Monday, April 12, 2010

Lessons of the Harlem School of the Arts Demise

The recent closing of the historic Harlem School of the Arts has left families in Upper Manhattan shocked and angry. There are lessons from the failure of the school that all of us can use to improve the future of our community and help us attempt to avoid these types of shocking disappointments in the future.

History of the Harlem School of the Arts

The Harlem School of the Arts has closed. Though the school served thousands of families in Upper Manhattan in five different decades, we learned in early April that the Harlem School of that Arts would no longer be the beacon of artistic opportunity for young people that it has been.

The school, founded in 1964, had grown from 12 children studying piano in a church basement to three thousand children each year benefiting from instruction in nearly every instrument and musical genre, drama, visual arts, and dance. The school was founded by a renowned soprano of the late 1930's and early 1940's, Dorothy Maynor. Ms. Maynor was the wife of the pastor a Harlem church and housed the Harlem School of the Arts in Harlem in its early days. She was excluded from many prestigious venues because she was Black, but she ultimately triumphed by bringing art education to a huge number of Black children over 45 years.

The Harlem School of the Arts became a treasure. Though tuition was costly for many families, the Harlem School of the Arts was a magnate for families of every socio-economic status in Upper Manhattan and beyond. The school articulated a vision for the future:
HSA is committed to meeting the challenges of the 21st century by expanding its programs to ensure that HSA students have access to new arts education methodologies and cutting edge technology in today's information-driven global society.

But, that future is now very much in doubt.

Harlem School of the Arts Closes

In early April, the Harlem School of the Arts closed. The school had a $2 million surplus in 2003 but now has a multi-million dollar debt and a large annual deficit. The school did not pay payroll taxes or conduct audits for years while fundraising dwindled and a key grant was forfeited because the Harlem School of the Arts failed to meet the basic requirements of that key grant.
The Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, a nonprofit entity that operates with public money, awarded the Harlem School of the Arts a $1.5 million grant in 2005 to hire a chief financial officer and a marketing director to strengthen its fund-raising efforts. But the school failed to meet benchmarks required by the grant, including keeping a marketing director, said Kenneth J. Knuckles, president of the empowerment zone.

To add to its problems, the Harlem School of the arts added to its payroll with both huge raises for senior management and a major hiring spree while its revenue collapsed.
By June 2007, personnel costs had risen $500,000 from the prior year, to $2.8 million, even as revenue rose only slightly, thanks largely to fees collected for its programs. Fund-raising continued its decline, falling to half of what it had been in 2003. To stay afloat, the school borrowed $1 million in April 2007 against the value of its building, on St. Nicholas Avenue near 134th Street. But even as the school’s chances for survival dimmed, the board paid [its executive director,] Ms. Kerina $161,539, nearly 50 percent more than [the executive director who departed in 2005,] Ms. Akeju had been paid, according to tax records.

By June 2008, the last period for which the school has filed a tax return, expenses had climbed to $4.6 million, a jump of more than $1 million in two years. With revenues down, the school recorded a deficit of $1.8 million. And now, the school is shuttered. Five decades of making Harlem stronger have been stopped cold by a few years of world class mismanagement.

The Harlem School of the Arts has stated that it will announce its plans for the future in two weeks.

There is a valuable lesson in the demise of this great institution. Leadership Matters. History is easily overtaken by poor leadership, and challenging circumstances can be overcome by excellent leadership. Our institutions in Upper Manhattan must be defended by re-establishing our commitment to excellence and demanding the best of all of our leaders. Our churches, our hospitals, our cultural institutions, and our schools are all too precious to allow any of them to head in the direction of the Harlem School of the Arts.

1 comment:

  1. You need to take this down. Your conclusion leaves a lot to be desired.