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Clip: Changes at HotHouse

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  • Carl Z.
    The Law of Unintended Consequences HotHouse head Marguerite Horberg thought it d be great if
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 5, 2006

      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
      with HotHouse.

      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."
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