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.
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