John Sutton sounded numb and weary over the phone last Thursday, like a stunned witness to a sudden accident.
"I am completely new to all this," he confessed, mystified by the turn of events that had him playing unexpected spokesperson. "It's a madhouse here today. I don't know what to do from this point."
Sutton, who only began at his position as programming director for Seattle's Consolidated Works a few weeks ago, spent the afternoon fielding calls concerning the previous day's dismissal of Executive Director Matthew Richter, who was asked by the president and vice president of the board of directors to hand over his keys.
"I was very excited to work with Matt," continued Sutton, who'd been involved as an artist with the center for three years. "I came on board as an interim position because I believe in Matt and ConWorks."
Richter and ConWorks, it's no exaggeration to say, have been one and the same since its inception in 1999. A former theater critic, Richter first saw the possibilities for an arts center whose many disciplines could feed into each other after running the multimedia space Rm 608 back in the early '90s. The innovative idea to thematically merge and blur the distinctions among theater, film, visual art, lectures, and music—the space's latest such attempt, titled Vs., will open as scheduled on Friday, Feb. 18—was his dream, and he remained ConWorks' most visible, voluble frontman.
"We are tremendously grateful for everything Matt has done," allows board President Robb Krieg. "Obviously, ConWorks wouldn't be where it is today without him, and we wish him the best."
Explaining the decision is another matter, however.
"We're not really sharing that information," says Krieg. "That's kind of personal and private between us and Matt. We felt like it was time for a different kind of leadership in the organization. The story I'll offer you is that Matt is no longer with the organization and, beyond that, the organization is going to be fine. We're working very hard to make sure that we thrive and continue to be a very strong part of the contemporary arts scene in Seattle."
The organization has certainly been hit-or-miss over the years. Its visual arts component could be iffy but was consistently eye-catching, though theater productions, expected to be its strong suit considering Richter's résumé, almost never met their lofty pretensions—the stage was always much more relaxed and approachable when the place stuck to its scruffy, popular plays-on-the-fly series, 14/48. Despite what sometimes appeared to be a tendency toward flash over follow-through, it was inarguably Richter's broad, intense belief in ConWorks' potential that kept it a force in the community.
Nevertheless, the board, and perhaps a few trusted advisers, is moving ahead to form a committee that will search both locally and nationally to find a replacement.
"There is nobody in the sidelines waiting to step into that position," says Krieg. "The board is going to evaluate the roles needed to run an organization like this. We have a strong base of people in place to move the organization along at this point, and we want to make sure that we decide on the right type of staff members that we want, and then make sure we find the right fit."