John Tierney gets it just about right in yesterday’s New York Times.
Archive for June, 2005
The city’s budget foibles make today’s New York Times today, the first of what we fearlessly predict will be two times that Manoli Loupassi’s name will ever be mentioned in the Paper of Record. (The second will be when he’s arrested for paddling new councilmembers in an outdated hazing ritual.)
Armstrong, a former Martin Agency executive known for his tireless enthusiasm and occasional emotional outbursts, says he doesn’t “get the skepticism. I mean I honestly don’t get the skepticism.” —Style Weekly, June 8
Andrew writing: You know something, Brad? That might be the problem. Well, that and your inability to raise private funds, communicate coherently with the mayor or assure your boardmembers that your astronomical salary is money well spent.
But let’s concentrate on your failure to grasp what exactly all the fuss is about. People who oppose the arts center don’t do so because they hate the arts, or you personally or cute widdle puppy dogs. They oppose it because:
- You ask for public money but won’t account for it
- You make way too much money for what you’ve produced
- You won’t release the research that backs up your increasingly grand economic projections
- You write extremely weird letters to the mayor, then insist you’ve been misunderstood
- You insist your critics are full of “personal venom” and that only you know what’s best for Richmond
Oh, and your behavior is getting odder. We hear at yesterday’s board meeting, you had to be talked out of SUING Mayor Wilder for the $2 million draw you’re trying to get out of the meals-tax money you utterly failed to earn legitimately. We also hear that you stressed the need to take contol of the Landmark. Gee, seeing what a great job you’ve done with the Carpenter Center, sounds like a lock.
VAPAF needs the Landmark because one of its new PR strategies is to emphasize the arts-education component of its plan. There will be a performing arts high school, they promise, and an arts education center in the ballroom of the Landmark. Of course, seeing as how VAPAF can’t raise money to build the freaking cornerstone of the arts center, one has to wonder how much of this education jag is more Armstrong spin.
There’s a picture emerging here, and it’s not pretty. It’s of an out of touch, tin-eared executive who only hears what he wants. And if Armstrong still can’t “get” that, maybe it’s time his board looked at hiring someone who does.
Inept fund-raising. Risible public relations. Secrecy, emotional outbursts and an inability to grasp that Richmond is changing. Today’s Style Weekly evinces in gripping detail every misstep that’s lead to the performing arts center debacle. (Full disclosure: I’m Style’s television critic.)
Writer Scott Bass hammers the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation on its lack of transparency—the “tons” of research VAPAF chief Brad Armstrong claims to have is never produced, and only a severely outdated 2001 study is handed over. We’ve filed a FOIA request for VAPAF’s financial data, and we might just do one for that research as well.
From the piece:
But the key market study that estimates demand for an arts complex used figures from 2001, based on an area within a 20-mile radius of downtown. And their report concluded there was sufficient demand for a new 650-seat theater for a homeless client, not a 1,200-seat music hall.
Brad Armstrong, who was hired as president and chief executive of the foundation in 2001, says [the] concerns [of an expert in financial analysis of entertainment businessess] are unfounded. The foundation has “tons of backup pages” that include years of study by leading consultants in the industry, he says, with widespread input from various arts organizations in the Richmond area that show sufficient demand exists to support a new music hall. The foundation declined to provide
Style Weekly with consultants’ research that supports those conclusions.
The problem, Bass concludes in a piece that should easily land him a local, if not a national journalism prize, is the “all-or-nothing” attitude of the project’s backers, as well as their tin ear for a city that’s reshaping around them. For me, this sentence sums up the problem neatly:
Some say the management of the arts-center project symbolizes an outdated version of city development, one of old moneymen directing downtown’s future with good intentions, but unaccustomed to publicly accounting for business decisions.
Tremendous stuff. Elsewhere in the same issue, Virginia Living editor Garland Pollard rips the philosophy behind the arts center and all the huge projects downtown. As he eloquently puts it, “wherever the city has sought to revive an area by these 1950s redevelopment practices, it has made it worse.” (Full disclosure: Don’s VL’s music columnist. We work in tight corners here!) Too bad that message is lost on Councilman Bill Pantele, who details yet another crazy, pie-in-the-sky scheme for downtown redevelopment—one that only requires millions of dollars in public subsidies, yet more taxes on Richmond business and turning Main Street into a two-way thoroughfare. Sounds grand!
On Tuesday I filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation. My hope was to get a definitive picture of VAPAF’s financial condition. The Save Richmond legal department helped me with the language; we felt we were on strong legal ground because more than half of VAPAF’s funding comes from public sources, and VAPAF president and CEO Brad Armstrong has repeatedly asserted his plans to seek more public financing through a transient occupancy tax.
May 31, 2005
President & CEO
Virginia Performing Arts Foundation
111 Virginia Street, Suite 400
Richmond, VA 23219
Because the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation (the “Foundation”) is a public body under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, please provide me within the next five working days (by Tuesday, June 7, 2005), by fax and U.S. mail with the following items:
1. Copies of full, official statements from any and all financial institutions with which the Foundation has accounts stating the Foundation’s funds available and detailing dates and amounts of deposits and/or withdrawals for the periods ending March 31, 2005, April 30, 2005, and May 31, 2005. This is not a request for copies of statements generated or written by employees or volunteers of the Foundation itself. It is a request for copies of full, official statements from any and all financial institutions with which the Foundation has accounts. The May 31, 2005, statement(s) may, if necessary, be printed out from such institutions’ websites or requested from bank tellers or similar employees at such institutions. If, for whatever reason, the full May 31, 2005, statement(s) are not available to the Foundation despite best efforts, copies of official statement(s) such as received from a bank teller indicating funds available are requested, along with a listing produced by Foundation employees or volunteers of any deposits and/or withdrawals exceeding $50,000.00 between April 30,2005, and May 31, 2005, such listing stating for each deposit and/or withdrawal the amount, the date and the payor or payee.
2. Copies of any and all bills and/or accounts payable by the Foundation in amounts exceeding $500.00. For any bills and/or accounts payable by the Foundation for which there is no documentation from the payee, a description of the bill and/or account payable is requested stating the payee, amount payable and the date the expense was incurred.
3. Copies of full, official statements from any and all financial institutions with which the Foundation has accounts that reflect the transfer of funds to the Foundation from the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts, at any date within the last twelve months.
Even if the Foundation contends that it is not a public body under the Virginia FOIA statute, I feel that the Foundation should make these documents available to me as a result of the Foundation’s status as a charitable organization, supported principally by public funds, that has an obligation to be transparent in its activities.
I will happily cover the costs of making the copies requested above. If you need to contact me, I can be reached at [REDACTED] or [REDACTED]. My fax number is [REDACTED]. My mailing address is [REDACTED]. Thank you for your assistance with this matter.
Very truly yours,
Yesterday Brad wrote me back a very short email. It said:
As you know, the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation is not a public
body. Your demand is respectfully denied.
So the question is, if VAPAF weren’t a public body, would it provide this information? And in either case, why not? I don’t think VAPAF can argue that it would face a competitive disadvantage by disclosing its financial condition—it’s not as if there’s another group trying to raise money for a performing arts center downtown. Moreover, the foundation has proved more than willing to provide its own take on its finances to City Council; all we’re asking for is the source of those assertions.
We’re not done here.
If the Performing Arts Center is to receive the public and private support it needs, the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation’s financial particulars must be fully understood. The City Council’s addition of Councilmen Bill Pantele and Ellen Robertson to the foundation’s board of directors and executive committee should remove any concerns.—Richmond Times-Dispatch, June 2
I don’t know how it works for everyone, but when I bought my house, I had to document things I had always taken for granted. For example, I couldn’t just show my bank statement showing I had X number of dollars in my savings account; I had to show when that money went in. This is a safeguard for mortgage companies so an applicant can’t arrange for a better-off friend or family member to wire in a sum of money to make the applicant look more credit-worthy. It’s a lengthy, maddening process (I remember quite clearly running down 34th St. in Manhattan in the rain trying to get to my bank before it closed so the teller could print me out a 30-page report of every check and deposit I’d made in the preceding two years, then high-tailing it to FedEx to send it to the mortgage company.)
I’m baffled as to why a body investing millions of dollars in a venture wouldn’t expect a similar level of transparency from the party cashing its checks. That’s probably why I’m not in city government. When the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation went before City Council two weeks ago asking for an extension of its fund-raising deadline, the council didn’t ask for bank statements, outstanding bills, the terms under which all pledges were made or a record of all funds transferred in and out of the Foundation’s bank accounts.
They were quite happy with this: A spreadsheet from VAPAF.
That’s it, sad to say. That’s the due diligence your council members did. Oh sure, they met with VAPAF prez Brad Armstrong, whom I assume reassured them further that nothing was amiss.
That’s why I filed a FOIA request. Under section 2.2-3701 of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, “organizations, corporations or agencies in the Commonwealth supported wholly or principally by public funds” are subject to the reporting requirements of the act. Using VAPAF’s own numbers, $44.8 million, just shy of 75% of the money it claims to have raised so far, is from public funds.
We think that qualifies as “principally supported by public funds.” And as a part owner of those public funds—i.e., someone who owns a house in the city of Richmond—I think I’m entitled to know just where my money’s going.
Call me old-fashioned, or a raging pain in the butt, but I guess I feel that the same reporting requirements that applied to my piddling mortgage ought to hold for a group of people being granted millions of taxpayer dollars. And that’s why we’re going to pursue this FOIA claim further.
Bang! Bang! Bang! The report of rock striking rock echoes from the Times-Dispatch newsroom. Joy rings through the floor—mighty Holmberg is “composing” another column! A phalanx of assistants stands, notepads at the ready, to transcribe the beautiful beast’s coded musings.
Bang! Bang! BANGBANGBANGBANGBANG!
Only green kids fresh out of school, you know the type, never had their hands dirty, never laid bricks or walked around with cardboard stuffed down their pant legs, marvel at the apparent incongruity of this prehistoric humanoid with a prominent sagittal crest being the paper’s franchise player. Probably wear flip-flops when they get home. Time will beat the whiner out of them.
The mayor is “silly”! City council is “nimble and united”!
MacKenzie—the only one whose voice can calm the beast—wedges a raw crown roast of lamb between the bars of the beast’s cage. At one point stew beef would do the trick, but there are milestones, even for a proudly non-union man. They count themselves lucky the beast has never seen the offerings in a “fancy eatin’ place.” He’d consider such a joint beneath him, though the beast secretly relishes the prospect—how he’d scan the room with his eyes of fire, the phonies melting into puddles of clarified butter….
WAIT? How does the beast know that term?
EEE! EEE! EEE! (”CORRUPTION! CORRUPTION!”) The outside world has slightly sissified him! Penance must be self-administered!
The shrieking intensifies, and the banging stops. “No worry,” says the chief assistant, as the beast begins clubbing himself in the forehead in an attempt to cleanse his lobes. “We’ve got enough for now.” A copy editor nearby swears he briefly sees stars and birdies, cartoon-like, flying around mighty Holmberg’s head.
Purged, the beast collapses into a pile on the floor of his cell, his rocks forgotten for the moment. Truth has been told. It is all so simple. And now he must rest. Until the next time his services are required.