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Josiah A. Spaulding Jr.
(The Boston Globe)

Two rebuffs for Citi Center in its merger talks

First Night and Young Audiences of Massachusetts, two of the key organizations that the Citi Performing Arts Center has sought to merge or partner with, have formally cut off talks with the Citi Center.

In explaining the decision by their respective boards, leaders of the organizations cited a range of concerns, from the $1.2 million bonus paid to Citi Center president and CEO Josiah Spaulding Jr. last year to the impact that bad publicity from a series of Globe articles about the Center could have on fund-raising. In addition to Spaulding's compensation, the Globe reported this summer on the Center's decision to dramatically cut back its popular free Shakespeare on the Common production.

Concerns have led state officials to table a $600,000 Cultural Facilities Fund grant to the Center and prompted the attorney general's office to look into practices at the Citi Center.

Spaulding and Citi Center board chairman John William Poduska Sr. declined to discuss the merger setbacks. But the Citi Center released a statement.

"While both First Night and Young Audiences have formally ended confidential exploratory conversations with Citi Performing Arts Center, all three organizations remain strongly committed to improving access to culturally enriching programs for families in Boston," it read. "The boards and staff of each organization learned a lot about each other, which included sharing a passion and energy for their individual missions and strategic initiatives."

Mergers and partnerships are central to the new strategic plan launched by the Citi Center, formerly the Wang Center for the Performing Arts. The plan calls for the Center, which is struggling to fill seats in its Wang and Shubert theaters, to become what it calls a "virtual performing arts center." The Center hopes to reduce financial risk by relying less on revenue from its theaters while spreading its brand with revenue-generating programming elsewhere.

Geri Guardino, executive director of First Night, which organizes Boston's popular New Year's celebration, said she'd enjoyed working with Spaulding in the past, but she worried a merger would make it harder for her to raise money because of the swirl of questions surrounding the Citi Center.

"We're debt free, we've been fiscally responsible, and we've even built a modest reserve," Guardino said yesterday. "It just didn't seem like the right time to make a major change."

Talks with First Night did not progress far, said Guardino.

The discussion with Young Audiences of Massachusetts, a chapter of the national nonprofit that works to bring arts education programs into schools, did reach a point at which the Citi Center laid out a potential merger plan, according to Young Audiences of Massachusetts executive director Carol Bonnar. Under the proposal, Young Audiences would have moved its offices from Somerville to the Citi Center's Boston headquarters, Bonnar said. The Citi Center would have covered overhead costs, which account for about half of Young Audiences' $1 million annual budget. Bonnar said she would have become a department head at the Citi Center.

Bonnar said she was concerned about the material reported by the Globe, including Spaulding's compensation, and the decision came down to "issues of trust and risk."

"It felt more like an acquisition than a merger," she said yesterday.

No progress has been made with two other organizations the Citi Center has approached, the Boston Cyberarts Festival and Lenox-based Shakespeare & Company. Cyberarts Festival founder George Fifield said he has not heard from Spaulding since an initial conversation earlier this year. A Citi Center spokesman said other groups had been approached but he declined to name them.

Earlier this year, the Boston Foundation provided a $225,000 grant to Citi Center to encourage mergers. But the Center has received only a third of the money. Each of two remaining payments will be made when the Center signs agreements leading to mergers. The remaining two-thirds of the grant won't be forthcoming if deals aren't signed by next June.

One observer, Boston Playwrights' Theatre artistic director Kate Snodgrass, said that she would be wary of any merger after watching what happened to Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, which became part of the then-Wang Center in 2003. Initially, the free Shakespeare on the Common program grew, but this summer, the production's budget was cut in half. CSC founder Steven Maler's agreement with Citi Center to stage the annual production expired at the end of August.

Spaulding has held talks with Maler about returning, but he has also sought proposals from Shakespeare & Company, among others, to put on next summer's production. Nobody has signed on yet.

"It's worrisome because of the reduction in funding to [CSC], the reduction in the number of performances, and I would not want this to happen to my organization," said Snodgrass, who noted that the Citi Center has not sought her out for a merger.

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.

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