What Price Success?

To hear Randy Mehrberg tell it, the South Shore Cultural Center is one of park superintendent Forrest Claypool’s great success stories. “It’s the best turnaround story we’ve had,” says Mehrberg, Park District director of lakefront facilities. The elegant south-side center has triple the number of cultural programs it had 18 months ago and quadruple the number of people enrolled in arts-related classes and other activities.

Not surprisingly the transformation came at a price. It required a shake-up in the cultural center’s staff that left some employees and teachers both personally disgruntled and raising the awkward issue of race.

The big changes at the South Shore Cultural Center started approximately 16 months ago with the appointment of Claire Kaplan as director. A Princeton University graduate, the 26-year-old administrator had previously been assistant to John Rogers, president of the Park District’s board of commissioners. Kaplan evidently impressed both Rogers and others at Park District headquarters. Mehrberg asked her to take on the daunting task of running the South Shore Cultural Center. “We had gotten more complaints about South Shore than anywhere else in the park system,” says Mehrberg.

But some were unhappy to see a young white person in charge of a cultural center in a community that’s predominantly black. “This is tantamount to placing a Baptist preacher in charge of a Jewish synagogue, and we know that would never happen,” says Okoro Harold Johnson, a former drama instructor and director of the center who maintains he was forced out by Kaplan. “A lot of pressure was put on me,” says Johnson. According to Kaplan, Johnson “retired.”

In retrospect, Mehrberg says he may have displayed some insensitivity in appointing Kaplan, but he also believes “she understood the issues” facing the cultural center. Kaplan came to a cultural center that was, by all accounts, not in the best of shape. The SSCC has gone through several directors since 1990. Mehrberg says the center’s books and records were “in a shambles,” and others allude to inner-office financial improprieties. Don Harper, founder of the Studio, a venue for aspiring performers that was housed at the SSCC for several years and was a casualty of the new regime, puts it plainly: “Claire was brought in to clean house and restaff the place.”

Kaplan quickly formed an advisory committee to address arts-related matters. She says her goal was to develop a staff with a strong arts background. But former drama instructor Johnson says Kaplan brought Claypool’s bottom-line mentality to the cultural center, cutting out many full-timers because they were eligible for benefits such as medical insurance and pensions and replacing them with contract personnel paid by the hour. “The best use of our resources was not to have a full-time instructor in some areas,” says Kaplan, adding, “Our focus was to get the cultural center back into shape.”

Johnson is among those upset not only by the changes but by Kaplan’s tactics. Johnson says he came into the center one day last year and without any forewarning found his office had been turned over to a theater company and he had been moved to a new office in the basement. Johnson also was hit with a five-day suspension without pay and a six-month probation when another staffer alleged she heard the drama instructor call a child in one of his classes “a fool and an idiot.” Johnson says that at a hearing on the matter he was not allowed to present evidence from children in the class and their parents that would have helped prove the charge false. But the final straw, he says, was a demand from Kaplan’s program director, Tabatha Koylass, that he reorganize his schedule. Johnson says he had standing obligations on specific days off, but Koylass “had made a mistake in scheduling, and her solution was to change my off days.”

Others involved in SSCC activities had their run-ins with Kaplan too. One was Geraldine de Haas, who had been presenting a popular jazz festival at the cultural center since 1981. De Haas was issued a directive to move her festival to another location because of concerns that it had outgrown the cultural center, but she held her ground and insisted it remain at the SSCC. Apparently, after Kaplan saw the festival in operation last summer, she agreed to keep it at the cultural center. “We worked together to resolve our concerns,” says the director.

But Harper says he was forced to take the Studio nightclub out of the center when Kaplan decided she wanted the club to operate once a month instead of weekly, as it had for several years. Harper tried to reopen the Studio at another venue on the city’s south side but was unsuccessful. Khalidah Kali, who’d been giving adult dance classes at the center for five years, is also no longer on the schedule. Kali says she was abruptly told her place at the cultural center had been promised to someone else: “They arbitrarily forced me to leave.” She protested her treatment in a letter last November 30 to Park District honcho Claypool. Kaplan responded to Kali on December 4, in a letter outlining some problems with Kali and her classes. Among other things, Kaplan said, Kali was overcharging and had too few students in her classes. Kali says that no one from the cultural center discussed a fee problem with her, and that her class size had drops during the summer when many people prefer to be active outdoors.

However they may have been achieved, Kaplan prefers to point to the positive results of her tenure at the center. “I think we have a clear focus now and are using our resources to provide a diverse array of programming.” For his part, Mehrberg says Kaplan has proved her mettle in a difficult situation. “When she went to the South Shore Cultural Center, some people raised questions about Claire, but now I think they are pleased.”

By Lewis Lazare

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.