First, the links, since they are a bit difficult to put inline:
- Houston Press: The Weird Math of the Houston Arts Scene
- Houston Press: Fresh Arts in Transition in Houston
- Houston Press: Fresh Arts Fired Jenni Rebecca Stephenson, States Court Documents
Those who follow the Houston arts scene are probably aware of the abrupt departure of Jenni Rebecca Stephenson, its long-time executive director (dating back to 2010 January as executive director of Spacetaker, the organization Fresh Arts merged with, and apparently the nominal survivor of the merger even though the Fresh Arts brand is the one everyone sees). The timing was a bit suspicious as Jenni had appeared on a radio program to KUHF-FM where she openly discussed the inequity in how public funding for the arts is distributed. Namely, that three large organizations, the Miller Theatre Advisory Board, the Museum District Association, and the Theatre District Association receive a set percentage of funds from the hotel occupancy tax each year, without having to be reviewed, and that smaller organizations (like Fresh Arts, and we would assume per-merger Spacetaker as well) have to go through a grant process and fight for their money every year.
Jenni spoke out against an injustice. Given her position, it could even be argued she would not be doing her job if she remained silent. If it seems weird that the episode of the show Jenni was on aired on 2015 October 20, and within hours of the program airing she was no longer employed by Fresh Arts, that may be because it is. To take us even further into the Twilight Zone (quoting the second article above):
“If [Stephenson] just left on her own, it doesn’t make sense that they can’t talk about it,” says the artist advisory board member
(period missing in original)
The real fish stinking up the room is that according to Fresh Arts, Jenni resigned, which based on what little I know about Jenni didn’t make any sense at all, until just now (the night of Wednesday, 2016 February 17, stretching into the following morning).
Tonight I learned of Jenni’s lawsuit against Brian McMahan, president of Fresh Arts and vice president of Frost Bank, Spacetaker (d.b.a. Fresh Arts), and Frost Bank. I have read the complaint as filed with the court, and if true, what Mr. McMahan has done to Jenni is the most disgraceful thing I have seen in the Houston arts community in the time I have been following it. In summary, Jenni claims not only was she fired based on a bogus “audit” conducted by someone at Frost Bank, but that Mr. McMahan moved the Fresh Arts bank accounts to Frost Bank from Amegy Bank in a rather flagrant conflict of interest, and that she was also openly and falsely accused of stealing money from Fresh Arts. Not surprisingly, this has completely ruined Jenni’s reputation, and according to the court documents:
[The Defendants’] conduct was so outrageous in character and so extreme in degree as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency and to be regarded as atrocious, and uttlerly intolerable in a civilized community.
I applaud Jenni’s decision to speak out about what she did, when she did. I don’t know Jenni that well, but the impression she has made on me is that of an honest, upstanding person. I am happy she has chosen to stand up for her rights, and take legal action against those that have wronged her. I am sad that one of the defendants happens to be Fresh Arts.
(Sidenote: Under most circumstances, I consider it to be in at least moderately bad taste, and often in at least extremely bad taste, to sue a non-profit. However, this is an exception, as it is an employment-related dispute, which just happens to involve a non-profit.)
And in turn, I’m also a bit sad about the entire situation. Great people like David Brown (founded Spacetaker), Mandy Graessle, Ian Garrett (former executive directors for Fresh Arts pre-merger), and many others too numerous to try to name helped build what is today Fresh Arts, and I am sad for them as well because a lot of the goodwill they have helped build over the years has been ruined by the actions of Mr. McMahan and people like him.
I’m a little sad as well for the employees of Frost Bank, who as one of the results of this dispute, either way, will probably be a bit less proud of their jobs. Now, I have never banked with Frost Bank (their target market seems to be people with much higher income levels than mine), and up until now I’ve never had reason to doubt them as an arts sponsor.
Finally, I am sad for the Houston arts community as a whole, including the artists who depend on the services of Fresh Arts and the art fans in Houston. Regardless of the resolution of this lawsuit, they are probably going to lose something as a result of it at some point.
(It’s noteworthy that I am not the least bit sad for Mr. McMahan and, barring evidence that I should be, probably won’t be for the foreseeable future if ever.)
Finally, based on what I read in the complaint, it would not surprise me in the least to see Fresh Arts and Frost Bank in turn personally suing Mr. McMahan and those acting in concert with him. This happens often in civil suits where one or more defendants have a counterclaim against other defendants or even a third party not named in the original suit.