Lindsey McCormick described her reaction to a March 1 email from New Spire Arts as “surprised” and “panicked.” After a year of teaching belly dancing classes for the nonprofit organization, McCormick was informed — three days before the start of the spring session — that New Spire was changing the format of its education program. Spring classes were canceled, and the education building at 115 E. Church St. would no longer be available.
Bess Kaye, the artistic director of the local youth acting company Riotous Youth, had a similar reaction when she received an identical email the same day. The company had staged productions and rehearsals at New Spire for a year before they were suddenly told the building was unavailable. A week before their first scheduled spring rehearsal, Kaye was left scrambling to find a new home for the program.
“My initial response was disappointment and panic,” Kaye said, echoing McCormick. “I had no notice. My initial thought was that there was no way we’d be able to find a space by our start date.”
The news was also a surprise to former staffers at New Spire who had a similar moment of panic on Feb. 27. That Wednesday, several confirmed, full-time staff members were called in one by one to meet with board chair Gordon Cooley. Cooley informed all but two of them that their positions had been or would be terminated, according to multiple sources in the organization. Weeks earlier, former executive director Daniel Singh had also been released by the board, sources said.
Cooley did not return three phone calls requesting comment.
The sudden changes — weeks after the splashy debut of New Spire Stages on West Patrick Street — left both former staff and the Frederick arts community in serious doubt over the future of a nonprofit that once seemed like an answer to their prayers.
“They were like a beacon from heaven,” McCormick said. “Their mission statement was everything that we needed in Frederick. So to have it end like this — it’s just disheartening.”
Performing arts education has been listed as a mission of New Spire Arts since the organization was refounded, in 2016, from the remnants of an earlier project announced by the Ausherman Family Foundation. That first project — dubbed “15 Squared” — was planned as a new theater space built from the former Cultural Arts Center of Frederick County at 15 W. Patrick St. But when the foundation rebranded as New Spire Arts, then-board member Marvin Ausherman announced ambitious plans to bridge the performance arts space with the Church Street education building to create a symbiotic new arts organization in Frederick.
According to a statement from the New Spire board, the nonprofit still plans to deliver arts classes through “a strategic partnership with the YMCA of Frederick County.” The statement did not provide details on how those classes would be planned, or delivered, given that New Spire Arts no longer has an executive director or a supporting staff.
Board secretary Matt Livelsberger disputed allegations, repeated by five people formerly involved with New Spire Arts, that the organization was discontinuing its education program. But he also said it was premature to discuss the logistics of New Spire classes and whether they would be offered through New Spire or the YMCA.
“I’m not positive that level of detail has been worked out just yet,” Livelsberger said. “But it’s not exactly true to say we’d be eliminating our education program. We’re not going to hold classes and run that infrastructure with the 115 East Church Street location. But we’re not completely abandoning what we were doing.”
Even if classes do continue through the YMCA, the future of the Church Street education building is still unclear. New Spire Arts previously rented the space from a trust established by the Ausherman Family Foundation, but the YMCA is discussing the possibility of assuming management of the building, according to YMCA CEO and New Spire vice chair Chris Colville. Because no formal decision has been reached, she said, the two organizations had not decided whether the YMCA would also assume operating costs or be expected to pay rent.
Livelsberger also linked the new partnership with the YMCA to the decision to eliminate staff positions at New Spire Arts. He described eliminated positions, including the marketing coordinator, volunteer coordinator, and receptionist, as “duplicates” to jobs “already handled by the Y’s infrastructure.” But for some former New Spire staff members — who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity based on fears of retaliation from their former employer — the partnership between the two organizations presents a conflict of interest. Colville’s position on the board of directors for New Spire Arts coupled with the YMCA receiving grant funding from the Ausherman Family Foundation creates the conflict, several sources said.
“No one was notified or consulted that the Y would be taking over programming for New Spire,” one said. “It’s like deferring money from the artists to the YMCA.”
According to Colville and Livelsberger, Colville recused herself from board conversations and decisions about the new partnership.