On June 9th, 2022, the Victory Gardens Playwrights’ Ensemble and Resident Directors sent the following letter via email to the Victory Gardens Board of Directors:
To the Victory Gardens Board of Directors:
On June 8th 2022, Ken-Matt Martin notified us that he is giving serious consideration to his resignation as the Artistic Director of Victory Gardens Theater. We, the undersigned, are writing to notify you of our intent to resign concurrently as members of the Victory Gardens Playwrights Ensemble and as Resident Directors should this occur. Although Ken-Matt was unable to share all of the details surrounding the specific incident that has led him to consider resigning, we understand that it involves the board recently shutting him and Acting Managing Director Roxanna Conner out of the decision on a major financial transaction to which they both strenuously objected. We have sufficient collective experience in the theater and non-profit sectors to know that such behavior on the board’s part is, to put it generously, highly irregular. We are deeply troubled by this board’s lack of leadership, and even more troubled by its pattern of blatant and ongoing disrespect towards Roxanna and Ken-Matt; former board member and experienced non-profit leader <name redacted> expressed to one of us that she shares similar concerns over the board’s treatment of Roxanna and Ken-Matt during a conversation following her formal resignation last week.
On April 4th, Playwrights Ensemble members isaac gómez and Stacey Rose and Resident Directors Jess McLeod and Lili-Anne Brown attended a board meeting to discuss the ongoing search for a new Executive Director. Although we were initially under the impression that we were invited to the meeting as artistic stakeholders in the theater, we were repeatedly dismissed, interrupted and talked over by (Executive Committee member) <name redacted> when we asked questions about the role of anti-racist values and bias awareness and training in the search process. We then learned that our invitation to this board meeting was, in fact, accidental; the board did not want us to be present at a meeting that would have immeasurable implications regarding the future of the institution, despite having expressed time and time again that our presence and feedback at these meetings is welcomed and necessary as major artistic stakeholders, and in keeping with the board’s commitment to transparency and inclusivity.
At that same meeting, Lili-Anne shared an incident during which a Victory Gardens staff member overheard <redacted> tell another member of the theater’s staff that they could ignore Ken-Matt and didn’t have to listen to anything that he said. Such behavior from a board member would be inappropriate in any organization; in the context of an organization with the stated mission of making inclusive theater that generates meaningful civic change, it has been especially painful to witness how this board has consistently undermined one of only three Black men to hold an artistic leadership position in a major American theater. Despite the “steadfast commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion” that the Victory Gardens board made in 2020, it is evident that little has shifted in your practices or in the culture that you foster.
We all care deeply about Victory Gardens, and we do not take this action lightly. For some of us, being part of an upcoming season would have been the first major professional full-length production of our careers. Some of us resign without professional representation. For all of us, this action represents the loss of a cherished artistic home in an industry that rarely makes long-term investments in artists — especially playwrights and directors; regardless, we cannot tacitly condone the current board’s actions with our silence and inaction. For us to do so would be to fail in our responsibility to this institution as artistic stakeholders, so speak up we must.
Our intent in writing to you this morning is not for this letter to go public. We sincerely hope that the events of 2020 do not repeat themselves, and we genuinely wish for the aforementioned issues to be resolved internally; however, the same lack of transparency and accountability informed by toxic behavior from this board that led the previous Playwrights Ensemble to resign in 2020 has now led to the loss of a dedicated board member; two experienced and well-respected Black leaders who have worked tirelessly to help this theater to live up to its stated values of integrity, diversity, innovation and excellence; and every single one of Victory Gardens’ most recent cohort of playwrights and resident artists. This situation is not tenable for Victory Gardens, and we have serious concerns about the theater’s ongoing viability if another artistic leadership transition takes place so soon after bringing Ken-Matt into the organization.
In expressing our frustration, disappointment and anger, we know that we speak not just for ourselves but for our colleagues and partners in Chicago and across the country. On a national level, our industry has historically looked to Victory Gardens as a model for how non-for-profit institutions create change not through their words, but with their actions. May we continue to live up to our reputation.
We look forward to your response.
On June 12th, 2022, we received the following response from a member of the Board’s Executive Committee:
Isaac, Marisa, Keelay, Lili-Anne, Jess and Stacey — on behalf of the board, I want to let you know we received your letter and will discuss it.
We received no further response from the Board.
On June 16th, 2022, the Victory Gardens staff sent the following letter to the Board:
Dear Board Members,
This is a letter collaboratively written by the entire remaining team of full-time staff, excluding the Artistic Director and Acting Managing Director, of which there are now only nine members.
We are writing, to express our deepest worry and convey our strongest pleas of urgency to put Marissa Lynn Ford in place as Executive Director immediately. It has been over two years since Victory Gardens has had an Executive Director. We appreciate the thoroughness and feedback built into the search process; but as we have waited eagerly for the search to conclude, we have been told week after week that negotiations are still underway.
In the meantime, our ability to put plans for next season in place–or to support our current projects–is being severely hampered by the lack of a permanent Executive Director. We are unable to move forward with the long-term hiring, contracting, and strategic planning that we can only undertake responsively with a full leadership team in place, and in the meantime, we are struggling to manage a workload designed for a full staff with the employees who remain.
All of us, especially Ken-Matt and Roxanna, have taken on multiple jobs for the last several months, and the load has not been sustainable. Since the final all-staff interview of ED candidates four months ago, on February 25th, 2022, we have lost six staff members: Director of Finance, Director of Marketing and Communication, Interim Director of Development, Business Manager, Community/Education Associate, and Facilities Manager. Since returning from the shutdown, we have not replaced our Group Sales Manager, Community Engagement Manager, Director of Production, Artistic Programs Manager/Associate Producer, and Institutional Giving Manager, among others. A staff that was formerly 22 full-time employees, with several interns, is now 11.
As we continue to wait for the Executive Director role to be filled, we lose more and more staff members, leaving those of us who remain to take on even more responsibilities–making the workload less and less sustainable and prompting further burnouts and resignations. Even before the pandemic, VG’s staff struggled to support the massive programming load, which was unusually busy for a staff of our size, and had a local reputation for staff burnout. We’re greatly encouraged by the approval of a pay equity plan and by a willingness to reconsider our institutional capacity; but without a permanent leadership team in place to rebuild the staff, an increase in pay will not make up for the mounting growth of responsibilities that now confronts us.
We write to you because we believe in this theater, in its mission, and in its potential–but we’re quickly burning out while we wait on the foundation that will let us rebuild. Every decision is waiting on Marissa Lynn Ford to be in place. Please help us keep Victory Gardens going.
Shortly after the staff sent this letter, we learned that Marissa Lynn Ford ended contract negotiations with the Board.
On June 20th, both isaac gómez and Stacey Rose sent emails to the Board following up on our initial email sent on June 9th. The Board did not respond to either of their emails.
Yesterday, on July 5th, we learned that Ken-Matt Martin is currently “on leave” as Artistic Director of Victory Gardens Theater and that Acting Managing Director Roxanna Conner is resigning, effective at the end of July. We also learned that the Board has entered into a major real estate transaction to purchase the building adjacent to Victory Gardens’ Biograph Theater.
We did not receive official notice of Ken-Matt’s leave or Roxanna’s departure from the Board, but rather, learned through the grapevine of the informal theater networks to which we are all connected — a fact that adds final insult to injury coming from the board of an institution in which we have all invested a great deal.
To date, we have received no direct communication from the Board except for the one-line email on June 12th stating that they “received [our] letter and will discuss it.”
Furthermore, despite access to staff meetings, Board meetings, and Board committee meetings being guaranteed in writing by Victory Gardens in the agreements that we signed at the beginning of our terms as resident artists, we have been consistently shut out of meetings to discuss the issues outlined in this statement, such as the aforementioned real estate transaction and the failed hiring of Marissa Lynn Ford.
Per our original letter dated June 9th, we, like Victory Gardens’ last cohort of resident artists, are resigning effective immediately.
After the events of 2020, we were eager to partner with Ken-Matt and the theater’s wonderful staff in rebuilding Victory Gardens to live up to its full potential and fully realize its vision as a progressive, change-making institution. It is clear to us now that the Board’s ongoing pattern of toxic behavior, and their stubborn refusal to shift that pattern, has brought Victory Gardens to a point beyond redemption. That is a tragedy for many reasons, not the least of which that Victory Gardens has produced many incredible and transformative pieces of theater including its current production, CULLUD WATAH, which is slated to close on July 17 and represents the work of an amazing group of majority-Black, women and femme artists who deserve to have their art seen and supported regardless of the mistakes made by this Board.
We fear for the future of this theater that we once called home; what artist or administrator aligned with Victory Gardens’s stated values of integrity and diversity would choose to begin a professional relationship with a theater whose governing leadership exhibits anything but? What funders or donors will continue to invest in an organization whose board demonstrates a consistent inability to get their house in order, despite the best efforts of the leaders that they hire and then continually undermine? And, finally, who of substance and experience would agree to be the next leader of Victory Gardens when the Board’s pattern of disrespect, disregard and abuse towards the leaders that it brings onboard is so very clear? These factors, in combination with Victory Gardens’ recent real estate acquisition and the soon-to-be-complete leadership vacuum at the Executive and Senior levels, casts serious doubt on the current Board’s intention or ability to keep the theater open.
There is a saying that a fish rots from the head down. In the case of Victory Gardens Theater, the head of the fish is a Board of Directors that has rotted this institution — body and soul. If this institution can be saved — and that is a big “if” — the only path forward is to carve out the decay and start anew.
To that end, we call for the immediate resignation of the Victory Gardens’ Board of Directors.
Lili-Anne Brown, Resident Director
Marisa Carr, Ensemble Playwright
Keelay Gipson, Ensemble Playwright
isaac gómez, Ensemble Playwright
Jess McLeod, Resident Director
Stacey Rose, Ensemble Playwright