I was caught completely off guard when I received this email:
Date: Sat, 12 Apr 2014 11:10:03 -0400
From: Brecht Forum
Subject: An Ending is Also a Beginning
Dear Friends of the Brecht Forum,
It is with a heavy heart that we, the Brecht Forum’s Board of Directors,
write to you, our beloved community, of our decision to close our doors.
As many of you know, these last few years have been financially tenuous for
us. While our space on West Street in Manhattan provided a crucial home to
the movement over the years, we struggled to keep up with its costs, and
the four months that we were closed following Hurricane Sandy only served
to exacerbate our troubles. Rising Manhattan rents forced us to Brooklyn,
but we have incurred debts and costs that are insurmountable.
Despite your continued support over the years, the economic climate,
combined with the realities of real estate in New York City, have simply
made the provision of space impossible for an organization of our means.
Unable to pay what we owe and struggling to maintain daily operating costs,
we made the heartbreaking decision to close the doors of the Brecht Forum
so that the larger project we all care so deeply about may survive in a
We know that this announcement is coming as a shock to many of you,
particularly in light of our recent move to the Brooklyn Commons and our
hiring of a visionary new Executive Director. We too were hopeful for our
new beginning, but it has become clear that in a rapidly gentrifying city,
we have been living on borrowed time, and that despite the strong support
of our community, this configuration of our project is unsustainable. As
the Board, we feel that we will best honor the incredible legacy of this
organization by closing the Brecht Forum with dignity.
Despite closing our doors, the larger project of the Brecht Forum is
clearly not over. We believe closing only signals the need to organize
harder and smarter, to find a sustainable way to build movement power and
support popular education in New York City. The four decades of
revolutionary thinking and building that took place at the Brecht Forum
will live on in the next steps taken by all of the important individuals
who collectively make the Brecht Forum so special.
Each of you has played a vital role. We thank you for the many years of
dedication, love, labor, and thought that you all have contributed to our
community. Without you, we could not have done it. We’re also asking you to
make one more contribution to our community.
Please help us move forward by bringing your questions, your love, and your
rage to a conversation on April 16th at 7:30pm at the Commons in Brooklyn
where we reflect and begin a conversation on what kind of organization our
movement can and will sustain in the future.
Thank you for your years of support, dedication, and love.
The Board of Directors of the Brecht Forum
After the shock had set in, commenting on Facebook, I wrote: “At least they had the dignity to dissolve, instead of morphing into some bizarre entity like WBAI.”
I went to the meeting. I had to. Of all of the Left institutions in New York, the Brecht Forum was the one I felt the closest kinship with. I’ve been a subscriber for at least twelve years, and was a somewhat-regular attender of classes and lectures for even longer. And! the Brecht Forum was the first place I performed publicly as a mime!* This was when they were on Leonard Street, in March of 1991. Anyway…
There were as many people there as at any well-attended event they held in the past, which is to say: about 75. I got there late but it seemed as if everything was being said repeatedly, so the gist of the first part of the meeting (What Happened?) was that they had fallen seriously behind in their rent payments to the Westbeth complex during their time there, and the management company was demanding immediate payment of all arrears and for the duration of the lease (an additional 12 months). When they left Westbeth for The Commons in Brooklyn last year, there had been an informal agreement that when they surrendered the keys and vacated, they would not have to pay the rent for the duration of the lease. These types of agreements are never worth the paper they’re printed on, and the lawyers for the Westbeth management company proceeded to demand the entire amount. At one point, the figure of $500,000 was mentioned. I don’t know if that was the total they’d owe Westbeth, including the additional year, or the total amount they owed in general, because in addition to the money they owe Westbeth, there are loans and other debts that they carry, some of them decades old.
Probably the single-most troubling lesson to emerge from this was the complete incompetence of the board. Not that they incurred insurmountable debt, but that this remained a secret for so long, that they never made an appeal for support, and the magnitude of the problem only became known after they made the decision to dissolve the 501(c)3 corporation, in order to avoid having to pay Westbeth.
This is where a problem emerges. They don’t want to renege on the other debts they owe. They want to pay back the loans that were made, the salaries they owe their staff, etc. And they don’t want the mission of the Brecht Forum to stop. They want to continue in another guise, sponsor as many fund-raisers as necessary to raise the money they need for these other debts, and continue. Some of them actually seemed to think that they could do this surreptitiously, that by dissolving the current corporation and starting another with a different name but the same mission, that the lawyers couldn’t come after them. During the second part of the discussion (What Next?), one straight-thinking man (STM) told them that if the same people were involved, whatever assets they controlled could be sought by the lawyers, that they can’t stop a case from being brought, and that a judge could rule against them, no one being fooled by their subterfuge.
During this part of the discussion, ideas were presented as to what steps could/should be taken now, both in the immediate-term as well as the longer-term. Everyone agreed that the project of the Brecht Forum should continue. Proposals can be distilled into two: 1) that they continue with the current board in place, or that a new board be constituted (either soon, or very soon); and 2) that they be located in a single location, or without a single location — that they present classes/speakers in different spaces, and not just in New York City.
Some seemed to think (the board members, mostly) that they (the board members) could continue in their roles, but after the STM spoke, they were the only ones left thinking that. More than one person suggested that an interim committee be set up to start working on the Brecht Forum 2.0. The board said that they shouldn’t rush into such things, but if you ask me, this is hardly rushing – this is catching up! One participant said one reason not to proceed at this meeting was that many of the organizations associated with the Brecht Forum were not present, but I had to wonder, why weren’t they? They knew of the meeting just as the rest of us did, and not one of them showed up? Who knows what the relationship is between them now? There could be a lot of bad blood at this point.
If there’s anything I came away thinking it’s that the current board is now irrelevant. They should take care of whatever is left of dissolving and stay out of the way of what takes their place. It’s not in retribution, but because if their names are attached to any new organization, the lawyers will go after any money they are able to raise. It will stymie them for years. Given this, they are in no position to decide whether or not an interim committee is set up.
With a new board soon to be in place, it’s unlikely they will be able to continue at The Commons, which means the likelihood of their being a floating organization is great, but which also means that they don’t really exist. Any group of people can present speakers at sites in a 50-mile radius. What is likely to happen is that all of the political differences that have existed since the beginning will assert themselves and half a dozen groups will lay claim to the Brecht Forum mantle. Most will devolve to presenting in their own spaces, and the ones who don’t have their own spaces will present in other spaces. But there’s really no difference between Rick Wolff (for example) offering a class at the 92nd Street Y (for example) under the rubric of the Brecht Forum in-exile, or under that of the 92nd Street Y.
I started by saying that at least they were going out with dignity, unlike WBAI, but to WBAI’s credit, they let people know when they need money. The Brecht Forum never did; they never gave people the chance to come to their (our, as a subscriber) aid. They simply packed it in. So unless the current 501(c)3 configuration is able to quickly raise a lot of money, pay off all hostile debtors, all friendly debtors, and maintain itself in its own space, I think it’s the end of this project, and that’s sad, because it was unnecessary.
Not to lay all of the blame at the feet of the current board members — none of whom I knew, although I’ve known a few previous board members — the problem of lack of money didn’t just start with their move to Westbeth. One of the board members said this has always been a problem (as evidenced by the loan made decades ago). So there’s the problem of lack of funding, but also, specific to the Brecht Forum, the problem that this was never addressed. At no time that I remember did any configuration of the board hold a meeting to discuss the Brecht Forum itself. Not just problems or finances, but direction, membership, anything! At no time were minutes of board meetings made available. At no time were financial reports made. In fact, none of the usual reports that are required by any non-secret-society’s by-laws.
The woman who owns The Commons building was at the meeting, and she told us that four years ago she approached the Brecht Forum board and offered the building to them, at a below-market price, and even proposed financing it for them so that in 15 years they would own the building outright. She told us first of the difficulty she had determining who the board members were, but that when she did, she said that they never responded to her offer. When they finally moved into The Commons, they gave her no financial information. She was able to piece together something based on their tax forms, but they never told her about their debts. And when they talk of staying at The Commons after the dissolution and trying to raise money, she said they never approached her about that either, even though they’re in arrears with her also!
Another meeting is planned for May 15, and another for June 15! (I’m not sure of the dates, but definitely one next month and another in June.) Supposedly, some of the member organizations that couldn’t be bothered to attend this meeting will be at the May meeting.
Some of those who were proposing setting up an interim transition committee suggested meeting next week (this coming week). It’s likely that some of them will, but without the Brecht Forum’s contact list, there won’t be many people in attendance, so I don’t know what sort of mandate they’ll claim.
It was announced that the party scheduled for April 24 will still take place. That’ll be festive! Also, the Summer Intensive is also scheduled to take place, as planned.
Finally, none of this is mentioned on the Brecht Forum’s web site. Not a word.
* There were four of us, and the show was called “Off the Street” — to distinguish ourselves from street mimes.