The Law of Unintended Consequences
HotHouse head Marguerite Horberg thought it'd be great if the board
hired a business director -- but now that they're trying, it's touched
off a feud that could leave her out of a job.
By Bob Mehr
August 4, 2006
On July 6 the board of directors at HotHouse suspended founder and
executive director Marguerite Horberg without pay. Horberg says the
board didn't tell her why, and the board is limited in its ability to
comment publicly on personnel matters. But the bone of contention was
clearly the venue's impending transition to a dual-leadership
structure -- Horberg was to remain executive director, handling
programming and fund-raising, and a newly appointed business director
was to take over other day-to-day operations.
The board claims Horberg was resisting the change by skipping its
monthly meetings and refusing to communicate -- charges she denies.
But if the suspension was an attempt to chasten Horberg for her
alleged recalcitrance and push her to accept the new arrangement, it
backfired -- in large part because of the depth of her identification
Horberg founded HotHouse in 1991 as an ordinary for-profit club, and
has overseen its growth into an internationally respected nonprofit
with an annual budget of $1.8 million, more than 40 employees, and an
important niche in the local jazz and world-music communities. She's
an institution in her own right, and a bitter public squabble has
erupted over her ouster, playing out in the dailies and on the
Internet. A debate in the comments section of a blog run by Horberg
supporter Carl Davidson (carldavidson.blogspot.com) has gotten
particularly nasty, with former HotHouse employees and board members
wading into the fray.
Horberg herself calls the suspension a "coup d'etat" by board
president Martin Bishop and his supporters, and says it's jeopardizing
the club's artistic identity and fund-raising ability. The board, for
its part, was trying to address that very problem -- that Horberg's
departure could cripple HotHouse -- by spreading some of her duties
around. Horberg has lawyered up, but the board maintains it was within
its rights to suspend her -- it's unclear on what grounds she'll
Ironically, the idea to hire a business director originally came from
Horberg. And Bishop, a senior counsel with Foley & Lardner, joined the
board as president three years ago at Horberg's request -- it was part
of her effort to strengthen the organization after HotHouse was
briefly closed by city officials in 2003 for licensing violations.
(Bishop's firm has also acted as a pro bono legal resource for the
venue.) Horberg's relationship with the board didn't begin to erode
till January, when serious talks began about the restructuring of her
job. "Her reaction once the board had committed to the dual-leadership
concept is sort of baffling to everybody," says Bishop.
It took months for the board to reach the decision to suspend Horberg
-- during which time, it alleges, she not only skipped the board's
meetings but got together privately with board members, staff, and
representatives from donor groups, keeping the talks secret from the
board as a whole. Several former employees say there have long been
complaints from within the organization about her brusque handling of
staff and haphazard management of day-to-day finances, and both
factors may have influenced the board. Still, the timing of the
emergency meeting at which it voted to suspend Horberg was impolitic
-- she was out of town attending a summer MBA program at Stanford.
Horberg says Bishop went to the club and told the staff she'd been
suspended indefinitely and was banned from the premises. In a posting
to the Davidson blog, she claimed she was never given a "specific list
of grievances in my performance as Executive Director, or any
opportunity to address or cure the same before I was suspended as
would be accorded to anyone else in my position, let alone the founder
of the organization on whose Board these trustees now serve."
At the regular monthly board meeting on July 13, the dual-leadership
plan was formalized, meaning Horberg's old job technically ceased to
exist. Five board members -- Bishop, Lolita Sereales, Linda Michaels,
Rochelle Gordon, and Paul McEntee -- voted for the measure. Bruce
Robbins abstained and Angela Spinazze was absent, but they later
cosigned a post to the Davidson blog expressing their concern about
the "destructive nature of recent decisions taken by others on the
Board." Horberg was not present for the meeting, though by then she
was back in town.
Horberg's ire seems to have been raised by the form the
dual-leadership plan has taken -- she wouldn't have to take a pay cut,
but she'd lose power and standing. She clearly wanted the business
director to be a subordinate rather than an equal partner. "While
proactively advocating for a split in responsibilities," she wrote on
Davidson's blog, "I have also maintained that I am more than capable
to continue as the chief executive officer that would supervise this
newly created position."
Horberg is also convinced that the board can't keep the soul of
HotHouse alive without her. "Ultimately it's a question of mission,"
she says. "Is having a Dutch avant-garde cellist playing for an
audience of 12 people going to be OK with the board? Is it going to be
OK to have Hamid Drake and Fred Anderson play for 40 people? Or are
they only going to be looking to book blockbuster shows?"
Bishop says the board has no intention of changing HotHouse's
programming. "We can't lose money every day," he says, "but that's
always been the case. There's a system of internal checks and balances
that goes on to make sure the organization is being responsible to its
Roughly one-fifth of HotHouse's annual budget comes not from liquor
sales or door receipts but through contributions from the likes of the
Illinois Arts Council, Kraft Foods, and the Prince Charitable Trusts
-- a low figure for the field, but hardly an insignificant slice.
Horberg claims the venue is risking the loss of that money by crossing
swords with her. "If I leave, all the donors walk out -- that's been
made clear to me," she says.
Bishop isn't so pessimistic. "I believe that the people who contribute
financially to HotHouse do it not on the basis of any individual, but
because they believe in what HotHouse stands for," he says. "They
believe in the art and the culture that it offers the city."
The board hopes to hire a business director within the next couple
weeks, and Bishop says that if Horberg decides not to assume her
redefined duties as executive director, the board will start looking
to fill that post too. Horberg's attorney has contacted the board, but
they haven't started talks yet. "As far as the board is concerned,"
says Bishop, "there was an offer made to her and that offer remains
open -- it hasn't been taken back."
Horberg says the only way she'd consider returning would be if Bishop
and those who've sided with him were to resign from the board.
"Otherwise, I don't see how it works. I just don't see how you have
two visions for an organization."
But Bishop isn't going anywhere soon. "If it was in the best interest
of HotHouse and I had the agreement of my fellow directors on the
board, I think it would be my duty to step down," he says. "Do I think
that's the case? No. We're doing the best we can to ensure HotHouse
has a future that extends past this week or next year or even ten
years from now. The idea is that well after Marguerite Horberg is gone
or Marty Bishop is gone HotHouse will still be here."