Arundel arts center head ousted by board

Half of the staff members resign after his departure

March 31, 2004|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Six years ago, Wayne Shipley looked at a dilapidated junior-senior high school in a strip mall-strewn pocket of north Anne Arundel County and saw a great spot to build a theater.

Others questioned whether anyone would come to the culturally barren stretch of roadway in Brooklyn Park for musicals and yoga classes, saying that the county should tear down the old school and build a new one.

But the longtime drama teacher worked with the county to convert the building into the 58,000-square-foot Chesapeake Arts Center. When times were tight, according to several people, he declined to cash his paycheck as the center's executive director.

Last month, however, the center's 21-member board of directors ousted Shipley from his $48,000-a-year job, prompting at least one board member and half the organization's staff to resign in protest.

In the short term, the center's turmoil put a crimp in at least one production, as rehearsals for The Vagina Monologues moved to the home of a former staff member. But the dismissal also raised questions about the future of the north county center.

"I wish I understood it," said Steve Cohen, a board member who lent $125,000 worth of musical equipment to the center and is considering resigning. "I'm still rather bewildered. They lost some very, very key people, people who were very ardent supporters of the center, and that's not going to stop."

Robert Nichols, who is filling in as executive director and was the board's chairman during the ouster, would say only that there was no evidence of any wrongdoing and that firing Shipley was "one of the hardest things I've ever had to do in my life."

Nichols referred questions about the decision to the new chairman, Walter Robuck, who declined to comment.

Shipley, a retired teacher, joined the center in 1997, when Del. Joan Cadden enlisted him to turn the building into a theater.

Cadden, a Brooklyn Park Democrat, helped persuade the county and state to come up with $35 million and turn the complex into a new middle school attached to an arts center, senior center and county offices. Reached last night, Cadden would not comment on Shipley's ouster.

By many accounts, Shipley worked tirelessly to bring sharp dramas to the 904-seat signature theatre and the 110-seat studio theatre.

He also introduced dance and yoga classes; partnered with schools to encourage arts education; and produced local playwrights' work.

But some board members, including Nichols, had begun to seek a greater focus on visual arts and artist-in-residence programs. Shipley argued that art programs could sap funding, while filling theater seats created revenue.

The board had long discussed hiring a director with fiscal management experience -- a move Shipley said he supported. That need became even more important with the scarcity of public arts funding.

Shipley, who said he received a positive review last year, told Nichols he planned to retire in the summer but wanted to wrap up several projects and resolve differences first.

"I'm an old Anne Arundel County farm boy, and where I come from, we sit across the table and talk, and get things worked out," said Shipley, whose family has owned land in the county since the 1600s.

George Sherry, a Crownsville business consultant who had served on the board for less than a year, resigned over the way Shipley was forced out.

"I thought the only way to make a statement of how strongly I felt was to take the action that I took," Sherry said.

Center education coordinator Star Lucas and technical director David Garman, both Shipley's former students, also resigned, and development coordinator Charlene Servey, who had worked with Shipley since 1999, left after the ouster.

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