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Helmut Schmidt, Published March 31 2012

Bluestem, Trollwood ties strained over use of local arts center

MOORHEAD – When Sue Wiger took over as executive director of the Bluestem Center for the Arts, she quickly learned she had a fundraising system in need of repair.

But in her efforts to raise cash for the south Moorhead arts facility, she may have damaged ties with Trollwood Performing Arts School – a Fargo School District program.

Emails The Forum obtained from the School District through an open records request show the Bluestem nonprofit group in charge of the arts center was in crisis mode trying to make its nearly $300,000 June bond payment, and pay staff and other bills.

It stayed in crisis mode through December. Other emails show an almost manic amount of work done in late November and early December as Wiger tried to get local banks to refinance the $15 million facility’s debt, latch on to big donors, and lock in a concert contract with Rose Productions, the promoters of the WE Fest country music festival.

The School District ended up making the Bluestem group’s December bond payment, and took over operation of the arts center, giving Bluestem a shot to revive fundraising.

Trollwood Performing Arts School used to be based in north Fargo, but constant flooding at Trollwood Park forced the move several years ago to build the Bluestem Center in south Moorhead.

The Bluestem fundraising group was formerly known as FutureBuilders in Support of Trollwood Performing Arts School.

But this year, friction between Bluestem and TPAS staffs over which group has priority use at the site grew into an ugly rift, requiring the formation of a task force to address the issue.

Emails indicate that as Wiger sought to maximize revenues – bringing concerts to the Bluestem center last summer and fall by the Moody Blues, Sheryl Crow and other artists – TPAS staff complained of poor communication and planning. It forced them to scramble to accommodate Bluestem events while still running the TPAS educational and theater program.

In an Oct. 30 email, TPAS Executive Director Kathy Anderson characterized Wiger’s behavior as dismissive and overbearing.

Anderson’s email described how the two groups were not aligned philosophically or on how to run the center, causing confusion for the public, donors, staff and volunteers. It also created competition for funding and use of the facility.

A major bone of contention: TPAS needed the amphitheater for its annual musical from mid-May to early August, but Wiger said other events needed to be worked into that schedule to pay the bills.

“Friendly discussion does not work,” Anderson wrote. “Many times I was ‘asked’ if they could do a wedding, a concert, a run, use the understage for a concert, etc. I would try to work with them … time and time again, my words were ignored completely and I was overridden, putting my staff and program in jeopardy.”

Trollwood staff also felt belittled, Anderson wrote in her email.

“Bluestem staff has caused Trollwood summer staff members to break down in tears,” Anderson wrote.

“ ‘No one has ever made me feel like I was so stupid.’ Sue came in and raised her voice to the staff and stood over their shoulders asking questions. When the questions were being answered, she did not understand what they were saying, so she raised her voice and got angry with them,” one staffer was quoted as saying.

Wiger said in an interview that the allegations of bad blood between her and Anderson or other TPAS staffers is “highly overstated.”

“People that know me, know I’m sort of that person that charges in and likes to get things done,” Wiger said, acknowledging “some tribulations.”

“One thing the (Bluestem) board was honest with me about was this ongoing friction between Bluestem and Trollwood over use of the arts center, Wiger said.

The issue is less of clashing personalities as it is the use of the amphitheater, Wiger said.

The time demanded by TPAS for the main stage’s exclusive use is most of the summer, making it difficult to book money-making events, Wiger said.

“Arts centers across the country do numerous things” on consecutive nights, Wiger said. “Bluestem has to have a way to do things in May, June and July.”

But Wiger hasn’t only irked TPAS staff.

Just before the School District took over the Bluestem Center, Wiger sent a memo to School Board President Jim Johnson and others on Jan. 25 that proposed an organizational chart for Bluestem Center. The memo included assumptions that Fargo Public Schools would take on all the debt and operating costs of the center.

In a Jan. 26 email exchange, School Board member Dinah Goldenberg told Anderson, “I can’t believe she thinks she can suggest FPS take over every financial obligation and yet Bluestem still runs the show! ie: The only dates off-limits are the performances and the final week of rehearsal for main stage (musical). Even that is up for interpretation from the way I read it. This will NOT fly!!”

Anderson declined to comment for this story on her working relationship with Wiger.

Anderson said her focus is on TPAS and its educational programs.

“I’m confident that the School District is working it out so that the facility can be used what it was built for,” she said.

Wiger said the summer concert model that stoked the rivalry for stage time between the groups needs to somehow continue.

“If it doesn’t, I think it will be a travesty,” she said. “The $5.5 million received from the state of Minnesota (in bonding to build the center) was for a regional arts facility. We need to find ways to use it 12 months of the year.”

Johnson makes it clear that Trollwood is the primary user of the facility and one of the main reasons the regional arts facility was built.

“If there are other opportunities that other groups can use the facility that don’t disrupt the program for the students, we’re more than happy to accommodate that,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583