Will allegations of sexual harassment, abuse affect fundraising for NYC cultural groups?

Janet Babin Oct 12, 2018
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View of the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts on Oct. 5, 2018 in New York City.  ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images

Will allegations of sexual harassment, abuse affect fundraising for NYC cultural groups?

Janet Babin Oct 12, 2018
View of the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts on Oct. 5, 2018 in New York City.  ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images
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Just over a year since allegations first surfaced against Harvey Weinstein set off the #MeToo movement, the most revered New York area cultural institutions are facing their own reckoning with revelations of systemic sexual misconduct.

For some, the allegations coincide with the start of the new fall season of performances. These galas as they’re often called, are star-studded events that are also key money-making vehicles for the organizations.

“My husband and I attended the New York Metropolitan Opera Gala. We are patrons there at the opera. We love the opera. We had a fabulous time,” said philanthropist Jean Shafiroff.

She and her husband also attend the New York City Ballet gala, that this year raised over $2 million for the world-famous dance company.

The Shafiroff’s usually donate about $1 million a year to various cultural institutions and charities, including New York City Ballet.

But she and her husband considered hitting the pause button before giving to the City Ballet this year after a shocking lawsuit was filed against the company, its affiliated school and some of its male dancers. Brought by a former female student at the City Ballet affiliated ballet school, it alleges two male dancers and a donor to the ballet shared nude photos and lewd comments about her with numerous people inside and outside of the company.

“That’s wrong behavior; I was very disappointed to see that,” Shafiroff said.

The socialite pledged full support to City Ballet if they address any problems that may have facilitated these actions. But she added that if the bad behavior continues, “then I might consider changing my mind” about her annual donation.

The suit comes less than a year after City Ballet’s leader Peter Martins was accused of decades of abuse — he retired and the company is still without a permanent replacement.

The allegations against City Ballet follow a spate of incidents at other New York cultural meccas that were sparked by the #MeToo movement.

Earlier this year the Metropolitan Opera fired its long time conductor James Levine for alleged sexual harassment. And in September the New York Philharmonic fired two musicians for unspecific bad conduct.

But the lawsuit against City Ballet goes even farther, stating the company encouraged this kind of behavior – that it created a culture that permits sexual abuse. The lawsuit alleges the company looked the other way and offered immunity for perpetrators, so long as ticket sales stayed high.

“The allegations are very serious,” said Brett Egan, president of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland.

The big question, said Egan, is whether the incidents described in the lawsuit were an unrelated cluster of individual occurrences, or were part of a systematic culture of permissiveness abetted by senior staff and board leadership, as is alleged in the current suit.

City Ballet has a budget of about $89 million, with a third of that coming from individual, foundation and corporate grants. City Ballet has an obligation to let patrons know their money isn’t being used to exploit anyone, Egan said.

The organization has responded to the allegations, firing two of the dancers involved. Another resigned, though all deny the charges. The company is also donating the $12,000 it received from the donor named in the lawsuit to an unnamed organization that supports women. Additionally, City Ballet denies all the charges.

“No one here in this organization knew anything about it. No one would have ever condoned it encouraged it supported it,” said City Ballet executive director Kathy Brown. “Folks have given us their feedback, but I think in the main they are still very supportive of the company.”

At a recent performance that included a classic pas de deux set to music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, the packed house clapped enthusiastically and demanded another curtain call.

“I would imagine a lot of people are looking at the ballet very carefully right now,” Shafiroff said.

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