Cropped Out 

The board of the Chicago Photography Center fires founder Richard Stromberg.

Here's a new saga for the annals of runaway boards and crusty founders:Legendary photography mentor Richard Stromberg has been fired by the board of the Chicago Photography Center, the organization created just six years ago mostly to make sure there'd always be a place where he could teach. Stromberg says he's been locked out of the handsome, $1.2 million Lincoln Avenue facility financed by his supporters, outfitted with his own darkroom equipment, and built, in part, with his labor. Last month, in response to the firing and an alleged lack of democratic process, about two dozen members of the CPC's seasoned volunteer workforce walked out, leaving the board scrambling to cover fall classes and labs that were already under way.

Board copresident Julie Sielaff confirmed that Stromberg "is no longer with CPC," but declined to comment on what she called a personnel issue. She says the center is "in a search for an executive director" and hopes to bring someone on board in early 2009. The nonprofit, which serves about a thousand students annually on a budget of roughly $400,000, currently has only one part-time administrator and a few paid teachers. According to Sielaff it's in the process of "restructuring" and will expand curriculum and hours to reach a larger audience. As for the mass exodus: "We did have some volunteers who chose to step away, whether temporarily or on a permanent basis."

For his part, Stromberg cites "philosophical differences"—which, in this case, really seem to exist. The "mostly new" board "wanted [the CPC] to be a school," Stromberg says, "while I wanted it to be what it has been: a community center." Tension had been building for a while, he notes, but things began seriously to unravel in August, after the board presented him with a description "for a job I had no interest in" and followed it up with a "poor evaluation" for "a job that was not the job I was doing." Stromberg—whose strength is teaching, and whose title was program director—says he was being slotted as an administrator and limited to a single class. He was also advised to mind his "attire and hygiene."

Now 60 years old and walking with two canes due to complications from double knee surgery three years ago, Stromberg says he still needs to make a living, and tried to work things out by employing a lawyer as a dispute resolution negotiator until "it became clear that nothing was negotiable." He claims he wasn't even informed that he was fired until after the word had gone out to the entire community—and then he was notified by e-mail. A board spokesperson says they e-mailed Stromberg first.

Stromberg started his innovative program at the Jane Addams Center, on Broadway near Belmont, in 1969, and that was its home for the next 33 years. During that time, thousands of local photography students were exposed to his tough-love brand of education, which generally either sent them running or turned them into intensely loyal followers. After Hull House sold the building in 2002, without making what Stromberg thought would be adequate plans for relocating the photography studio, he moved to a commercial condominium at 3301 N. Lincoln that was ultimately purchased by a pool of investors he recruited—mostly friends and former students. About 25 of them chipped in toward the $360,000 down payment and are due to be bought out in three years. Stromberg says one ongoing point of contention he had with the board—which operates independently of the investors and appoints its own members—was its failure to set up a fund specifically dedicated to repaying that debt. He says they needed to be putting away $8,000 each month.

Things came to a head at a meeting on October 15, about two weeks after Stromberg was let go, when the board was presented with an open letter signed by 19 volunteers. It petitioned for changes that would "create a partnership between the Board and Community" and rectify a situation in which "important matters are being decided exclusively by a small, non-representative, insulated, and self-selected" group. The volunteers demanded democratic elections for board seats, broader participation in major decisions, and a "good faith" negotiation with Stromberg to "discuss his continued employment." They stipulated a written response accepting their terms within two days. Eric Holubow, spokesman for the volunteers, says the board came back with a request to meet the following month. That's when the volunteers walked.

"They've changed the place radically." Holubow says of the board. "But we signed on to Richard's vision. We run the place, we're the people giving our time, we want to have a say in how the board operates. To strip [Stromberg] of this thing he created is pretty vicious. The only power we have is to say, 'OK, we're not going to be involved here right now.'"

The CPC's investors include professional photographer David Joel, who, in addition to ponying up $20,000 for the building says he donated the first six months' salary for the part-time administrator. He surmises that the board, many of them relatively recent Stromberg students, came to consider their flamboyant former guru "old-fashioned." And Joel claims to have had his own problems with the board. He says he antagonized the members by pushing for open meetings and, after they dumped Stromberg, by pointing out to them that "without Richard there they didn't, from my professional point of view, have a qualified, credentialed lead teacher." Now, he says, they've told him he's not welcome in the space. Joel also says a CPC strategic plan, more than a year in the works and completed last summer, "ignores Stromberg's role in creating the mission that's been here all this time."

Joel notes that William Benson, the teacher hired to replace Stromberg, offers classes at his own nearby studio, and that one current and one former CPC board member have been associated with that studio. Emeritus board member Roger Rudich, a CPC investor and cofounder, says the board looked into that arrangement and "was satisfied that there is no conflict of interest." Rudich says the CPC now has a "business arrangement with that [studio] and shares revenue from some of its programs."

Rudich also maintains that the board couldn't agree to everything the volunteers demanded within their two-day time frame, in part because of IRS concerns. "We responded with a list of things we agreed to and things we needed to talk about. They said that wasn't enough, and that they would walk off the job. And they did, leaving students without lab instructors." He also says "there's a plan" for paying back investors and that the job description that offended Stromberg was meant only as a starting point for discussion. "We said, 'Meet with us, tell us what you like and what you don't like.' He's never told us." Rudich claims the board "never stopped being willing to talk to Richard, even now."

Stromberg's now talking about opening another learning center early next year, and says it'll inevitably compete with the CPC. And the former volunteers are launching a co-op of their own, the Chicago Organization of Photographers.

Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com.

Comments (6) RSS

Showing 1-6 of 6

Do you like Dr. House? You'll love Richard!!

Posted by sadie on July 7, 2010 at 8:46 AM | Report this comment

I took a class from Richard and he's amazing!

Posted by Beu2 on August 3, 2010 at 10:06 PM | Report this comment

Richard is not being totally honest about how he left Jane Addams as I'm sure he's not being totally honest here. The Jane Addams Center built a new photography center to Richard's specifications. He planned the whole thing while in the background he rounded up investors to go on his own. At the last minute, he abandoned Jane Addams because he didn't like the location of the building--the only area of disagreement. It sounds like the same thing happened here. Richard doesn't like it when he doesn't have his way 100%.

Posted by fotofem on September 6, 2010 at 4:00 PM | Report this comment

Whomever "fotofem" is, your facts are wrong. We went to Clarence Wood with the "Lincoln Address"and he put us off and refused to discuss the matter. There were 6 or 7 other people in that meeting. As an employee of Hull House I gave my input about the preposed space on Wilson Avenue. From the beginning I was not in favor of that location. HHA hired an "Arts Consultant", Clarence said that I had the "Arrogance of Time" what I was told he meant by that was "just because I had been doing the Job for 33 years I thought I knew what I was doing". I told my boss from the beginning that their Arts center (as conceived) would not work. The location on Wilson was also the location where the "needle exchange" truck parked three times a week. I did not like that my students might be exposed to trouble.
So now we have the perspective of history. Hull House got a privet donation of $300,000, $100,000 each year for three years. Their Photo program and arts Center were a total failure. They spent $300,000 in two & a half years and than closed the program. The last year we were at the Jane Addams Center we brought in more than $200,000 profit into the budget.
This December cpc was going to pay off the investors. The cpc board has told the investors they will not return there money and will be in Default. I expect that cpc will not be in business in January. 27 people will louse $350.000. My third place of learning is without debt, we are about to open our third show with 19 artist's. We have classes downtown and in three cities. I proceeded to do exactly what I would have done if I had not been fired at cpc. It just took me 6 months longer to do it. I wish I knew who you are? If you would like to get whole story just call me at 312-671-7717

Posted by Richard Stromberg on August 8, 2011 at 4:24 PM | Report this comment

PS. cpc was started with only $50,000 all from contributions of $500.00 or less, As for the other money needed, that money came from class fees. (no $300,000 for cpc)
In addition when we moved into the Lincoln address hundreds of volunteers put in thousand's of woman & man hours helping the building developer to build out the space. The developer agreed to build out the space and rent it to us until a future date at which time we would buy the building. The scheme we came up with was to get investors to buy the building on behalf of cpc and cpc would buy the building from the investors after five years with the investors realizing a 5% return on their investment. Rather than asking for contributions this would maintain the the priceable of cpc being "self sufficient" . Starting in 1969 the "JAC photography program" had never relied on grants or support from foundations.
In spite of the fact that the cpc board refused to set aside in a bank account money for the investors, there was a $85,000 surplus at the time that I was fired by the board. Over the five years that I managed cpc there was a 30% increase in revenue each year I was in charge. To verify this, because cpc is a 501c3, their income tax returns are published by the IRS "on line".
In the first year after I left cpc spent all of the $85,000 surplus and lost money for the year. The members of the board that fired me left the board and the person that they hired to replace me started his own school down the block on Lincoln Avenue. That person had rented his space 6 months before I was fired. cpc has lost money each year after I left. You may see this for yourself by looking at the tax returns on line.
18 months ago the cpc board informed the investors that they were going to default on their obligation due this December. The cpc board refused to allow the investors to put up a for "sale sign" in the window of the space. There refusal guarantee's that the investors will louse their money.

Posted by Richard Stromberg on August 9, 2011 at 9:44 PM | Report this comment

PPS. Roger is not being honest about cpc being willing to talk to me. By agreement with the board I hired a depute resolution consular. The cpc board refused to talk to him and after I spent my last $2,500 I had to discontinue his services because I was out of money. The board also agreed to pay for the consular. As of this date cpc has never reimbursed me for the $2,500 I spent out of pocket.
This December when cpc defaults my 90 year old mother will louse her $20,000 and I will also louse my $20,000.

Posted by Richard Stromberg on August 9, 2011 at 9:44 PM | Report this comment

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"If you are a product of your environment, choose the environment you wish to become a product of."
—Richard Stromberg, June 1964

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