Shea’s New Board Members: an analysis
Shea’s announced eight new board members this week. These folks replace and augment the five who departed during the turmoil over complaints about former Shea’s president Michael Murphy’s reportedly abusive leadership style and his subsequent firing.
The new board members are:
Marco Cercone, partner at the Rupp Basse Pfalzgraf Cunningham law firm
Jessica Croce, Buffalo developer whose company owns the Curtiss Hotel, the Buffalo Chophouse, and downtown parking operations
Andrew Davis, chief operating officer of Erie County Medical Center
David Fabian, a certified public accountant at the Bonadio Group
Thomas Lang, attorney at Magavern Magavern & Grimm
Yuki Numata Resnick, founder and executive director of Buffalo String Works
Maryam Saleemi, internist affiliated with ECMC
Donald Ware, former chief financial officer of EduKids
While everyone on the list appears be accomplished and successful, it is impossible to avoid noticing that, collectively, the new names do not seem as prominent as those of the trustees they replace.
The trustees who resigned were:
Holly Beecher, a partner at Phillips Lytle law firm
Donald Fishback, the recently retired chief financial officer at Moog and a co-chair of Shea’s 2022 Gala event featuring Renée Elise Goldsberry
Ken Jaskier, Shea's immediate past board president and chief financial officer at Frey Electric, which sponsors the 710 Theatre season
Rich McCarthy, head of the retail banking division at M&T Bank, which sponsors the M&T Broadway Series
Sujata Yalamanchili, Shea's vice chairperson and a partner at Hodgson Russ law firm
And so, the board lost representatives from Buffalo’s two largest law firms, replacing them with two other lawyers, and also lost representatives from three of the region’s most philanthropic corporations, M&T, Frey Electric, and Moog, each of which has lent its name to major Shea’s initiatives.
Jessica Croce is the widow of popular and influential developer Mark Croce, and likely has some connection to and affinity for Shea’s, which recently purchased a building on Pearl Street from the Croce estate. The Buffalo Chop House and the Curtiss Hotel were both “hospitality sponsors” of the Shea’s 2022 Gala.
Yuki Numata Resnick, who seems to know everyone in town, has forged new paths into fulfilling the neglected cultural needs of Buffalo’s “refugee, immigrant, and historically marginalized youth,” and is an intriguing addition.
At a cursory glance, the path guiding these board members to Shea’s seems to lead back to Jonathan A. Dandes, corporate vice-president of Rich Products Corporation.
Dandes was chair of the ECMC Corporation Board of Directors from 2017-2021 and is also the immediate past chair of the ECMC Foundation, which might explain two trustees from ECMC. I note it is somewhat unusual for representatives from one large not-for-profit to serve on the board of another, much less to have two from a single not-for-profit corporation.
Dandes also serves as chair of the Ralph C. Wilson Explore & More Children’s Museum with Nancy Ware, who is its vice president. Nancy Ware is the spouse of Donald Ware, who now returns to the Shea’s board, having served previously.
On the plus side, it is possible that a board of chums will allow Shea’s to gain traction as it forges past recent hostilities and into the future with a new CEO.
On the downside, a board of chums can become a board of cronies, prone to yes-speak, and vulnerable to patting each other’s backs as they happily skip down the road to perdition. The board’s recent (and current) handling of staff complaints against Michael Murphy’s leadership suggests that a world of “yes” would not be a good idea.
At first, the board was fractured about how to handle hostilities at Shea’s; then after board members began to resign, the balance of power seemed to shift, and the board tilted in the direction of full unbridled support of Murphy. Then, a few weeks later, in a 180-degree flip flop, the same board fired Murphy. (The total reversal has never been explained).
This is a board deeply in need of self-criticism and reform, an issue that takes on greater importance and urgency in view of the probability that Shea’s will seek to hire a person from the top ranks of the American theater. Such a person will want to feel confident that the board is functional and beneficial, an idea that recent events put in doubt.
It is possible that this new roster of good citizens was selected, specifically, to be pliable and more passive than their predecessors, but it is also possible that they will rise to the challenge of this moment. At worst, this is a packing of the court. At best, this is a good faith effort to turn to a new page quickly.
I am disappointed not to see M&T, Frey Electric, Hodgson Russ, or Phillips Lytle represented among the new board members. It might be worth considering that donor confidence is an important issue in the not-for-profit world. In addition to representing important local corporations that had been very generous to Shea’s, the individuals who left the board during a period of fracture and disarray were remarkably devoted to Shea’s and its mission. It might be beneficial to find a way to reconnect their passion and experience to the organization as it heals from its recent past and moves into its next chapter. Different viewpoints can challenge us to be better.
The abrupt repopulation of the board offers little to encourage the staff, who Dandes apparently believed (if I am interpreting an August 25th text message submitted in the Murphy lawsuit correctly), was a “gutless” group that got “obnoxious” when they were performing for themselves, and who were dominated by 4 or 5 “assholes” who did not reflect the true sentiments of the broader group.
In his defense, when he wrote those words, Dandes was trying to buck up an embattled administrator in a private text message that was never intended for public consumption. Still, the staff now has a blunt and sobering indication of how their concerns were perceived by Dandes, who is well known in the theater community and was, before this affair, trusted far more than Shea’s board chair, Randy Best.
It is also true that this board has not proven to be a group that responds well to criticism. Let’s hope new board members can temper that attitude.
There is hope in the possibility that a new president might have a more inclusive, collaborative, and encouraging leadership style, and will develop a vision for Shea’s 710 and Shea’s Smith Theatre. If this happens, the staff may never have to think about the board of trustees again. Indeed, it would seem to be a mark against Murphy, a supposedly experienced and skilled manager, that any turmoil reached the board’s ears at all. A CEO is supposed to manage an efficient, effective, and harmonious work environment. Under Murphy, Shea’s lost numerous employees and endured a mutiny.
When a new president is hired, it would be helpful if the evaluation of that person (a key responsibility of any board of trustees) included soliciting feedback – and yes, anonymous feedback in a shop with a history of retaliation – from employees lower down the food chain.
It would also be helpful if the new president had performance outcomes that included some expectations for Shea’s 710, a gem that has been used mostly as an outpost for more programming directed at the white upper middle class; and for Shea’s Smith Theatre, a horrid little box of a theater, with exactly 20 good seats from which you can see charming little shows, and a whole bunch of seats from which you can either not see, or not hear, or both.
In the last gasps of his leadership, Murphy did, at long last, produce a first-rate production of “Once on this Island” at Shea’s 710 with an all-black cast. The years leading up to this moment, however, included the missteps of “All for One Productions,” and the use of the space for miscellaneous rentals. Word of a new collaboration to produce “The Color Purple” with Ujima Theatre Company didn’t originate as a Shea’s project at all; that was the inspiration of Second Generation Theatre. The innovative collaborations of diverse casts of Broadway performers, local professionals, and local high school students was the inspiration of Drew Fornarola and his Starring Buffalo group.
To see Dandes describe the previous leaderships as “visionary” (as he did in an interview with Mark Sommer of the Buffalo News) can be explained and understood as mere puffery in an effort to promote Shea’s to the press. To see the lackluster use of Shea’s 710 and the Smith called “visionary” and claimed as proof of wrongful dismissal in Murphy’s complaint, makes me wonder if the board of trustees articulated any real performance expectations to the former president at all, beyond keeping Shea’s in black ink.
For the record, the booking of “Hamilton,” and the windfall from the consequent rise in Shea’s subscriptions, occurred before Michael Murphy was hired.
Murphy’s legal complaint of breach of contract; discrimination on the basis of being gay; retaliation on the basis of participation in the protected activity of reporting and opposing discrimination and harassment; violation of New York Labor Law; and defamation opens numerous issues and invites numerous questions about governance at Shea’s.
To my casual and unexpert eye, his best shot seems to be “breach of contract,” especially if his performance goals were vague and his evaluations were consistently gushing, as his renewal suggests. But then came the meltdown.
The complaint of “discrimination on the basis of being gay” does not seem to be getting much buy-in within the community, which, unlike Murphy, does not seem to consider words like “toxic,” “temperamental,” “chaotic,” “volatile,” prone to “fits,” and “privileged” to be dog whistle terms for “bitchy gay man.” These same words have been used to describe Donald Trump. The term for a gay man who is “bitchy” would be “bitchy.” Or mincing. Or precious. Or shrill and hysterical. Then again, we have not seen the context.
The use of dog whistle terms is, reportedly, the reason for Murphy’s “reporting and opposing discrimination and harassment.” If the language was never really coded to demean Murphy for being gay, then the complaint would seem to be frivolous and manipulative (again, no dog whistle intended or implied – I would have called similar actions by a straight man “frivolous” and “manipulative”), which puts an entirely different tone on the allegation of “retaliation.” Moreover, the timeline makes it appear that Murphy consulted a lawyer no later than mid-summer. Filing a complaint is a well-known pre-emptive maneuver, often performed on the advice of counsel.
In addition, the assertion that “a straight man who leads an organization would be characterized as ‘tough’ or ‘firm,’” is only true if that straight man is also perceived to be “fair.” Otherwise, that man might be called a “bully” or an “asshole,” terms that were also used, alternately during the fracas, to describe Murphy and members of the board. The staff, specifically, did not think that Murphy was fair in his treatment of his staff, excluding him from the realm of the “tough” or “firm.” The word, “privileged” was also used to describe members of the board, and did not seem to connote sexual orientation.
It is possible that the current board is not interested to solicit the financial support of M&T, or Frey Electric, or Moog. It is possible that the far reach and expertise of law firms like Phillips Lytle and Hodgson Russ are meaningless to them. If so, they do, indeed, live in a rarified world and have, perhaps, been believing their own press and hearing the word “yes,” far too often.