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Masters of Elusion?

State of the Arts


Published November 9, 2005 at 5:00 p.m.

It's no secret that Circus Smirkus -- once Vermont's nimblest nonprofit -- has been grounded by a financial crisis. What's still mysterious is the way in which the 18-year-old circus-arts program is accounting for its losses. While the organization has begun a massive fundraising campaign to raise $250,000 -- with an eventual goal of $750,000 -- it's been mostly mum on the matter of missing half a million bucks. Disappearing act? "We're getting lots of assistance trying to figure out what went wrong and what we need to do to make sure this does not happen again," says board member Mark Heyman, a human-resource specialist who holds a law degree. "Until we have the results of those efforts, I'd rather not get into details publicly."

Barton Chronicle reporter Joe Gresser, a veteran arts organizer himself, went to the organization's tax returns for answers. In a recent article, he tracked the red ink to the end of the 2003 touring season, when Circus Smirkus reported a whopping deficit of $410,000. His investigation precipitated an interview with Circus Smirkus Executive Director Ed LeClair, who blamed the shortfall on a number of factors, including poor ticket sales and an increase in workers' comp costs. Also, Circus Smirkus founder Rob Mermin had been ill for most of the year, and LeClair had only recently started fundraising full-time.

With its cash reserves depleted, Circus Smirkus borrowed $250,000 from the Merchants Bank. The next year -- 2004 -- generated a small profit, but not enough to make a dent in the debt. The organization decided to go ahead anyway with plans for an after-school program that would provide year-round training for Smirkus -- tuition was expected to help even the cash flow within the organization. But the Circus Academy never opened in September because the summer tour took a financial tumble. There were logistical problems: The trucks, trailers and cook bus broke down. And programming mistakes: "We expanded dates in some areas that were jam-packed last year. They didn't get filled like we thought they would," Heyman says.

LeClair came to the aid of the touring troupers, but in so doing backburnered crucial day-to-day fundraising. Meanwhile, two beloved coaches were fired for reasons Heyman won't reveal and -- perhaps as a result -- enrollment for the academy came in below expectations. In September, Circus Smirkus suspended operations, surprising students, parents and some staff.

Why didn't the board of directors see this coming? Shouldn't the serious fundraising have started two years ago, when the $250,000 debt was incurred? Did any of the 15 year-round paid Circus Smirkus employees -- 100 in the summer -- fall down on the job? As yet, the organization isn't saying.

In a recent letter to parents, "the Smirkus Staff" spelled out a three-phase recovery plan. The first quarter-million will go to reimburse academy tuition, pay outstanding invoices and rehire key staff to begin program planning. The next will bring about the resurrection of the Big Top Tour, Smirkus Camp and in-school residency programs. And the third is described as "a return to full health with sound fiscal policies in place . . . Our goal is to once again bring circus arts to children, but to do so in a manner that makes us financially able to do so for years to come." No doubt, a difficult balancing act.

Meanwhile, the simpler "save the circus" line is apparently working with the general public. Mermin is asking every Vermonter to donate a dollar to the cause. Although he can't say exactly how much they've raised to date, Heyman reports the collection is going well. An anonymous challenge grant of $125,000 has been motivating. But in a season already marked by donor fatigue, how many more do-or-die disaster drives can succeed? Here's hoping Circus Smirkus ascends to its former artistic glory, and, before it steps out again, strongly considers a safety net.

A chapter is coming to a close at Bear Pond Books in Montpelier. After 32 years in the business, owners Michael Katzenberg and Linda Prescott are selling their beloved bookstore, a haven for local lit lovers from Burlington to White River Junction. The couple, who have championed local authors and free-speech issues, wouldn't hand it over to just anyone, Katzenberg assures. Although he won't identify the buyer -- a Middlesex man -- until the deal is inked, Katzenberg assures that the new proprietor's last name is neither Barnes nor Noble . . .

Six degrees of Kevin Bacon? A recent wire report in The Burlington Free Press noted the passing of the actor's dad. It also mentioned that Edmund Bacon, the former city planner of Philadelphia, did some work in Burlington in the '70s. Veteran planner Art Hogan remembers him well. Bacon made sure buildings around Burlington Square and the former Radisson Hotel preserved views in all directions. He's the reason you can see both the Adirondacks and the Congo Church from Cherry Street. Bacon was "also enthralled with the Waterfront," says Hogan, who was Burlington's director of planning and development from 1963 to 1970. "He didn't want any process in the development area to stop the free flow of people between Church Street and the Waterfront." In planning speak, they call that "connectivity."