Folk and Blues: The Tribulations of The Old Town School
FEBRUARY 20, 2019 AT 2:50 PM
BY MARK GUARINO
Bau Graves stood in front of an audience in Michigan last July and spoke frankly about the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, where he served as executive director.
Graves shared insights he had not yet made public back home: that the deputy director he hired in April was being personally groomed as his successor, that his retirement was imminent, that he was “embarrassed” that the Old Town School was “pretty much made up of white folks” and that the “organization is part of that systemic racism.”
What Graves, who stepped down in January, didn’t reveal that day was that, metaphorically, the Old Town School was on fire, the flames of which still burn today.
To begin with, there is a faculty revolt over charges of unfair wages and leadership failures, which recently resulted in the formation of a union with the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT). There’s also a gaping budget deficit—nearly $1 million by the end of August, according to board minutes. Worse yet is the reality that enrollment in group and individual classes, which make up the bulk of the school’s revenue, is plummeting. In 2017, the school reported a loss of $729,352.
Things worsened after Bau’s address. In September, the school’s board announced it was selling the school’s historic building at 909 West Armitage in Lincoln Park, igniting public rallies, town halls and an online petition that got sixteen-thousand signatures. The board’s stated reason: to seed a $10 million endowment. In an interview with Newcity, Graves said the sale was designed “to keep ourselves out of debt.”
In November, he sent his staff a letter announcing buyouts and suggesting layoffs were imminent.
The school’s economic crisis, detractors say, is largely of its own making, due to a decade of mismanagement, lost opportunities, misguided priorities and poorly timed decisions. For its part, the school argues that enrollment is down because guitar playing is out of fashion and because YouTube videos and School of Rock have crowded the marketplace.
In any case, the Old Town School is slammed with the worst public-relations crisis in its sixty-one-year history—a crisis that threatens the bankable goodwill the school has enjoyed for decades. These events have swirled over the past year to create a cyclone that will either uproot the school’s longevity, or make it a very different organization.
This account is based on interviews with more than two dozen people intimately involved in the school since Graves was hired in 2007. They include both current and former administrators and teachers. Many spoke on the condition of anonymity, either because they weren’t authorized to speak to reporters or because they fear retaliation. In some cases, the personal pronoun “they” is used to protect the gender identity of the source.
To understand where things are requires a brief history lesson. The Old Town School of Folk Music opened December 1, 1957, in a rental space at 333 West North, a former bank building. It was the height of the folk revival, when middle-class Chicagoans were discovering the music of Appalachia, the Smoky Mountains and the Mississippi Delta, as well as timeless songs from around the world. Frank Hamilton, the school’s first guitar teacher, established a teaching method he learned as a teenager from folklorist Bess Lomax Hawes, daughter to song collector John A. Lomax and sister to ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. Instead of the traditional conservancy approach, Lomax Hawes taught songs, not notes, and within groups rather than to individuals. The idea was that folk music was as much of a social expression that would better communities as it was a discipline. If people sang and played music together, they would connect in ways that would intuitively make communities stronger.
“There was musical elitism in the academic community back then,” said Hamilton. “You could study there, but the teacher would tell you you’ll never be as good as Bach or Beethoven. The best you can do when you finish your degree is to go teach someplace. My motto is, music is not an exclusive club.”
Because of the Old Town School, folk music didn’t die in Chicago as it did elsewhere by the mid-1960s. The school groomed a new generation of singer-songwriters into the 1970s, including John Prine, who took lessons at the Armitage building, the first home owned by the school. The school became a focal point for musicians in Chicago and for those passing through, and developed national prominence for its teaching practices and booming music community. “Here’s one New Yorker who is damned envious… We can learn from you!” Pete Seeger wrote in 1980 in an open letter in Come For to Sing, the monthly magazine the school funded to cover the scene from 1975 to 1987.
By the 1990s, the school recast its image by programming ethnic dance and music from all around the world, such as flamenco, Senegalese drumming and jazz, all taught by preeminent musicians in the city who were scouted to build the faculty. Over these years, weekly enrollment jumped from 200 to 4,000 students. “We rewrote the mission to define folk music as a traditional music of the world. And therefore our programming reflected that,” says former program director Michael Miles. In 1998 the school moved into the 40,000-square-foot former Hild Library, an art deco building from 1929. Nearly $10 million in renovations turned the stacks into a 425-capacity auditorium. Joni Mitchell performed opening weekend. Eight years later, the school purchased a bakery across the street for $2 million, razed it, and in 2011 broke ground on a third facility, spanning 27,000 square feet. It helped that, thanks at least in part to the success of Wilco and Bloodshot Records, Chicago was then ground zero in the nation for alternative country. The Grammy-winning success of the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack also launched a wave of interest in stringed instruments and old songs. The school was flush with money, had steadily rising enrollment, community goodwill and a staff which was passionate about building upon it all for future generations.
And that is where the story really begins.
Administrators from the time characterize the spirit of that first decade in Lincoln Square like that of a modern tech start-up. “There was a very entrepreneurial feel that we were creating something from scratch. We wanted to push the school to grow from many corners,” says one former administrator. The staff was small but nimble, and employees wore different hats. But the casual nature of the operation also translated, at times, to sloppiness. One former administrator who worked closely with the budget says they were shocked to discover the school didn’t practice basic financial controls. “[The school] had never had a CPA for long stretches of time. That meant budgets were often delayed, accounts payable controls were nonexistent, and the numbers floated to the board every quarter were questionable.
“A lot of it is incompetence matched with inexperience,” they conclude.
Another former administrator says financial data “was unnecessarily opaque” when it was shared. Analysis of enrollment trends according to revenue was unavailable to department heads. This practice made budgeting each term difficult, because it was impossible to know “what [class] was most profitable and what was least profitable.”
The board’s decision to break ground for the new building was portrayed as similarly reckless.
“They bought [the land] because they were cash rich—that’s the bottom line. They were doing so well generating cash from operations, so they were sitting on all this cash,” says a former administrator who was present during that time. “They had no grand vision for what they were doing with all these properties.”
Graves took over as executive director in 2007, the same year the board voted to move forward with a $13.5 million campaign to raise the new building.
Then came the crash. The Great Recession that hit in 2008 snapped corporate checkbooks shut. The capital campaign was delayed, according to a person directly involved with the fundraising effort. “The potential big donors weren’t willing to make that level of commitment at that point because everyone was waiting to see what would happen.”
By 2011, when construction started, the school hadn’t raised enough to cover total costs, which were later adjusted upward to $17 million, according to school reports. The school anticipated enrollment to keep climbing. That year, Graves told the Tribune he planned to increase the number of classes to 900 from 700 and add at least a hundred teacher jobs to the payroll, but, in fact, enrollment had started to tumble.
By the time the new building opened its doors in 2012, total enrollment should have shot up in subsequent years because of the added classroom capacity. Instead, the opposite happened. Enrollment that year was 17,325 students, making up 35,805 registrations; by 2017, enrollment fell thirteen percent to 15,000 students, with registrations dropping nearly thirty percent to 25,300, according to school reports. Net income ended up in the red—dropping from a positive $2 million in 2011 to a loss of $729,352 in 2017.
Student tuition makes up the majority of school revenue, more than grants, concerts and other sales. Having a third of the school’s revenue stream cut by thirty percent, and its cashflow plunging toward red, inevitably meant a shake-up.
In remarks to the faculty in November 2012, Graves admitted that the administration wrongly assumed the building’s grand opening “would generate a substantial bounce in enrollment.” Instead, the growth rate was only two or three percent. “This miscalculation—for which I take full responsibility—has a ripple effect through the budget,” he said.
Making the squeeze tighter was the new debt. Monthly payments began that year on $10 million in tax-exempt bonds that the school had borrowed. “The assumptions were that we’d save significantly by moving when contractors were hungry and money was cheap—and that we’d successfully raise the rest of the capital funds faster than the interest payments on the bonds could eat up all the savings,” Graves said. He forecast that if the school paid off the bonds by late 2014, “it will have been a good bet. If not, we’ll end up spending more.” The school paid the last of its construction bonds for the new building in December 2015.
No one interviewed for this story blames the economic downturn of the school on the administration. Their shortcoming, most say, was resistance to creative risk-taking or reimagining how to use the existing facilities and brand to establish new revenue. Instead, years of inertia would plunge the school toward insolvency.
“What was within their control was the ability to react to the situation quickly and with great focus,” says the former administrator. “There were remedies that could have been activated that were resisted.”
Once Graves took charge, he made incremental cuts that administrators and faculty alike say were demoralizing. He “inadvertently jeopardized the collegial community by dispersing the concentrated community energy,” says one former administrator. Graves, on the other hand, was new both to the school and to Chicago. To him, cuts were cuts.
Gone were longstanding popular programs like First Fridays, a monthly open house that might feature a square-dance band in one room, children’s music in another, a group guitar strum in the auditorium and a mandolin jam in the hallway. Also gone were periodic tribute shows and Six-String Social, a weekly community gathering at the Armitage building that featured guest speakers, panel discussions, performers and group singing and playing every Friday night.
To the staff, cuts like these were the first indication that Graves didn’t understand how central community interaction was to the school and its traditions. “He took the joy out of it,” says a current administrator. A former administrator laments the lost marketing potential: “It was the best marketing we had, because it was fully rooted in our past and in our mission.”
Graves characterized the programs as “loss leaders.” First Fridays, he said, “wasn’t worth continuing to provide a fairly small group of teachers with a paid monthly party.”
But more troubling to those on staff was how Graves, facing falling revenues and enrollment, appeared disinterested, or unable, to get the school a comprehensive and professional marketing plan that would go beyond print ads and email campaigns to harness the power of data analytics to help the organization target their messaging on an array of digital platforms. Unlike Second City or Steppenwolf, which use their storied histories to generate revenue and build inventive programming, the Old Town School largely dismissed its origin story once Graves took over.
The school’s archive—rarely seen photographs, memorabilia and archival recordings—could be revenue sources through exhibitions, merchandise and media opportunities, as well as provide source material for larger marketing efforts. Bob Medich, the school’s marketing director since the mid-nineties, was involved in digitizing vault recordings. He struck a deal with Bloodshot Records to produce a series of five “Old Town School of Folk Music Songbook” CDs. Rob Miller, Bloodshot’s co-founder, said the CDs—featuring unreleased recordings from Old Town ranging from Andrew Bird to Steve Goodman—were successful, garnering reviews from all around the world and yielding significant and steady revenue for the Old Town School to this day. “It was the most successful marketing project the school had ever done,” Medich said.
But Graves fired Medich months after he arrived in Chicago and future editions were shelved. Miller said after Medich left he pitched Graves for Bloodshot to release live concert recordings from its archives dating all the way back to the school’s earliest days. The reissue market was booming then, owing to labels like Chicago’s Numero Group, Omnivore Recordings and Jack White’s Third Man Records. These companies were releasing archival recordings by everyone from Syl Johnson to Charley Patton. In the Old Town deal, Bloodshot proposed covering all manufacturing costs and giving the school the majority share of revenue, making it a win-win as a profit-maker and marketing tool.
But Graves rejected that, too. “Between the ‘Songbook’ series, the well of goodwill accumulated over the decades with touring artists and the treasure trove of recordings in their vaults, [the Old Town School] could have been the Smithsonian Folkways of the Midwest,” Miller wrote via email.
The Old Town School did receive two separate grants from the Donnelly Foundation totaling $80,000 to start a digital archive that launched in 2011. Selections from “Live From the Old Town School,” a total of 127 recordings that are available via iTunes and other outlets, are available to stream on the archive web page for free. Resource Center Director Colby Maddox also has uploaded field recordings and other archival material on the website and the center hosts a podcast and Facebook page that features interviews, archival recordings, photographs and oral histories that span the Old Town School’s long history.
School success stories were also ignored. When other organizations commonly ring heavy bells whenever former alumni win Grammys or get nominated into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Old Town School is often silent.
The school seemed to understand its influence when it reached its fifty-year milestone in 2007. It threw a successful benefit at the Auditorium Theatre that featured faculty, friends and alumni like Jeff Tweedy, Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, Roger McGuinn, and even students from the school’s Wilco ensemble. The evening thrust the school into the headlines, earned national media attention, and raked in proceeds from 4,000 tickets.
For most successful arts organizations, any major event, particularly an anniversary, is an entryway to raise funds. Yet when the school turned sixty in 2017, the date came and went. Graves said he “hemmed and hawed about it for a long time” but ultimately concluded the anniversary wasn’t enough of a milestone to warrant a splash. He added that recent competition from venues like City Winery make it “a lot harder to assemble an all-star cast” like the fiftieth event. “If we ask them to play four songs at a big benefit at a fraction of the fee they can be getting at multiple other venues in town, it’s not quite as appealing,” he said.
Colleen Miller, the school’s talent buyer for seveteen years, who produced the Auditorium show, rejects that claim. She says artists agreed to play the anniversary for “a pittance” because of the school’s reputation and the relationships she built over the years. In the end, the school netted $600,500 for the fiftieth anniversary concert and all related activities. Another event Miller produced during her tenure, a tribute in 1997 to Old Town School alum Steve Goodman, which featured Prine, Lyle Lovett, Emmylou Harris and Jackson Browne, brought in $350,000.
“Yes, the market has changed” for producing benefits, says Miller, who left in 2011 to join the launch of City Winery. “But that doesn’t mean you don’t come up with something. You do something deluxe in a big theater because you say, ‘How many other large organizations like us have survived sixty years?’ Of course it’s a milestone.”
Faculty members say they couldn’t understand why the school was withdrawing from the world and was stubbornly resistant to new ways of promotion. Graves decided to stop printing the school’s course catalog in 2009 and in a meeting told faculty they would have to play a bigger role in promoting their own classes and couldn’t rely on the school to do it for them. That compounded the feeling that the faculty was on its own.
Eventually, the wider community took notice. Rich Gordon, a student since 2001, says he was discouraged at how hapless the school appeared to be at expanding its outreach. All he saw the school doing to rally revenue were programming cuts and tuition hikes. He says both “have disproportional effects on young and poor people and people like me who want to take more than one class.” Since Gordon also happened to be the director of digital innovation at Northwestern University’s Medill School, he suggested to Graves that the school participate in a special program run by Medill’s integrated marketing and communications program that lets graduate students perform deep analytic dives into company data to produce comprehensive digital marketing strategies. Had it done so, the Old Town School would have joined the ranks of companies like Nordstrom and Allstate that have taken advantage of the program.
“I thought it would be very inexpensive to do and a better way to do marketing strategy,” says Gordon. “You get professional-caliber consulting work for a very modest price.”
Graves said no. He said he had just hired Simple Truth, a small branding agency downtown. “I wouldn’t want to engage too many cooks in our marketing kitchen,” he said. “It might cause chaos.”
Internal documents provide a snapshot into what marketing ideas the school was considering. One document from October 2017 shows the school’s top administrators sketching out marketing initiatives it wanted completed by the end of first quarter 2018. They include a rebranding to remove “of Folk Music” from the school’s name, producing video samples of classes for the online catalog, testing satellite locations in the West Loop or Pilsen that would focus on hip-hop production, African drumming, guitar and urban dance, and promoting two new programs: “Hip Hop/Music Production” and “The Music Industry.” By 2019, the school said it wanted new classes “in a variety of formats” that might incorporate a performance by a “visiting hot shot teacher” or others “taught by visiting celebrities when possible.” Other classes might focus on “the social side of music making, preferably in partnership with local microbreweries or distilleries.”
None of those ideas became reality. Kish Khemani, Old Town School’s board president, agrees that, “in some cases the school has not been quick to adapt to change in terms of programming and digital marketing.”
“But I think it is unfair to put all that on Bau,” he adds.
Before last August, when Graves met with teachers to discuss compensation issues, the last faculty meeting had been a November 2012 town hall, according to Chris Walz, a full-time faculty member since 1996. “If you’re interested in transparency and calling people together to have substantial dialogue that’s what you do,” Walz says. “But to have the years go on like that is indicative to not having that desire.”
The communication hole swallowed staff morale, which hit “rock bottom,” according to one former administrator.
All accounts during this time circle back to complaints that Graves unnecessarily divided his staff. The all-in-it-together camaraderie that drove the launch of the Lincoln Square campus nearly twenty years before was gone. What replaced it was a top-down corporate structure driven by secrecy and petty alliances. “We thought we were building something big and were willing to sacrifice for it. He undermined our very strong love for the school,” says one former administrator. Many suggested that Graves picked favorites among top administrators.
Information stopped flowing from the top. Graves pushed out long-standing staffers from the earlier regime. When the Lincoln Square campus opened, the staff took classes, attended concerts and was typically involved in activities that strengthened their commitment to the school. According to most accounts, the hires Graves picked were rarely seen outside office hours.
“It surprised me how much antagonism was there,” says one former top administrator. Program managers—staff members charged with programming according to their respective discipline—no longer felt empowered to make decisions, which sparked distrust among teachers. Making things worse was a culture that favored male staffers for promotions and respect. “Men would value the opinion of men more than they would women, where they were either discounted or ignored or given a polite acknowledgement,” says an administrator. In some cases, experienced women staffers resigned or were fired after watching men revolve into top positions. An attorney specializing in labor law told one exiled female staffer she had a solid grievance to take the school to court. She declined. “I didn’t want to be the one suing the Old Town School of Folk Music,” she says.
Graves says he has just recently learned of the grievances. In an interview, he says he never felt his relationship with the faculty and staff had “been anything but very collegial.”
“Obviously there were some cues I was missing,” Graves says. “It distresses me enormously and it obviously passed below my radar as long as I’ve been here.”
The tension was greatest among the teaching faculty, who were beginning to feel muzzled. This was particularly jarring since the Old Town School model was largely a collective one. Teachers served as the public faces of the school, and they were the ones who formed bonds with students over years.
Yet tuition increases didn’t translate to increased compensation. Teachers remained at-will employees. And stinging even more were pay freezes that Graves put in place in 2008 and 2013. Although 200 or so teachers have classes spanning the year’s six sessions, only about thirty are considered full-time. “Frank’s Faculty,” named after Hamilton, established those teachers as salaried employees, but in 2008 they reverted back to hourly workers. In order to maintain their health benefits each session, teachers have to have at least eighteen teaching hours. The new hourly structure tied their pay and health care directly to student enrollment. The result? The school’s most active teachers were now forced to exist “session by session,” says Walz. The fear of “having your insurance being taken away became something you have to think about every two months.”
“There aren’t any guarantees. The teachers know that it’s a numbers game,” says Walz. “If the teachers feel like there’s strong marketing and promotion behind us, we’d be much more willing to accept that, because we’d feel like everybody has given it their best shot. But we’re not feeling that as strongly as we did in the past.”
The compensation issue became particularly galling to faculty when they learned that Graves, while implementing budget cuts, pay freezes, layoffs, and in December, buyouts, was on track to becoming the Old Town School’s highest-ever earner.
According to the school’s financials, Graves earned $149,406 in 2008, his first full year of employment. By 2017, his salary increased nearly seventy percent to $253,554. Leslie Lenkowsky, a professor of philanthropy and public affairs at Indiana University in Bloomington, says that determining executive salaries is not an exact science. While non-profit boards dictate compensation, “they also need to assess not only what value the person brings to the organization, but also what similar organizations are paying their executive directors.”
A 2016-2017 study by the PNP Staffing Group, a recruiting firm that tracks non-profit salaries and staffing trends, reports that organizations earning between $10 million to $20 million in the greater New York City area pay their executive directors between $180,000 and $210,000 on average. With the Old Town School’s annual revenues averaging about $12 million, there is no organization that is directly comparable in the Chicago market, where non-profit salaries run lower than in New York. But there are close comparisons: Kathryn Lipuma, executive director of Writers Theater (revenues $8.4 million in 2016) earned an annual salary of $158,110 in 2016, for example.
Enduring a pay freeze while being asked to take on more work especially angered staffers earning the least. “Here’s a man standing onstage making speeches where he literally says we have to tighten our belts to people who are making minimum wage,” says Sarah Furniss, a former front desk manager. “That’s not the Old Town School I signed up for.”
So what about Graves’ background gave him value to justify an escalating salary? Or, perhaps the more important question to ask: What about that background made him an obvious lock for the job in the first place?
Before arriving in Chicago, James Willis Graves, whose childhood nickname is “Bau,” served as a big fish in a very small pond—Portland, Maine, population around 60,000. In 1987, he and wife Phyllis O’Neill co-founded Portland Performing Arts, a presenting organization that brought ethnic music to town. The organization floated around until 1997 when it moved into a small building it bought for $65,000, according to reporting by the Portland Press-Herald. Renovation cost an extra $800,000. Once finished, the capacity of the rebranded Center for Cultural Exchange was 220 seats.
Tax documents show that Graves and O’Neill were the only full-time employees. They were a good match. Jay Young, a Portland attorney who served as the center’s board president, says Graves dealt with the programming while O’Neill handled the books. “She was focused on the budgets and funding. He was freer to focus more on artistic stuff, which seemed to be his strong suit,” Young said in a telephone interview.
Graves wowed local audiences because he brought in programming from distant shores they might otherwise never hear. But the good times didn’t last because the Center could never get ahead of building costs. In December 2005, Graves and O’Neill resigned. The next year, the organization sold the building and folded. One of the chief problems, according to Young, was maintaining a mortgage while trying to fill a theater for performances by largely unknown artists. Graves “is more comfortable as a presenter. That’s clearly more his strong suit than maintaining real estate,” Young says. Ticket sales from the esoteric programming couldn’t cover costs for years. “It’s just a lot of work and you wind up spread too thin.”
According to reporting by the Portland Phoenix and by the Center’s tax documents, the organization spent more than it was earning during its final years. Between 2002 and 2004, spending increased twelve percent and the Center ran continual deficits. By 2004, the Center’s operating deficit totaled $188,390.
Graves told the Phoenix that shrinking government grants contributed to the shortfall. Speaking to Newcity, he says he left believing “the organization was in good hands and it was going to continue to thrive.”
He blamed his replacement for the Center shutting its doors: “The board hired someone else and unfortunately, they made a bad hire. It broke my heart to see it fall apart.”
Lisa DiFranza, who replaced Graves for less than a year until the Center shut its doors, told The Bollard, a local arts monthly, that “past debt accrued under the leadership” of Graves and O’Neill “contributed to the Center’s ongoing financial burden.”
After Portland, Graves and O’Neill moved to Roanoke, Virginia, where Graves headed the Jefferson Center, an organization that presents music in a former high-school auditorium. There he faced an organization with a far bigger annual budget: $1.8 million in 2006. That May, he told The Roanoke Times that the Center faced a $400,000 shortfall. He managed to shore up most of that money by end of the year.
But that job lasted fourteen months. The following March he told locals he couldn’t pass up a new opportunity in Chicago. It was, he said, “a plum job.”
It is easy to see why the Old Town School represented fruit on the vine. Graves had never shown tangible success growing an arts organization the size and scope of Old Town, had never run a school, had never managed a staff of more than a few people, had no experience overseeing a faculty in the hundreds and a student body in the thousands, had never overseen a budget of more than $2 million, had never grown an endowment, and had never worked in any of those capacities in a market as sophisticated and complex as the third largest city in the United States.
These shortcomings have been raised in recent months in an effort to examine the factors that led to the school’s chaotic state. How did Graves get into the running for the job when clearly there are arts-management professionals, in Chicago and beyond, who had longer résumés showing more positive results, or who have at least had experience that corresponds to the dynamics of running a community-based school?
Some have offered one clue: He brought his guitar.
People who were involved in the process, either on a committee that interviewed Graves or who met him during the hiring courtship, say Graves was impressive because the faculty saw their reflection in him. After all, he is a multi-instrumentalist with a master’s degree in ethnomusicology from Tufts University in Boston. He distributed copies of “Cultural Democracy,” his 2005 book published by the University of Illinois Press, and during a meet-and-greet he arrived with his guitar to jam.
The charm offensive was successful. Graves talked about growth and diversity, two issues the faculty supported. “There was a sense that he seemed to get the place in a way that we were hoping that an executive director would,” says Walz. “There was a grassroots movement amongst the teachers to get the message to the folks on the hiring committee that we liked him and that we wanted him there.”
But several women interviewed for this article say they sensed immediately Graves was a wrong fit.
Some observed that during a meet-and-greet with staff, Graves didn’t seem interested in asking questions, but brought the focus to himself. That turned off some of the women, who wrote letters to the board saying they recommended Gail Kalver, another candidate, who seemed far more qualified. By 2007, Kalver had been executive director of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago for twenty-three years, and before that served as an associate manager at the Ravinia Festival for seven years. She, too, was a musician, with a master’s degree from Roosevelt University.
“She had her chops running a large non-profit organization that was also a world-renowned dance company, had connections within the Chicago community, and knew how to fundraise,” says one former administrator. But within discussions among Frank’s Faculty, it became clear that none of that mattered for one reason: “She was a woman and the guitar culture at the Old Town School is a boy’s club. So no one was as impressed as they were with Bau Graves whipping out the guitar.”
There was slight awareness of his history in Portland, but it amounted to “a quiet whispering of what happened there,” says one former administrator. Walz admitted that instead of looking at Graves’ qualification as an arts administrator, they chose to focus solely on “the man and what he was saying and how he was relating to the school and all of us.”
“I don’t know if any of us were thinking we should go on the Internet and see what we could find,” he said. “We also trusted the folks who were in the decision-making roles to make the right decision.”
What members of Frank’s Faculty did not anticipate when they endorsed Graves was how much he was interested in disconnecting the school from its past, which didn’t just mean pruning and replacing staff. Instead, following ideas he articulated in his book, Graves became interested in experimenting with cultural programming in marginalized neighborhoods—a noble ambition, that to him meant working with people different than those he sees every day.
“We have to recruit a new core of teaching artists who live in their communities, understand what their aesthetic interests are and cater to those desires,” he said. “And we have to make those program costs free or very low cost so there are few barriers for people to be involved.”
In Portland, Graves had created programs for the large African refugee community there. Between 2001 and 2003, the events—from a fashion show to a festival to a play—tried to bring dialogue to groups that were often in conflict with one another by making them key stakeholders in the activities themselves. While it successfully introduced African culture to the majority-white locals, the events largely failed because the Center found that the African groups mainly sustained those disagreements in the United States and didn’t want to associate with one another, onstage or off. “Bau had hoped to have a civil exchange between spokespersons of different factions, but by accident he may have created more friction than reducing friction,” says Jay Young, the board president. “I don’t fault him for trying to do it. It doesn’t always work.”
In Chicago, Graves resurrected those ideas in Englewood, a South Side neighborhood besieged by gun violence that became a focus of Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Graves sought to establish relationships with partners on the ground to create programming that people in the neighborhood would find valuable.
“If a piece of the legacy I leave at Old Town School is continuing to be active in seeking out and working with constituencies that are not a bunch of white guys playing the banjo, but African-Americans and Asian-Americans—different communities that we’re just never going to serve in Lincoln Square,” he said, “then I’m proud of having made us do that.”
Former administrators say that when Graves uses phrases like “white guys playing the banjo” or throws around highly charged phrases like “systemic racism” to describe a school composed of a teaching faculty that is largely liberal and committed to diversity issues, he may not understand how his words ring as offensive to the people he was hired to lead.
“How can you talk about healing a community with the arts when you have such a disdain for the community you are a part of?” one recently departed administrator asks.
But Graves also seems to dismiss another obvious reality: that the Old Town School has already been doing the work he describes for many years.
Since its first year of operation, the Old Town School made outreach to marginalized communities in Chicago a core part of its mission. Benefit concerts and fund drives were common at its first two locations. For students who couldn’t buy their own instruments, the school gave them away or rented them at bargain prices. The school also conducted classes inside Chicago schools and hospitals. Co-founder Win Stracke created “Project Outreach” 1969, a scholarship program for schoolchildren from nearby housing projects. The school also gave free lessons to children in Uptown, a neighborhood stricken by poverty and populated substantially by Native Americans and Appalachian transplants. In 1965, co-founder Dawn Greening said the purpose was to make the music of their home region a point of pride: “We should let people know that the culture they bring to the city is truly worthwhile, and encourage them to recognize their own traditions.”
The sentiment is one that has powered programs that continue to today. The Old Town School serves 4,000 children in about twenty-six CPS and other schools like Rush Day School, which serves students with special needs, throughout the year and throughout the city, including Englewood. The program has been running for decades.
Yet those interviewed who worked closely with the Old Town School’s outreach efforts, say that Graves was laser-focused only on “Music Moves,” the Englewood program designed much like his African outreach in Portland—to encourage dialogue through cultural programming that originates from within the community rather than projected from the outside. Graves admits that he approaches “Music Moves” as an ethnomusicologist: working with researchers from UIC, the program created a “simple emotional evaluation protocol” that children fill out so the school can “gauge what kind of impact [the programming has] on the emotional lives of the participants.” So far, the program has included hip-hop poetry events, African drumming classes and in September 2018 presented “Quantum Englewood,” a ninety-minute concert by Englewood-based composer Ernest Dawkins and Rahul Sharma.
Those close to outreach efforts say that Graves poured all his energy into a program that he started at the expense of marginalizing the ones that existed before his arrival. In remarks to the board last May, Graves championed “Music Moves” as “important and groundbreaking work supported by several foundations and philanthropists seeking for innovative solutions to urban challenges and strife. It holds a great deal of promise for our school community as it continues to expand.”
The CPS program was mentioned once. “Our CPS outreach programs are running annual deficits… fiscal responsibility demands that these facets of our operation either adapt themselves to change within existing frames, substantially shift focus to eliminate continuing deficit spending, or suspend operations.”
This incensed those who interpreted Graves’ comments as, yet again, denigrating another hallmark of the school. “Over the last couple of years, the citywide cultural and urban planning movements have focused on Englewood,” one says. “Bau was personally driven and also wanted to capitalize on that momentum. He really isn’t interested in running a folk school anymore.”
They add that, in the non-profit world, outreach programs are expected to run deficits. His intention in using that word, some claim, is to gain support for programming that started under him, which they worry could mean redirecting more than $130,000 in grant money—the amount the Polk Bros. Foundation pays every two years to support the CPS program—to “Music Moves.”
In terms of children served, the disparity between the initiatives is stark.
Graves says that since “Music Moves” started three years ago, it has primarily served between eighty and a hundred kids over the school year, and 300 children once a week in the summer months. “That’s a lot smaller than the students we are dealing with at CPS,” he admits. “But the program is just three years old and it’s continuing to expand.” By comparison, the CPS program reaches 4,000 schoolchildren a year. For any other non-profit, that would be considered a success.
“But it isn’t Bau Graves’ invention,” an insider says. “School kids are not as sexy as guns.”
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.