the potential conflict of interest between New Spire Arts and the YMCA, former staff members regretted the loss of unique arts classes that seemed unlikely to be renewed. The YMCA offers basic dance classes, but no other organization in Frederick offered such a broad slate of educational opportunities, they said. Some of the nonprofit’s former classes taught podcasting, movie makeup, hip-hop production, and theater catered to the deaf community.
Even if the YMCA wanted to take over New Spire’s programming, sources added, the organization seemed to lack the necessary arts infrastructure.
“No one is criticizing the Y, but it’s fundamentally a recreational organization,” one said. “New Spire was supposed to be more. There was so much potential. If it’s just going to be a Y annex, you have to wonder why Ausherman bought the building in the first place.”
For artists, there’s also the question of New Spire Stages and whether it will become what many described as a much-needed local performance venue. Over the past two years, four new theater companies have started in Frederick, a dramatic shift that many linked to construction of the Stages venue.
“Before New Spire, there was really no space that you could rent affordably,” said Christine Mosere, the founder of the Endangered Species Theatre Project and a former education consultant for New Spire Arts. The company staged a production of “Much Ado About Nothing” at the space in February, and Mosere hoped the venue would become a resource for emerging new performance arts groups.
Multiple sources also stated that New Spire’s affordable rental rates are actually standard for the Frederick area, if not higher. Three different sources with connections to the nonprofit cited rental rates at $800 for a six-hour block on the weekends and $500 for weekday spots, with a 20 percent discount for nonprofit organizations.
Other theaters in Frederick charge lower rates for their spaces. According to Wendell Poindexter, the arts center director for Frederick Community College, the school charges $350 to rent the Jack B. Kussmaul Theater for a five-hour block on Monday through Wednesday for events with admission. The rate rises to $460 on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday before 5 p.m., and $515 for Saturday after 5 p.m. — all for events with admission charges. On Sunday, the most expensive day to rent, the fee rises to $780. At the Maryland Ensemble Theatre, rental rates for the Main Stage start at $300 for a four-hour block, according to managing director Kathryn Vicere.
The current lack of local programming at the Stages space isn’t an encouraging sign, added Ash Cheshire, a Frederick musician and co-founder of the inclusive arts collective, She/They. Boundless, another new theater group, already decided to postpone a planned production of “Spring Awakening” at New Spire Stages until the space is equipped with risers and a sound system. The production still isn’t listed on the nonprofit’s calendar, and there are currently only two local performances — both by The Frederick Chorale — listed over the next five months.
The decision to fire Daniel Singh was also troubling to some local artists, added Jillian MacMaster, another co-founder of She/They.
“He was the first person I’ve known to express interest in underrepresented artists in Frederick at an institutional level,” she said. “Under Daniel, New Spire hosted events like our queer open-mic night and an arts exhibit for LGBTQ youth. You just don’t see things like that very often in our community.”