North End Studios' Leases Terminated After Sexual Misconduct Allegations | Off Message

North End Studios' Leases Terminated After Sexual Misconduct Allegations


Ben Bergstein and April Werner - FILE: OLIVER PARINI
  • File: Oliver Parini
  • Ben Bergstein and April Werner
Landlords of the North End Studios' two primary locations, in Winooski and Burlington, are terminating their leases with the organization in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations levied against cofounder Ben Bergstein. 

The majority of the board members for the Vermont Performing Arts League, a nonprofit that oversees the organization, have also resigned — as has one of their replacements.

The shakeup comes weeks after revealed substantial allegations of sexual misconduct against Bergstein, who founded the performing arts league in 1978 alongside his wife and business partner, April Werner.

Four of the alleged victims said Werner knew about her husband's behavior but "brushed it off," according to the article. Both Bergstein and Werner have denied any wrongdoing.

On Monday night, the Winooski City Council unanimously voted to end the studio's lease at the O'Brien Community Center effective May 7. The city had sent the organization a letter in February warning that the move may be necessary in light of credible allegations it had received against Bergstein — many of which were later included in the VTDigger story.

Explaining the decision to finally take the step, Mayor Kristine Lott said the organization had not done enough to convince the council that it will address the alleged harm it has caused, nor that it would be able to comply with the terms of the lease.

“We do not believe there are sufficient structures in place to provide confidence that that harm will be addressed and prevented," she said at the meeting.

Hinsdale Properties also confirmed this week that it had terminated its lease with the studio, which had been headquartered in Burlington's Old North End for more than a decade. Property manager Jacob Hinsdale said the termination was due to a breach of contract but would not comment further.
VTDigger interviewed eight people who said that Bergstein forcibly kissed, sexually harassed and groped them over the last decade. Another allegation — that Bergstein brought an underage girl to a bar and then back to his home where he “sexually penetrated her" — prompted a 2016 criminal investigation that never resulted in charges.

Bergstein resigned from his role as president of the arts league in early April, before the VTDigger story broke, at the request of the nonprofit's board of directors. Werner, meanwhile, stepped down from the board late last month but continues to serve as the league's executive director, saying that she plans to resign completely once the board can find a replacement.

"I'm only sticking around to help them with the transition," she told Seven Days on Tuesday.

That transition has been complicated recently after a slew of the arts league's board members resigned, including former Burlington City Council president Jane Knodell.

Knodell, who stepped down effective April 30, confirmed that a "number" of other board members also recently resigned, though she could not say exactly how many — nor did she know how many people were now on the board.

"It’s been a pretty intense period of managing this crisis," Knodell said. "I felt that I had done what I could, and I needed to let others try to move the organization forward into the post-Ben-and-April phase."

The four arts league board members who attended the Winooski City Council meeting on Monday night — David Cooper, Victoria Moore, Michael Meehan and Joseph Pensak  —  were all new to the organization and said they had not yet attended their first board meeting.

Each described some level of previous interaction with North End Studios and expressed shock at the allegations against Bergstein.

Ahead of the meeting, the arts league submitted newly created sexual harassment and discrimination policies. It had also offered a five-step transition plan, with stated goals that included replacing several staff members who had recently quit and a commitment to hiring a new executive director within 90 days or less.

But as councilors peppered the board with questions about how it would address the alleged harms perpetuated by the organization, it quickly became clear that the new members were ill-prepared to defend the continuance of the lease.

None, for example, could say for sure whether Bergstein or Werner would continue to profit from the organization. Nor did they know whether there was a process in place for community or staff members to report a sexual harassment complaint to someone besides the current executive director — Werner.

"We're all really disappointed and sad to hear about what happened, and now we want to see this mission continue," Pensak said. "But we can't really say, definitively, [how] because we're still all in a little bit of a state of shock and just wanting to be helpful."

Several Winooski residents took issue with the insinuation that the arts league could move forward with a few new policies and board members. They urged the council to terminate the lease and to look for alternative ways to provide safe and affordable arts spaces, particularly for members of the New American community .

"North End Studios, and Ben and April, and the Vermont Performing Arts League does not own arts in our area. The arts are happening anyway," said Winooski resident Kim Jordan.

"The call to action is not necessarily perpetuating the same system where harm happened with just a new cast of characters," Jordan added. "Our opportunity here in the community of Winooski is for us to claim and own and nourish the people who call this place home and have these multicultural offerings to share with the world."

Lott, the mayor, said she recognized that the new board members were put in a challenging position. "However, as an organization, we asked for information by a certain date," Lott said, "and so it's unfortunate that the way things have worked out, you haven't been able to convene and provide that."

Cooper said the new arts league board expected to release a public statement following its first meeting on Thursday. Among the many potential discussion items: finding yet another new board member.

Pensak, the former executive director of River Arts in Morrisville, said in an email on Tuesday that he has already resigned from the arts league board. He did not specify why.

Correction, May 5, 2021: A previous version of this story misattributed a quote.