Exit Stage Knight 

Departing United Arts President and CEO Margot Knight recounts her decade of creativity amid chaos

All of our papers are in order,” Margot Knight says into her cell phone. “Don’t worry about the lease. Everything is going to be OK.”

It’s somehow fitting that during the last week of Knight’s reign as the president and chief executive officer of the region’s central arts funding organization, United Arts of Central Florida, everything doesn’t seem to be OK at all. Just the week before our interview, Orange County Commissioner Ted Edwards called into question $150,000 of a total $3 million funding package for local arts before the Board of County Commissioners. Then, on Oct. 27 (the day that we took the photos for this story), WFTV Channel 9 news raised an even bigger specter of doubt, conflating all of the county’s arts funding – $3.2 million from tourist development taxes and $668,000 from the general fund – into a $4 million dollar call for populist outcry.

“It’s troubling, especially in these economic times, we are giving to these elitist groups with no accountability,” Orange County Commissioner Fred Brummer told the station.

It’s tough not to see this as something of a conspiratorial stab at United Arts – the group partially formed by Orange County in 1989 to outsource the management of arts funding – on the occasion of Knight’s high-profile dismount. Knight, however, says she “hopes” that there’s not that much nefarious strategy going on here.

But the outgoing arts leader is no stranger to controversy. Despite her apparent caution in media circles, she’s been the subject of numerous smear campaigns on the cocktail-party circuit: that she’s a “queen” bitch, that she’s engaging in a lesbian affair with a certain Orange County official, that she’s a former go-go dancer. “That last one is true,” she laughs. She also became a pariah with the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts crowd, which went so far as to knock her off its board before (allegedly) starting many of the aforementioned rumors.

No surprise, then, that Knight is moving on to greener, more serene pastures. This month she takes her position as executive director of the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in Woodside, Calif., where she’ll work more directly with individual artists and keep a safe distance from the pettiness of local politics. Before she left, we grabbed her for a lunchtime glass of wine to lubricate the exit interview that she always promised us, should the time ever come. Turns out the self-professed “fake hippie” (“I always had a job,” she says) isn’t one for sour grapes.

Orlando Weekly: You’ve been here 10 years.

Margot Knight: Almost 10 years exactly. Trust me, they were supposed to offer me the position on Sept. 11, 2001, and my ex-husband had already given notice that morning and called me to say ‘I’ve given notice.’ And I said, ‘Well, it got delayed. We’re supposed to meet at the SunTrust building to finalize the offer.’

Doomed from the start?

I wouldn’t say doomed. It changed my ideas about what I’d do with that year because we knew there would be a ripple effect. Personally and professionally, we had a dip. I’d been looking at some statistics 10 years ago, and I was going to do a full report, but I’m not going to be able to do it – from recession to recession – because of how the arts have fared in the last 10 years. And we’re still not anywhere close to where we were in 2007 and 2008. We’re still significantly behind the eight ball of where we were in the good years for Orlando and for the rest of the country.

You’ve mentioned the arts are a lagging indicator, and at the same time a disproportionate indicator.

We’re leading and lagging, because participation in the arts is tied to consumer confidence. So when confidence is the lowest it’s been in 38 years, discretionary income is down, it leads to an increase in attendance in museums – the lower-cost places you can just go – but it makes it tough on the performing arts. But I look at those statistics and the performing arts groups have by and large been very smart in discounting so their attendance is starting to uptick, even though their earned income is not moving very much. But they’ve been doing what they need to do to get people in the doors. The resurgence of consumer confidence and the economy will absolutely help the local arts community and the artists employed by the local arts community.

When you first encountered the dynamics of this community, if I were to ask what was your first impression, what would it be? You had former Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty and former Orlando Mayor Glenda Hood to deal with.

And Glenda was on the search committee that hired me, as was [Orange County Commissioner] Mary Johnson. I was very impressed with the level of support. To have $1 per capita from the county, $2.50 from the city, it gave me confidence to have them on the search committee, because that suggested that they had outsourced, they had made a choice 20 years ago that they outsourced that piece of their work to a nonprofit, and that allowed the nonprofit to operate independent of politics, in terms of funding. I have never once – and I credit this to the city and the county and the other governance that has supported us – I never once had a grant question. Never has our process been in any way compromised or impugned by an official, which I think is a testament to a very independent process that relies on the metrics in terms of grant writing.

Well, there was that one time when there was a threat that the county was going to hold back on funding with respect to a public argument with WMFE 90.7. There was some dust-up over $36,000 potentially being taken from United Arts and handed to WMFE in 2008 – and the ensuing note and email exchanges – that resulted in Mayor Crotty saying ‘This offends me,’ before threatening to cut United Arts completely, right?

Yeah, but that was political. That had nothing to do with our process. That had to do with an unfortunate series of emails that were untrue. That was somebody acting emotionally, and I include myself in that. I said something that was misinterpreted by Jose Fajardo [WMFE president and chief executive officer] that he shared with his board that got to Mayor Crotty, and, to be honest, we had a conversation about it and he said, ‘We’ll never speak of it again.’ And, honestly, I’m violating the agreement of never speaking of it again by speaking now. I so respected Mayor Crotty for that. He understood, it was done, and we moved on. It was just an unfortunate series of events.

When you throw politics into the arts blender, it all comes down to a matter of controversy. We all know the story of arts being pulled out of schools, and government arts funding is perpetually vulnerable. How much has politics polluted, not necessarily the process of what you’re doing, but the ability to do so?

The number one concern that I have is the hallucination that elected officials might have is that the arts are a frill and nonessential. And so my job is to always be an interpreter. I feel like I have one foot in business and one foot in arts to interpret the myriad ways that the arts contribute to a stronger community. And politicians and elected officials want their communities to be better, so if children having arts education makes for a better academic education, which it does, then school board members need to understand those statistics. If economic impact of the arts and the ability of the arts to attract and retain executive labor and creative workers [matters], then that’s the case. My job has always been to interpret the way that people care about their community, in ways that include the arts.

I’m hearing from people that I know that are in these meetings where the board is discussing your replacement with the arts groups, and they’re like chickens with their heads cut off. They don’t know how to replace Margot Knight.

All of us are and are not replaceable. That’s the beauty of the human spirit. Someone will come with different ideas, with a different direction, with leadership skills and the ability to live them. My most important thing that leadership is about is followership; leadership is about listening to other people.

But how do you listen when there are so many moving parts? You sleep rarely.

Think about this: eight governments and you have to make the rounds of the big ones at least twice with every commissioner, because you don’t want to violate Sunshine Laws. And the worst for me is someone sitting in the audience as someone with power who has a misunderstanding about something that we do. I don’t mind people disagreeing with me if they understand, but when they don’t understand and their premise was false, and then they make a decision that hurts the arts community, I am dying a thousand deaths.

Speaking of public deaths, we can sidetrack our way into the Jim Ireland, Orlando Opera situation – namely, that the opera company was on the verge of folding [it closed in 2009], and that Ireland [its president and CEO] really didn’t like you. There was obviously a personality issue with him. But you kept very solid records, and you did try to advise the opera through this process. You were waving on the horizon saying there’s trouble ahead.

That situation was a result of an unstable executive director with a weak board. To see a 51-year-old organization completely dissolved? It was completely not necessary, that was the pain for me. And I stayed up at night thinking about this. What could we have done without interfering with their day-to-day operations? In fact, as a result of that, United Arts has now contracted with an outside consultant who we have to work with groups we think are fragile. To know that things are not going well, that we as funders probably shouldn’t know – that we don’t want to know but can help to stabilize. And that was my response to that because I felt terribly bad about that. It’s rehashing, but artistically they were fine. [Former Orlando Opera Director] Robert Swedberg did a great job. And when the chair of the board told me that ‘Margot, that production is so much better now we’re using real hair wigs instead of synthetic ones,’ I knew the Kool-Aid had been drunk. And all you have to do is look at the changes and expenditures from one year to the next to see that they just spent more than what they were bringing in … and they just did it in such a grand scale that they just destroyed their organization.

Meanwhile, the Orlando Ballet seems to be gaining traction by going ‘sexy.’ Do you think that kind of commercialization of a classic discipline is healthy?

I love the intersection between populism and the arts, and I think artists push it all the time. We can’t be too pure. Some of the greatest art of mankind has sex as a theme, it’s certainly a human thing. I think it’s a balance issue, and it’s a mission issue.

We’ve spoken of the opera and the ballet, two groups that aren’t going to be utilizing a certain new performing arts center any time soon. We’re going to get to that performing arts center, you know.

I know. I feel like I’m at the dentist. Can I have some Novacain first, please?

Is building more structures in a fragile arts community, more structures that require public funding, is that not a recipe for disaster, when it’s been proven a recipe for disaster in other markets?

We do need these spaces. We need a new Broadway performing arts center – there is no question in my mind. We also need, I think, and I don’t need it for today, but if I were here in 2015 or 2016, we need it then: a solid operations plan and my guess is a pool of funding created from a dedicated source or just saved over the years, because there is no question in my mind that the performing arts center will need in the five- to six-million-dollar range in operations. It’s happened in every city, in every single city in this country. And we’re not that special, and because of our geographical diversity and because we don’t have 4.5 million people within 30 minutes like Newark does, we would be wise to plan for that now. The endowment is at a little under $2 million now and then they’re looking at $25 million. They’ll need closer to a $50 million endowment over time. I just want to make sure it competes. And right now the path of pushing so hard, they made decisions that are not in the best interest of the community being happy in 2015. … We need to plan for it realistically now and not have rose-colored glasses on about it.

When you got here there were discussions about a performing arts center, studies done. Then the city hastily recruited [DPAC President] Kathy Ramsberger to sell the idea. Do you dislike Ramsberger?

I have no personal dog in the hunt about personalities, but from day one – you’ll see emails from me about this – I would have loved to have seen someone who had done this in another city hired for the job. Because at one point somebody, they said I should do it. Are you kidding me? I’ve never done it before. The best thing about me is I know what I don’t know. I’m not the right person, I’ve never done this before, but I do think a national search should be done for someone who’s done this before, because it’s still going to be terrifically difficult, but you won’t have this many mistakes. We make mistakes when we go into uncharted territory.

So why are they still posing ballet dancers in front of the construction site of DPAC for publicity shots? It doesn’t seem likely that the ballet is going to be able to fill DPAC’s lone Broadway theater. Isn’t that a little misleading?

It is important for the city and the leadership of the performing arts center to maintain the big picture dream, which is a place for locally owned and operated groups. It is not that at this stage. It is unclear exactly when and how much money needs to be raised to have it go ahead. At one point, does the architect have to make a decision to build the shell for the ballet and philharmonic for the acoustics hall, and when is that dream gone?

Well, some might argue that that point should have been before the financial controversy that the county unearthed back in January in which the architects and designers were getting kickbacks like car allowances. It smacked of impropriety.

I’m a proponent of transparency in every case except where you can make the compelling case that the outcome of what you’re doing is better served by being private. And there are situations like that. But when you’re a nonprofit and you have some choice, I would always err on the side of transparency, aggressive transparency. To the extent that if a county commissioner, which one did a few years ago, questioned what I did and what my salary was, I sent her eight years of salaries and my charitable contributions. Because penny for penny, pound for pound, my life’s an open book, and we exist because of donors and government money, and I’m a big believer in transparency. … Their aggressive secrecy, I think, is troubling for donors, because donors want transparency. I can’t find a compelling reason not to be more transparent. Why not?

What was the breaking point with you and DPAC?

I wasn’t in the room when the decision was made, but I do know, on one day, it was like oh, ancient history, back in 2005, I think, both [Orange County Public Schools Superintendent] Ron Blocker and I got phone calls asking us to resign from the board from [DPAC board Chairman] Jim Pugh, with the rationale that they didn’t want any paid employees on the board – they wanted our volunteers. So they said they’d put my chair[person from the United Arts board on the DPAC board], although they never put the United Arts chair on the board. It happened to be somebody who was already on the board, but they haven’t subsequently added the chair of United Arts on the board. And with Ron, they put on [former school board Chairman] Tim Shea and [current Chairman] Bill Sublette is on the board, and that’s fine. Later on you hear rumors that it wasn’t that at all. But you know what? I didn’t come to you, I didn’t make a big deal of it. People should have the boards that they want. And what’s sad about it is that it was about arts and education, and Ron Blocker and I were, by virtue of our jobs and our résumés, the most knowledgeable at that time about those two things.

They wanted nodding heads.

But I personally made a $5,000 donation, so I’m not without support. I am a supporter. There’s no question.

But you’re such a polarizing character. You may not want to go into the rumor zone, but let’s talk about the Orange Appeal magazine ordeal [Knight was allegedly, and apparently, airbrushed out of a DPAC puff piece in the magazine]. It was a little bit mean girls, right? It was the ultimate vilification of you and the vilification of truth to boosterism power.

I understand the big ‘mo’ [momentum], I get the big ‘mo.’ I understand the need to circle the wagons and the nowhere-in-the-room strategy. I get that. I just wish that was the case about the inclusiveness of the locally owned arts community, and I include myself in that circle. You yourself reported when [DPAC] says [it] talked to Fringe, and Beth Marshall has never had a conversation [see ‘Keeping up appearances,’ March 24, 2010], that’s troubling to me. That is where I have difficulty. I can even understand ‘We haven’t talked to them yet.’ I don’t like it, but I get it. But actively saying you’ve done things when you haven’t, that rubs me the wrong way.

It’s like they’re justifying something that they know isn’t there. That never happens in local government.

We are, and I say this with love, a third-tier cultural community. I don’t use the W word, ‘world class.’ We are millions of dollars away, no matter how fancy our buildings are, from being a top-tier cultural destination. Now, there is an avenue for us. I truly believe that. There’s an avenue for us because we’re number one per capita in performers and entertainers because of the theme parks. That’s a rich vein of artistic talent that I think Beth Marshall and the folks at Fringe have done a great job to expose to our local community and are starting to tour nationally. And you see it in our contemporary dance community. I think if we wanted to focus on being top-tier, that if we focus on arts education for children – or out-there art, other art – there’s a path for us there. But try to compete in the symphonic or the ballet – the traditional art forms? There are 19 full-time symphony orchestras in this country and they’re in the 20-, 30-, 40-million-dollar range – that’s the total of all our budgets, so that’s an unrealistic thing. But there is a path for us because of the sheer talent we have, so that’s what we should work.

What’s your sense upon leaving the organization? United Arts has grown into something polarizing, seminal, wonderful and despised. It’s inspired people through small grants and large grants alike.

Right, and it’s not just about grants. The campaign itself now provides 41 percent of the contributed income to the cultural community – outside of the big ones that are part of the fund – and that’s a seriously big responsibility. … But beyond that, we’re a full-service local arts council. Sometimes people think all we do is grants, and it’s so much more than that. It’s trying to be everywhere that art might happen. It’s a good job. It’s a 70-hour-a-week job, but it’s a good job for the right person. I had a bad day and I texted to somebody ‘You’d have to be crazy to get the job. No! Please hire the next person that’s just a little bit crazier!’ I try to say it without being whiny, but everybody wants a piece of you all the time. It’s like being a rich person, because people think the money is mine. But the money isn’t mine, though I do have a very big responsibility for it. And the assumptions people make are just constant. You have to be vigilant about educating, about patience, which I mostly have, but sometimes I snap. It is a constant job because the arts are not in its own little bubble. The arts are part of everything.

Is it surprising to you you’re so polarizing among the chattering class?

My question is, why? If somebody sits down with me, I was trained in the oral story, and I’m a listener; I mean I’m very interested in other peoples’ stories. I am completely mystified by being demonized. I am. I don’t get it. There’s no reason for it. I don’t burn bridges, I have never said anything publicly that wasn’t in the best interest of a good outcome. Every once in a while I say or do something I’m ashamed of and it’s called on and I apologize, but the amount of people that talk about me and not to me, what’s that about? Anybody can call me and I return all phone calls. I have an open door at my office. It’s so interesting to hear things that I said or did that are kind of what I said or did but not exactly what I said or did. And I’ll be singing ‘Oh, Lord please don’t let me be misunderstood,’ which is frustrating for me. But yeah, I do have opinions, but I know what I don’t know. I’m very clear about my own values. And I’ve done this work for 35 years. And I’m wrong, and when I’m wrong, I apologize.

When you walk away from Central Florida, what’s going to be going through your head?

There are things I will not miss. There is no question. I’ll miss a handful of really good friends that I’ve made really good friendships with. People that I trust and trust me, that knew my heart, you always miss those. What music will I have on? The ironies of Djerassi are many, and one of them is that my favorite movie was filmed there in Woodside: Harold and Maude. Cat Stevens: ‘If you want to be you, be you. If you want to be me, be me.’ Going to California, because it’s all filmed there, at Santa Cruz on the boardwalk, I’ll be thinking about this as my Harold and Maude moment. n

bmanes@orlandoweekly

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