Times are hard at the Gaillard

Photo by Andy Brack

 The staff at Charleston Gaillard Center, the city’s top performing arts venue, is tired and diminished. The organization that runs it is scrambling to fill vacancies at all levels thanks to the pandemic’s reset of work trends and a leadership change last year.

The iconic arts and entertainment center in downtown Charleston is also trying to untangle a confusing, complex fundraising relationship between two nonprofit groups that support it. But through it all, officials said, the Gaillard is plowing ahead.

“People are exhausted, and I am working to improve the situation,” said Lissa Frenkel, who was hired last spring as president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit Gaillard Management Corporation (GMC) that runs the city-owned center. The Gaillard contains not only a performance hall but exhibition space and city administrative offices. “I am doing everything I can. My board has been super supportive to do as much as we can, but I am not going to represent that it is all solved yet,” she added.

According to the Gaillard’s website, 13 of its 45 full- and part-time jobs are vacant, from associate director of institutional relations and house/venue manager to production entrance supervisor and event supervisor. Not listed is the position of chief financial officer. The former one recently left to take another job.

Many of the center’s employees, Frenkel said, have been re-evaluating work in the wake of a pandemic that has wage earners nationwide opting for fewer hours and jobs that permit at-home work. But others who have left — and wouldn’t talk on the record for fear of repercussions in parochial Charleston — have expressed frustration privately with management changes and what they say is a tense workplace that has developed in recent months.

“I hope I am creating a good environment for my staff,” Frenkel said. “We are struggling. We don’t have enough staff right now. Everywhere it is like this.”

Frenkel took over the Gaillard after the previous CEO Stephen Bedard, who was hired in 2016, retired in 2021. 

“He created a great foundation for the institution, but he is different than who I am,” Frenkel said. “With new leadership, people leave.” 

Bedard declined to discuss the Gaillard’s staffing challenges.

Frenkel said the Gaillard pays overtime and offers flexible schedules, and she hopes to fill the positions soon. Most of the Gaillard vacancies, she noted, are in the operation departments that staff late-night and weekend events. “A number of [employees] have taken another look at how they want to set their work-life balance so we have seen a lot of transition in our departments that support the events,” she said.

To fix the staffing problem, the GMC has hired the Chicago-based DHR International and a local employment consultant.

According to City of Charleston spokes-man Jack O’Toole, the city is not concerned at this point that the staff shortages will interfere with the Gaillard’s ability to run an efficient operation. “GMC has managed the Gaillard successfully for the better part of a decade now,” he said in an email.

Untangling fundraising

In addition to the nonprofit Gaillard Management Corporation is another nonprofit, The Martha and John M. Rivers Performance Hall Foundation. Previously known as the Gaillard Performance Hall Foundation, the Rivers Foundation was originally set up to partially fund the
$142 million demolition of the old Gaillard Municipal Auditorium and construction of the new Charleston Gaillard Center. After that work was completed in 2015, a separate fundraising office for the Gaillard was opened and run by the GMC. 

Yet despite the GMC’s own fundraising arm, Frenkel said the Rivers Foundation has continued to raise money and is now on target to raise $1 million for the Gaillard before the current fiscal year ends in June. The goal for next year is higher. But this fundraising structure created confusion among the Gaillard’s supporters. So in addition to her other work with the center, Frenkel has been tasked with restructuring fundraising.  

According to Frenkel and Renee Anderson, CEO and president of the Rivers Foundation, this confusing situation goes back to the period after 2012 when the city got serious about creating a new Gaillard Center. 

Back then, board members of the Rivers Foundation that oversaw the Gaillard project included then-Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. and billionaire philanthropist Martha Rivers Ingram, who contributed significantly to the Gaillard renovation. Anderson said despite the fact that the old Gaillard Municipal Auditorium was a larger venue (2,700 seats versus today’s 1,800), the old auditorium had no management board or staff to help secure events and was difficult to fill. To avoid this scenario with the new Gaillard Center, the Rivers Foundation, the mayor’s office and the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (CACVB) selected
a 17-member GMC board of directors. The city and Rivers Foundation then split the $142 million cost for renovating the Gaillard. Today, the city still owes $11.2 million of its share, O’Toole said. The Rivers Foundation has met its obligation, Anderson said.

After Frenkel arrived in Charleston last year, she selected Anderson, who was already working as the Rivers Foundation’s CEO to become the GMC’s chief advancement officer — a position that includes fundraising. Anderson receives no salary for either position.  

Anderson, who also serves on the GMC board and is on its executive committee, was also involved with Frenkel’s hiring.

“I am not really on the [GMC] staff,” Anderson said with a slight giggle. “It is confusing. I am in a role that reports to [Frenkel], and I am unpaid. There isn’t anyone else to fill this role right now to be the chief advancement officer to work with the past donors and to engage with the patrons and bring them together to create a culture of philanthropy.” 

“I think that was confusing for everybody,” Frenkel said. “The donor community and the community who love the arts were confused. Who do I give money to if I want to support the artistic and educational programs at the Gaillard?”

The GMC board then charged Frenkel with solving the issue. To create a single fundraising entity, the GMC’s Office of Institutional Advancement, which had nonprofit status through the GMC, was placed under the umbrella of the Rivers Foundation. The fundraising office in the GMC was then closed and the Rivers Foundation, under Anderson’s direction, is now tasked with Gaillard fundraising. 

When asked to comment on Anderson’s dual positions with the GMC and the Rivers Foundation, Washington, D.C., attorney Jeffery Tenenbaum, who advises nonprofits, said this governance structure is common and acceptable as long as the leadership of both boards is aware of Anderson’s dual roles.

Anderson said her role with the GMC is not permanent. “My objective is to grow my team (at the Rivers Foundation) so that one of them will step into the chief advancement officer role,” she said.

Regarding the staffing situation at the Gaillard, Anderson said she did not know the details of the staff openings at the Gaillard, but added that it takes specialized skills to manage a performing arts venue “so there are not necessarily locals [with] these skills when openings arise. The center’s leadership is working diligently to identify high-quality candidates who can serve us well.”

Too close for comfort

Over the years, the GMC and the Rivers Foundation boards have shared some of the same trustees. Elected city officials have served on the GMC board as well. Its current board chair is Helen Hill, who also heads the CACVB, which helped in turn, to select the original GMC board.

A former GMC board member, who asked not to be identified, questioned this close relationship between the boards of the ostensibly separate GMC and Rivers Foundation and the appointment of Charleston City Council members to the GMC board. The ex-board member said the closely co-mingled boards populated by local representatives represent a concentration of influence, giving the Gaillard an unfair advantage over smaller nonprofit arts groups and for-profit performance venues.

Frenkel said the GMC is considering changing its bylaws to have elected officials serve as non-voting ex-officio board members. “We are looking at that now, not because we think we’ve done anything wrong, but we would love to include more council members and members of the mayor’s staff,” she said. “We want to make sure we are doing it right.

“I feel very fortunate we are very close to the city,” Frenkel said, adding that the city has an interest in the Gaillard because city offices are in the building, and the city funded half of the $142 million renovation. “So it makes sense for them to be close to the organization.” 

Anderson said the sharing of GMC and Rivers Foundation board members is by design. “When we established the GMC in 2013, the city wanted Martha Ingram and me to represent the city because we were working with the builders, and we would know what needed to be done as a board. We already had a board with bylaws, and we knew what the vision was for the new center because we created that vision.

“When you have a supported organization, (the GMC) and a supporting organization (the Rivers Foundation) there is a deliberate crossover of board members so they can be mutually complementary.”

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