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On July 6 the board of directors at HotHouse suspended founder and executive director Marguerite Horberg without pay. Horberg says the board didn’t tell her why, and the board is limited in its ability to comment publicly on personnel matters. But the bone of contention was clearly the venue’s impending transition to a dual-leadership structure–Horberg was to remain executive director, handling programming and fund-raising, and a newly appointed business director was to take over other day-to-day operations.

The board claims Horberg was resisting the change by skipping its monthly meetings and refusing to communicate–charges she denies. But if the suspension was an attempt to chasten Horberg for her alleged recalcitrance and push her to accept the new arrangement, it backfired–in large part because of the depth of her identification with HotHouse.

Horberg founded HotHouse in 1991 as an ordinary for-profit club, and has overseen its growth into an internationally respected nonprofit with an annual budget of $1.8 million, more than 40 employees, and an important niche in the local jazz and world-music communities. She’s an institution in her own right, and a bitter public squabble has erupted over her ouster, playing out in the dailies and on the Internet. A debate in the comments section of a blog run by Horberg supporter Carl Davidson (carldavidson.blogspot.com) has gotten particularly nasty, with former HotHouse employees and board members wading into the fray.

Horberg herself calls the suspension a “coup d’etat” by board president Martin Bishop and his supporters, and says it’s jeopardizing the club’s artistic identity and fund-raising ability. The board, for its part, was trying to address that very problem–that Horberg’s departure could cripple HotHouse–by spreading some of her duties around. Horberg has lawyered up, but the board maintains it was within its rights to suspend her–it’s unclear on what grounds she’ll fight.

Ironically, the idea to hire a business director originally came from Horberg. And Bishop, a senior counsel with Foley & Lardner, joined the board as president three years ago at Horberg’s request–it was part of her effort to strengthen the organization after HotHouse was briefly closed by city officials in 2003 for licensing violations. (Bishop’s firm has also acted as a pro bono legal resource for the venue.) Horberg’s relationship with the board didn’t begin to erode till January, when serious talks began about the restructuring of her job. “Her reaction once the board had committed to the dual-leadership concept is sort of baffling to everybody,” says Bishop.

It took months for the board to reach the decision to suspend Horberg–during which time, it alleges, she not only skipped the board’s meetings but got together privately with board members, staff, and representatives from donor groups, keeping the talks secret from the board as a whole. Several former employees say there have long been complaints from within the organization about her brusque handling of staff and haphazard management of day-to-day finances, and both factors may have influenced the board. Still, the timing of the emergency meeting at which it voted to suspend Horberg was impolitic–she was out of town attending a summer MBA program at Stanford.

Horberg says Bishop went to the club and told the staff she’d been suspended indefinitely and was banned from the premises. In a posting to the Davidson blog, she claimed she was never given a “specific list of grievances in my performance as Executive Director, or any opportunity to address or cure the same before I was suspended as would be accorded to anyone else in my position, let alone the founder of the organization on whose Board these trustees now serve.”

At the regular monthly board meeting on July 13, the dual-leadership plan was formalized, meaning Horberg’s old job technically ceased to exist. Five board members–Bishop, Lolita Sereales, Linda Michaels, Rochelle Gordon, and Paul McEntee–voted for the measure. Bruce Robbins abstained and Angela Spinazze was absent, but they later cosigned a post to the Davidson blog expressing their concern about the “destructive nature of recent decisions taken by others on the Board.” Horberg was not present for the meeting, though by then she was back in town.

Horberg’s ire seems to have been raised by the form the dual-leadership plan has taken–she wouldn’t have to take a pay cut, but she’d lose power and standing. She clearly wanted the business director to be a subordinate rather than an equal partner. “While proactively advocating for a split in responsibilities,” she wrote on Davidson’s blog, “I have also maintained that I am more than capable to continue as the chief executive officer that would supervise this newly created position.”

Horberg is also convinced that the board can’t keep the soul of HotHouse alive without her. “Ultimately it’s a question of mission,” she says. “Is having a Dutch avant-garde cellist playing for an audience of 12 people going to be OK with the board? Is it going to be OK to have Hamid Drake and Fred Anderson play for 40 people? Or are they only going to be looking to book blockbuster shows?”

Bishop says the board has no intention of changing HotHouse’s programming. “We can’t lose money every day,” he says, “but that’s always been the case. There’s a system of internal checks and balances that goes on to make sure the organization is being responsible to its longevity.”

Roughly one-fifth of HotHouse’s annual budget comes not from liquor sales or door receipts but through contributions from the likes of the Illinois Arts Council, Kraft Foods, and the Prince Charitable Trusts–a low figure for the field, but hardly an insignificant slice. Horberg claims the venue is risking the loss of that money by crossing swords with her. “If I leave, all the donors walk out–that’s been made clear to me,” she says.

Bishop isn’t so pessimistic. “I believe that the people who contribute financially to HotHouse do it not on the basis of any individual, but because they believe in what HotHouse stands for,” he says. “They believe in the art and the culture that it offers the city.”

The board hopes to hire a business director within the next couple weeks, and Bishop says that if Horberg decides not to assume her redefined duties as executive director, the board will start looking to fill that post too. Horberg’s attorney has contacted the board, but they haven’t started talks yet. “As far as the board is concerned,” says Bishop, “there was an offer made to her and that offer remains open–it hasn’t been taken back.”

Horberg says the only way she’d consider returning would be if Bishop and those who’ve sided with him were to resign from the board. “Otherwise, I don’t see how it works. I just don’t see how you have two visions for an organization.”

But Bishop isn’t going anywhere soon. “If it was in the best interest of HotHouse and I had the agreement of my fellow directors on the board, I think it would be my duty to step down,” he says. “Do I think that’s the case? No. We’re doing the best we can to ensure HotHouse has a future that extends past this week or next year or even ten years from now. The idea is that well after Marguerite Horberg is gone or Marty Bishop is gone HotHouse will still be here.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Joe Wigdahl.