When Graves interviewed for his job, he talked about the importance of diversity within the school’s ranks. “Everybody agreed with that,” says Walz.
Achieving those goals has been more of a challenge. Internal documents and public statements by Graves reveal a genuine concern that the faculty is older and mostly white. But how those concerns were articulated, and plans to right perceived wrongs, not only contribute to the discord within school ranks, but have the potential to put the school in legal jeopardy.
An internal document from 2017 outlines future goals and stresses that the school “requires younger teachers to remain competitive.” Ways to groom younger teachers mostly involve edging older ones out. “Aggressive hiring of new, younger faculty to teach all the new curriculum… and to replace retiring teachers” is one solution, while a “careful and conscious assignment of our very best, most charismatic teachers” for introductory classes is another. A third idea involves “across the board faculty evaluations that can help education managers to make informed” class assignments.
Graves told an audience in Michigan that he was recently woke to disparities of color within major arts organizations in Chicago. He credits joining Enrich Chicago, an organization that aims to make the boards and staffs of local organizations more diverse.
“I looked at my organization and it’s embarrassing that we are in this city that is so extraordinarily diverse and cosmopolitan, and yet we’re pretty much made up of white folks,” he said. “One of the problems at Old Town School is that people get to work there and they like it and so they stay. And they stay and they stay,” he said, according to a recording posted online by C3—an organization that describes itself as “West Michigan’s inclusive spiritual connection” located in Grand Haven, where Graves was a guest speaker in July.
“So every time a position does open up… I’ve always had this agonizing decision of, ‘Well, do I give this job to this person who has done great work for fifteen years at Old Town School and really deserves the promotion? Or do I find a candidate from the Latin-American or African-American community to come in and fill that slot?’
“For the first few years I did agonize over those decisions,” he continued. “But since I’ve been in Enrich… I have not agonized over those decisions. I said, ‘Well, we’re living in a situation where there is systemic racism. And my organization is part of that systemic racism. And the only way we’ll get over it is to deliberately take steps to give away some of the power we hold, and that means every time there is an opportunity to bring in a person of color onto our staff, onto our board, onto our teaching faculty, that’s what I’m going to do.’”
His one success, he said, is the creation of the new position of deputy director and in April awarding it to Rashida Phillips, a former director of education at the Chicago Humanities Festival, who is black. Graves said in creating the position he told the board of directors: “I’m not going to hire another white guy.” (The school declined to reveal the salary of the new position.)
Staffers say Graves’ blunt language around race made them uncomfortable, not only because the context is unnecessarily antagonistic, but because they worry the school will get sued. “He flat-out said in a meeting he was going to hire a person of color. I kept thinking, ‘Don’t announce it because it’s technically illegal!’ We couldn’t believe he said it out loud,” says a current administrator.
According to another administrator, Graves “publicly said several times… that, because of his commitment to equity, he would only consider candidates of color for that position. Stating openly you are selecting a leader because of their race feels weird, even though as a person with progressive thoughts I absolutely feel there should be more people of color in every organization. But he seemed more concerned about what it looked like than what it actually meant.”
Chicago attorney Michael Persoon, whose practice specializes in employment and labor law, confirmed that Graves’ comments involving age and race would be considered illegal according to code established by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
“What he said was incredibly foolish, because it’s direct evidence of intentional race discrimination,” he said. “The other thing that is insulting in the statement is that it shows a gross misunderstanding of how you change your organizational culture and how you go about making a meaningful commitment to diversity. He didn’t talk about affirming steps to identify and seeking out qualified minority candidates. Even when he’s trying to show his commitment to diversity, he comes across as insulting.”
In an interview, Graves strikes a softer tone. He says the Enrich experience directed him to the necessity “of stepping out very deliberately” to hire minorities. Yet among the roughly dozen staffers Graves directly hired since 2007, only Phillips and education director Kim Davis are minorities. “It feels like an excruciating, slow process,” he says.
If the Old Town School of Folk Music is a song, we are now at the bridge. Whether or not the school can regain its former harmony depends on what happens next.
Everything that transpired over the last decade reached a boiling point in late October, with the announcement that the school was selling Armitage. How the school chose to break the news, through a brief Facebook post, once again echoed the communication and transparency failures of its past. The school did not provide a feasibility study to show it had done its homework nor any kind of plan that outlined a path forward.
“For no one to manage that message better—and then to put out a call to ask for volunteers to resign? They are making a situation much worse,” says Colleen Miller.
The Armitage announcement was a shock to teachers, who said they were neither given advance warning nor specifics about what that means for the school or their jobs. Internally, the board chose to keep the Armitage sale a secret. Even the timing felt cruel: the announcement came two weeks after the school held a party, filled with music and singing, to celebrate the location’s fiftieth anniversary.
More than sixteen-thousand people signed an online petition demanding the school keep the Armitage building open, as well as take multiple actions including hiring administrators “who understand how to operate a non-profit business in the twenty-first century.” An organization, Save Old Town School, emerged from the petition and now actively serves as an advocacy group for both students and faculty to press for change.
“I’ll admit [the reaction] was more than we had anticipated,” says Kish Khemani, the board president who works as a management consultant. “As fiduciaries we want the administration to close deficits. It’s up to the administration on how to close them.”
If the Old Town School does move forward with the Armitage sale, it could be making a blunder far worse than bad messaging, says Peggy Asseo, a former Old Town School board member who is the director of planning and major gifts at the Rotary Foundation in Evanston. The negative publicity threatens fundraising, namely from baby boomers, the last generation left with thick pocketbooks, who also happen to be at a stage in their life where they are determining legacy giving.
“It’s very obvious that [the school] didn’t do their homework in terms of talking to their constituency,” she says. “If they had, they would have perhaps realized that what they were doing was putting at risk the one asset that really ties them to a potential donor base.”
Asseo, who oversees large gift campaigns for Rotary, says an endowment campaign is “admirable and a good direction to go,” but selling Armitage immediately disconnects the school from those donors who have established the closest bonds with the school. “Selling a core asset that by all logic would be the cornerstone of a fundraising campaign to help build an endowment is an odd way to go about it. As a fundraising professional, I can’t figure out where this is coming from. It doesn’t make sense.”
Because Armitage is located within a landmarked historic district, it cannot be demolished, but everything except its exterior façade can be manipulated, says Vince Michael, a historic preservationist who served as one of the city’s expert witnesses in determining the building’s landmarked status. According to Michael, selling Armitage would also turn off millennials who represent a generation that is “more interested in authenticity of place,” akin to the dive for designer distilleries. Because of its long and colorful history, Armitage is poised to serve those trends, which is why many organizations save or repurpose historic assets to confirm their heritage.
“When you sell off your cultural patrimony to save your bottom line, what are you saving?” Michael asks. “Then it’s just money, but you’ve lost a place that provides identity based on the past and inspiration based on the future.”
In past years, Lincoln Park mother Becca Richards enrolled her kids in classes while donating generously. That will stop should the school move forward with shuttering Armitage, she says. “They let the community know without giving any information. It’s still not clear about why or if there could be other options.”
In January, the teachers voted overwhelmingly in favor of forming a union with the IFT. The union has been officially certified by the National Labor Relations Board and will soon begin collective bargaining toward a contract with the school. The union grew from the Old Town Teachers Organization (OTTO), a collective that formed in November 2017 to address compensation. By March, the school agreed to participate in a task force comprised of three administrators, three board members, and six teachers that held a series of meetings through August. In none of those meetings did the sale of Armitage ever come up. Lindsay Weinberg, a teaching artist at the school, calls the secrecy “a complete betrayal.”
“We’d been really operating in good faith,” Weinberg says. “We’d been really surprised with the positive response we’d gotten from board and administration and their offers to work with us were very encouraging. Now it feels totally severed. The trust has been breached. And all of those promises feel hollow.”
Graves defends never mentioning Armitage because it wasn’t on the agenda: “At their request, the task force was restricted to compensation issues.” He characterized even the necessity of the task force as “kind of foolish,” because had the faculty talked with him directly, he says, he would have explained that the school was not in violation of federal labor law. “It was too bad they wouldn’t come and talk to me, because if they had I could have told them as a 501(c)(3), we get audited every year and our auditors are legally bound to inform us of any violations we might have in regard to compensation.”
Khemani takes a more conciliatory tone. Besides slowing down the Armitage sale until March, he wants working groups comprising faculty, administrators, board members and students “to bring ideas together to solve problems as constructively as possible.” The groups will address enrollment, communication and alternatives, if any, to selling the Armitage building.
“We completely understand the feelings of the faculty and we regret how they found out [about the Armitage sale] and how it hit them,” he says. “We also see the way through it is through direct dialogue, and that’s what we’re hopeful for and have started. Maybe I’m overly optimistic but I see this as a moment we come out stronger.”
With the Armitage sale still on the table, the faculty without a union contract and the school nearing a million-dollar deficit by the end of last summer, this year may be the school’s most turbulent yet. A problematic succession process may make things worse.
Graves, sixty-six, announced in July the creation of a new position, deputy director, intending that the person who filled it would be his successor. “Retirement is looming at some point. I’d like to hire a deputy director and work with them and training them so they know all the ins and outs and let them know where all the bodies are buried. And I’m not going to hire another white guy. This organization has had five executive directors and they were all white men and we’re not going to have that,” he says he told the board.
“We did a search and we found a fabulously talented African-American woman who is now my deputy director and I look forward to turning the school over to her whenever it happens,” he says of Phillips.
That would make the next executive director the first in the Old Town School’s sixty-one-year history who did not come from a traditional nationwide search, but was appointed to the role behind closed doors.
She will also be the first top administrator not vetted by the same faculty and student body the school is now promising greater transparency.
When notified of Graves’ remarks, Walz says “that’s not anything we discussed. We expect if we were to have a new executive director we would have a national search. So if there is some sort of succession plan, this is the absolute first I’ve heard of it.”
As expected, Graves finally retired in January, and the school quickly named Phillips as interim director.
Phillips was not available at press time in early February, because she was on a MacArthur Foundation-funded trip to Johannesburg, South Africa—a “Music Moves” initiative involving Englewood musicians.
In mid-February, the school named board member Jim Newcomb as CEO, a temporary position. Phillips was named to the new role of senior director, community ventures, which puts her in charge of all outreach programs. A national search to name an executive director continues, but a spokesperson says the board “is still undecided on the timeline.” The spokesperson added that the board is “taking this process very seriously… to establish what we need for the next phase of leadership.”
The next phase will determine whether or not the Old Town School of Folk Music will reconnect with the values that made it endure for decades, long past momentary trends in music-making and technology. What has transpired over the last few years will likely go down as a cautionary lesson for any arts organization fortunate enough to survive this long. Time will tell if the Old Town School will be one of those organizations listening to its own story.
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.