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Studio Arena: A New Neufeld

It is intriguing to see events at Studio Arena Theatre given a spin far different from the oft told tale of mismanagement and gradual decline into an irretrievable abyss of mediocrity and financial ruin that has become all too familiar in Buffalo. In an article published in the Dayton Daily News, in Dayton, Ohio, on Sunday, July 12, staff reporter Terry Morris gives a simplified summary of events that almost seems to imply that the final implosion of Studio Arena Theatre was actually caused by the departure of executive director Ken Neufeld.

“He was executive director from 1999 to 2006,” writes Morris. “The company ran a deficit most of those years. Less than 18 months after Neufeld left, Studio Arena folded in bankruptcy.”

Neufeld was recently named president and CEO of the Victoria Theatre Association and Arts Center Foundation in Dayton. The Victoria presents national tours, and the Dayton press seem poised to buff him up in a way that would be unfamiliar here, stressing his wit and easygoing management style. Neufeld was perceived here to be a sweet if nerdy guy, who reacted to, rather than anticipated, crises. For all that, I will always be grateful that despite Studio Arena’s financial woes, he kept the great Blossom Cohan—an employee of the theater for more than 40 years—on the payroll and fully health insured until the day she died.

The Dayton article includes diplomatic quotations from former Studio Arena artistic directors Kathleen Gaffney and Gavin Cameron-Webb. Gaffney kindly suggests that Neufeld’s departure from Studio Arena was a sort of merciful act, “a mutual decision” sparing Neufeld the pain of having to institute layoffs: “The kind of draconian measures needed were more easily carried out by someone who didn’t have the history Ken did there.”

Indeed, in a classic case of post hoc ergo propter hoc, the article puts the blame for the demise of Studio Arena Theatre entirely outside the control of its inflexible management, inept board of directors, and remote obliviousness to the local arts scene. “Meanwhile,” the Dayton Daily News continues, “Buffalo’s Broadway presenter was doing well and smaller professional companies were proliferating, but the city’s industrial base was disappearing, its population was plummeting and the stock market was diving.”

Assigning responsibility for the Studio Arena’s demise entirely to external economic factors is a dubious analysis. The only effort the institution made to address those factors was to dilute its artistic offerings.

Neufeld’s prolonged period of forced unemployment subsequent to his dismissal is romantically described in the Dayton paper as if it were a well-deserved vacation. “After he left Studio Arena, Neufeld said he ‘took a break. I went on a sabbatical, did some consulting, gardening and even worked as a wine consultant for eight months. I re-charged. I had gone almost 30 years without a break.’”

Nowhere does the article mention the inability to rein in costs, an unwillingness to alter the management model, the pillaging of the Studio Arena endowment and waylaying of targeted donations to cover accounts payable, the robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul sort of financing that eroded the theater’s credibility with local government and philanthropic foundations and paved the way to the bankruptcy court.

Such omissions are fascinating as it appears that the Victoria faces financial challenges of its own. According to the Dayton Daily News, “Newly released results for the Broadway Series, which were not made public under previous management, show ticket sales have declined for six years in a row. The combined operation posted a $2.3 million deficit in the year ending June 30, 2008.” Twenty-five jobs were cut from the Victoria operation previous to Neufeld’s arrival, including 14 full-time positions.

While Neufeld can be said to have experience operating within a dismal financial climate, he cannot be said to have experience in pulling a theater out of the mire. In fact, the opposite is true. He oversaw the death throes of a resident theater that was once one of the most vital and important in the nation.

On the plus side for the Victoria Theatre Association and Arts Center Foundation, subscriptions there are enjoying a substantial boost, inspired by the theater’s announcement of Wicked and Phantom of the Opera for the upcoming season. This could be a bubble destined to burst when less familiar titles are announced in future seasons, but the Victoria has other sources of revenue beyond ticket sales and fundraising. These include a parking garage, a restaurant and catering operation, a ticket center, and rental performance spaces. Moreover, the Victoria is a presenting house, more aligned with Shea’s Performing Arts Center than with a producing theater like Studio Arena, relieving Neufeld of many of the headaches he endured in Buffalo. We can only wish Ken and the city of Dayton well.

Meanwhile, the fate of the Studio Arena building is up in the air as the bankruptcy court oversees the details of the institution’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy and entertains proposals from the major stakeholders.