Before last August, when Graves met with teachers to discuss compensation issues, the last faculty meeting had been a November 2012 town hall, according to Chris Walz, a full-time faculty member since 1996. “If you’re interested in transparency and calling people together to have substantial dialogue that’s what you do,” Walz says. “But to have the years go on like that is indicative to not having that desire.”
The communication hole swallowed staff morale, which hit “rock bottom,” according to one former administrator.
All accounts during this time circle back to complaints that Graves unnecessarily divided his staff. The all-in-it-together camaraderie that drove the launch of the Lincoln Square campus nearly twenty years before was gone. What replaced it was a top-down corporate structure driven by secrecy and petty alliances. “We thought we were building something big and were willing to sacrifice for it. He undermined our very strong love for the school,” says one former administrator. Many suggested that Graves picked favorites among top administrators.
Information stopped flowing from the top. Graves pushed out long-standing staffers from the earlier regime. When the Lincoln Square campus opened, the staff took classes, attended concerts and was typically involved in activities that strengthened their commitment to the school. According to most accounts, the hires Graves picked were rarely seen outside office hours.
“It surprised me how much antagonism was there,” says one former top administrator. Program managers—staff members charged with programming according to their respective discipline—no longer felt empowered to make decisions, which sparked distrust among teachers. Making things worse was a culture that favored male staffers for promotions and respect. “Men would value the opinion of men more than they would women, where they were either discounted or ignored or given a polite acknowledgement,” says an administrator. In some cases, experienced women staffers resigned or were fired after watching men revolve into top positions. An attorney specializing in labor law told one exiled female staffer she had a solid grievance to take the school to court. She declined. “I didn’t want to be the one suing the Old Town School of Folk Music,” she says.
Graves says he has just recently learned of the grievances. In an interview, he says he never felt his relationship with the faculty and staff had “been anything but very collegial.”
“Obviously there were some cues I was missing,” Graves says. “It distresses me enormously and it obviously passed below my radar as long as I’ve been here.”
The tension was greatest among the teaching faculty, who were beginning to feel muzzled. This was particularly jarring since the Old Town School model was largely a collective one. Teachers served as the public faces of the school, and they were the ones who formed bonds with students over years.
Yet tuition increases didn’t translate to increased compensation. Teachers remained at-will employees. And stinging even more were pay freezes that Graves put in place in 2008 and 2013. Although 200 or so teachers have classes spanning the year’s six sessions, only about thirty are considered full-time. “Frank’s Faculty,” named after Hamilton, established those teachers as salaried employees, but in 2008 they reverted back to hourly workers. In order to maintain their health benefits each session, teachers have to have at least eighteen teaching hours. The new hourly structure tied their pay and health care directly to student enrollment. The result? The school’s most active teachers were now forced to exist “session by session,” says Walz. The fear of “having your insurance being taken away became something you have to think about every two months.”
“There aren’t any guarantees. The teachers know that it’s a numbers game,” says Walz. “If the teachers feel like there’s strong marketing and promotion behind us, we’d be much more willing to accept that, because we’d feel like everybody has given it their best shot. But we’re not feeling that as strongly as we did in the past.”
The compensation issue became particularly galling to faculty when they learned that Graves, while implementing budget cuts, pay freezes, layoffs, and in December, buyouts, was on track to becoming the Old Town School’s highest-ever earner.
According to the school’s financials, Graves earned $149,406 in 2008, his first full year of employment. By 2017, his salary increased nearly seventy percent to $253,554. Leslie Lenkowsky, a professor of philanthropy and public affairs at Indiana University in Bloomington, says that determining executive salaries is not an exact science. While non-profit boards dictate compensation, “they also need to assess not only what value the person brings to the organization, but also what similar organizations are paying their executive directors.”
A 2016-2017 study by the PNP Staffing Group, a recruiting firm that tracks non-profit salaries and staffing trends, reports that organizations earning between $10 million to $20 million in the greater New York City area pay their executive directors between $180,000 and $210,000 on average. With the Old Town School’s annual revenues averaging about $12 million, there is no organization that is directly comparable in the Chicago market, where non-profit salaries run lower than in New York. But there are close comparisons: Kathryn Lipuma, executive director of Writers Theater (revenues $8.4 million in 2016) earned an annual salary of $158,110 in 2016, for example.
Enduring a pay freeze while being asked to take on more work especially angered staffers earning the least. “Here’s a man standing onstage making speeches where he literally says we have to tighten our belts to people who are making minimum wage,” says Sarah Furniss, a former front desk manager. “That’s not the Old Town School I signed up for.”
So what about Graves’ background gave him value to justify an escalating salary? Or, perhaps the more important question to ask: What about that background made him an obvious lock for the job in the first place?
Before arriving in Chicago, James Willis Graves, whose childhood nickname is “Bau,” served as a big fish in a very small pond—Portland, Maine, population around 60,000. In 1987, he and wife Phyllis O’Neill co-founded Portland Performing Arts, a presenting organization that brought ethnic music to town. The organization floated around until 1997 when it moved into a small building it bought for $65,000, according to reporting by the Portland Press-Herald. Renovation cost an extra $800,000. Once finished, the capacity of the rebranded Center for Cultural Exchange was 220 seats.
Tax documents show that Graves and O’Neill were the only full-time employees. They were a good match. Jay Young, a Portland attorney who served as the center’s board president, says Graves dealt with the programming while O’Neill handled the books. “She was focused on the budgets and funding. He was freer to focus more on artistic stuff, which seemed to be his strong suit,” Young said in a telephone interview.
Graves wowed local audiences because he brought in programming from distant shores they might otherwise never hear. But the good times didn’t last because the Center could never get ahead of building costs. In December 2005, Graves and O’Neill resigned. The next year, the organization sold the building and folded. One of the chief problems, according to Young, was maintaining a mortgage while trying to fill a theater for performances by largely unknown artists. Graves “is more comfortable as a presenter. That’s clearly more his strong suit than maintaining real estate,” Young says. Ticket sales from the esoteric programming couldn’t cover costs for years. “It’s just a lot of work and you wind up spread too thin.”
According to reporting by the Portland Phoenix and by the Center’s tax documents, the organization spent more than it was earning during its final years. Between 2002 and 2004, spending increased twelve percent and the Center ran continual deficits. By 2004, the Center’s operating deficit totaled $188,390.
Graves told the Phoenix that shrinking government grants contributed to the shortfall. Speaking to Newcity, he says he left believing “the organization was in good hands and it was going to continue to thrive.”
He blamed his replacement for the Center shutting its doors: “The board hired someone else and unfortunately, they made a bad hire. It broke my heart to see it fall apart.”
Lisa DiFranza, who replaced Graves for less than a year until the Center shut its doors, told The Bollard, a local arts monthly, that “past debt accrued under the leadership” of Graves and O’Neill “contributed to the Center’s ongoing financial burden.”
After Portland, Graves and O’Neill moved to Roanoke, Virginia, where Graves headed the Jefferson Center, an organization that presents music in a former high-school auditorium. There he faced an organization with a far bigger annual budget: $1.8 million in 2006. That May, he told The Roanoke Times that the Center faced a $400,000 shortfall. He managed to shore up most of that money by end of the year.
But that job lasted fourteen months. The following March he told locals he couldn’t pass up a new opportunity in Chicago. It was, he said, “a plum job.”
It is easy to see why the Old Town School represented fruit on the vine. Graves had never shown tangible success growing an arts organization the size and scope of Old Town, had never run a school, had never managed a staff of more than a few people, had no experience overseeing a faculty in the hundreds and a student body in the thousands, had never overseen a budget of more than $2 million, had never grown an endowment, and had never worked in any of those capacities in a market as sophisticated and complex as the third largest city in the United States.
These shortcomings have been raised in recent months in an effort to examine the factors that led to the school’s chaotic state. How did Graves get into the running for the job when clearly there are arts-management professionals, in Chicago and beyond, who had longer résumés showing more positive results, or who have at least had experience that corresponds to the dynamics of running a community-based school?
Some have offered one clue: He brought his guitar.
People who were involved in the process, either on a committee that interviewed Graves or who met him during the hiring courtship, say Graves was impressive because the faculty saw their reflection in him. After all, he is a multi-instrumentalist with a master’s degree in ethnomusicology from Tufts University in Boston. He distributed copies of “Cultural Democracy,” his 2005 book published by the University of Illinois Press, and during a meet-and-greet he arrived with his guitar to jam.
The charm offensive was successful. Graves talked about growth and diversity, two issues the faculty supported. “There was a sense that he seemed to get the place in a way that we were hoping that an executive director would,” says Walz. “There was a grassroots movement amongst the teachers to get the message to the folks on the hiring committee that we liked him and that we wanted him there.”
But several women interviewed for this article say they sensed immediately Graves was a wrong fit.
Some observed that during a meet-and-greet with staff, Graves didn’t seem interested in asking questions, but brought the focus to himself. That turned off some of the women, who wrote letters to the board saying they recommended Gail Kalver, another candidate, who seemed far more qualified. By 2007, Kalver had been executive director of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago for twenty-three years, and before that served as an associate manager at the Ravinia Festival for seven years. She, too, was a musician, with a master’s degree from Roosevelt University.
“She had her chops running a large non-profit organization that was also a world-renowned dance company, had connections within the Chicago community, and knew how to fundraise,” says one former administrator. But within discussions among Frank’s Faculty, it became clear that none of that mattered for one reason: “She was a woman and the guitar culture at the Old Town School is a boy’s club. So no one was as impressed as they were with Bau Graves whipping out the guitar.”
There was slight awareness of his history in Portland, but it amounted to “a quiet whispering of what happened there,” says one former administrator. Walz admitted that instead of looking at Graves’ qualification as an arts administrator, they chose to focus solely on “the man and what he was saying and how he was relating to the school and all of us.”
“I don’t know if any of us were thinking we should go on the Internet and see what we could find,” he said. “We also trusted the folks who were in the decision-making roles to make the right decision.”
What members of Frank’s Faculty did not anticipate when they endorsed Graves was how much he was interested in disconnecting the school from its past, which didn’t just mean pruning and replacing staff. Instead, following ideas he articulated in his book, Graves became interested in experimenting with cultural programming in marginalized neighborhoods—a noble ambition, that to him meant working with people different than those he sees every day.
“We have to recruit a new core of teaching artists who live in their communities, understand what their aesthetic interests are and cater to those desires,” he said. “And we have to make those program costs free or very low cost so there are few barriers for people to be involved.”
In Portland, Graves had created programs for the large African refugee community there. Between 2001 and 2003, the events—from a fashion show to a festival to a play—tried to bring dialogue to groups that were often in conflict with one another by making them key stakeholders in the activities themselves. While it successfully introduced African culture to the majority-white locals, the events largely failed because the Center found that the African groups mainly sustained those disagreements in the United States and didn’t want to associate with one another, onstage or off. “Bau had hoped to have a civil exchange between spokespersons of different factions, but by accident he may have created more friction than reducing friction,” says Jay Young, the board president. “I don’t fault him for trying to do it. It doesn’t always work.”
In Chicago, Graves resurrected those ideas in Englewood, a South Side neighborhood besieged by gun violence that became a focus of Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Graves sought to establish relationships with partners on the ground to create programming that people in the neighborhood would find valuable.
“If a piece of the legacy I leave at Old Town School is continuing to be active in seeking out and working with constituencies that are not a bunch of white guys playing the banjo, but African-Americans and Asian-Americans—different communities that we’re just never going to serve in Lincoln Square,” he said, “then I’m proud of having made us do that.”
Former administrators say that when Graves uses phrases like “white guys playing the banjo” or throws around highly charged phrases like “systemic racism” to describe a school composed of a teaching faculty that is largely liberal and committed to diversity issues, he may not understand how his words ring as offensive to the people he was hired to lead.
“How can you talk about healing a community with the arts when you have such a disdain for the community you are a part of?” one recently departed administrator asks.
But Graves also seems to dismiss another obvious reality: that the Old Town School has already been doing the work he describes for many years.
Since its first year of operation, the Old Town School made outreach to marginalized communities in Chicago a core part of its mission. Benefit concerts and fund drives were common at its first two locations. For students who couldn’t buy their own instruments, the school gave them away or rented them at bargain prices. The school also conducted classes inside Chicago schools and hospitals. Co-founder Win Stracke created “Project Outreach” 1969, a scholarship program for schoolchildren from nearby housing projects. The school also gave free lessons to children in Uptown, a neighborhood stricken by poverty and populated substantially by Native Americans and Appalachian transplants. In 1965, co-founder Dawn Greening said the purpose was to make the music of their home region a point of pride: “We should let people know that the culture they bring to the city is truly worthwhile, and encourage them to recognize their own traditions.”
The sentiment is one that has powered programs that continue to today. The Old Town School serves 4,000 children in about twenty-six CPS and other schools like Rush Day School, which serves students with special needs, throughout the year and throughout the city, including Englewood. The program has been running for decades.
Yet those interviewed who worked closely with the Old Town School’s outreach efforts, say that Graves was laser-focused only on “Music Moves,” the Englewood program designed much like his African outreach in Portland—to encourage dialogue through cultural programming that originates from within the community rather than projected from the outside. Graves admits that he approaches “Music Moves” as an ethnomusicologist: working with researchers from UIC, the program created a “simple emotional evaluation protocol” that children fill out so the school can “gauge what kind of impact [the programming has] on the emotional lives of the participants.” So far, the program has included hip-hop poetry events, African drumming classes and in September 2018 presented “Quantum Englewood,” a ninety-minute concert by Englewood-based composer Ernest Dawkins and Rahul Sharma.
Those close to outreach efforts say that Graves poured all his energy into a program that he started at the expense of marginalizing the ones that existed before his arrival. In remarks to the board last May, Graves championed “Music Moves” as “important and groundbreaking work supported by several foundations and philanthropists seeking for innovative solutions to urban challenges and strife. It holds a great deal of promise for our school community as it continues to expand.”
The CPS program was mentioned once. “Our CPS outreach programs are running annual deficits… fiscal responsibility demands that these facets of our operation either adapt themselves to change within existing frames, substantially shift focus to eliminate continuing deficit spending, or suspend operations.”
This incensed those who interpreted Graves’ comments as, yet again, denigrating another hallmark of the school. “Over the last couple of years, the citywide cultural and urban planning movements have focused on Englewood,” one says. “Bau was personally driven and also wanted to capitalize on that momentum. He really isn’t interested in running a folk school anymore.”
They add that, in the non-profit world, outreach programs are expected to run deficits. His intention in using that word, some claim, is to gain support for programming that started under him, which they worry could mean redirecting more than $130,000 in grant money—the amount the Polk Bros. Foundation pays every two years to support the CPS program—to “Music Moves.”
In terms of children served, the disparity between the initiatives is stark.
Graves says that since “Music Moves” started three years ago, it has primarily served between eighty and a hundred kids over the school year, and 300 children once a week in the summer months. “That’s a lot smaller than the students we are dealing with at CPS,” he admits. “But the program is just three years old and it’s continuing to expand.” By comparison, the CPS program reaches 4,000 schoolchildren a year. For any other non-profit, that would be considered a success.
“But it isn’t Bau Graves’ invention,” an insider says. “School kids are not as sexy as guns.”
Mark Guarino covers Chicago for the Washington Post. For six years he was the Midwest bureau chief for The Christian Science Monitor. His forthcoming book on the University of Chicago Press is a history of country and folk music in Chicago which includes a chapter on the early days of the Old Town School of Folk Music.