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Outside the Box festival reflects a vision for arts

Ted Cutler is giving the city a $5m arts fest, but there have been bruises along the way

The team behind Outside the Box included managing director Kevin T. Carlon (left), artistic director Sherrie Johnson, and founder and chairman Ted Cutler.

BILL BRETT FOR THE GLOBE

The team behind Outside the Box included managing director Kevin T. Carlon (left), artistic director Sherrie Johnson, and founder and chairman Ted Cutler.

Even his own managing director told Ted Cutler not to do it this summer, that there simply wasn’t enough time to launch what Cutler is calling the biggest arts and music festival in Boston’s history.

Others warned the Dorchester-born millionaire that holding the Outside the Box festival could cost him more than $5 million.

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But Cutler didn’t change his mind. Only weeks from the festival’s launch, he chuckled as he explained why he stubbornly pushed forward.

“I’m going to be 83 years old,” he said. “I don’t buy green bananas, for Christ’s sake. I want this to happen when I’ve got a couple of years to enjoy it.”

Outside the Box, scheduled to run July 13 to 21 on the Boston Common and City Hall Plaza, is a huge undertaking, promising more than 200 musical acts and other artists. Organizers hope to draw as many as 1 million people with popular bands such as the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Los Lobos, local productions by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company and Puppet Showplace Theatre, and performers from Italy, Australia, and Israel.

A gift to the city from an arts patron and philanthropist who hopes that it may one day help define his legacy, it’s all free to the public.

But the tab, for Cutler, could be considerable. Unable to attract paying sponsors, he will probably foot the entire bill. And his single-minded approach has led, some say, to a cost that goes beyond his wallet.

Management troubles have dogged the festival. In early May, Sherrie Johnson, whom Cutler had lured from Canada to be the festival’s artistic director, resigned after complaining about being disrespected.

Associate curator Georgia Lyman, an actress and fixture in the arts scene, followed suit, feeling the festival had lost its way. Several prominent local arts leaders, having been listed without their knowledge as directors of a nonprofit that Cutler set up to manage the festival, asked to be removed from it.

And a series of failed negotiations — with SpeakEasy Stage Company, Newton television producer Sam Weisman, and MIT Media Lab composer Tod Machover — have raised concerns that Cutler’s Boston dream will, in fact, be less than advertised, a smorgasbord of mostly concert acts thrown together by a deep-pocketed donor.

That’s a far cry from an event Cutler has likened to a Boston version of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, a world-renowned annual event whose slate ranges from dance and comedy to opera, theater, and music, performed by artists who descend on the Scottish city from all around the globe.

“I’ve always admired Ted Cutler and everything he’s done for the community,” said Weisman, frustrated that his plans to bring singer Ben Folds and a cappella artists to the festival came to nought. “But I fear this is a train wreck waiting to happen.”

Forging ahead

Cutler doesn’t take kindly to the criticism.

“It isn’t a train wreck waiting to happen,” said Cutler. “This is the best piece of work ever to be done for the city.”

Indeed, the scope of the festival is striking. On opening day, according to the festival website, visitors will be able to take in everything from the Boston Children’s Chorus to rock singer Alejandro Escovedo and Strange Fruit, a theatrical circus/dance troupe that performs atop swaying 16-foot poles. On ensuing days, music lovers can sample country artist Ricky Skaggs, blues legend Taj Mahal, the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, and rockers Buffalo Tom and the Lemonheads.

Local dance groups include the hip-hop Floorlords Crew and contemporary ensemble Prometheus Dance. And the Boston Food Fest on City Hall Plaza will feature such chefs as Gordon Hamersley, Jody Adams, Ming Tsai, and Todd English.

Outside the Box — taking place the same month as the Boston Globe WGBH Summer Arts Weekend, set for July 26 to 28 in Copley Square — is driven by Cutler’s personal vision and unconventional approach. Where most cultural festivals are nonprofit ventures guided by boards of directors, Outside the Box is a privately funded party ruled by one man.

Cutler did create a nonprofit organization, Boston Arts Summer Institute Inc., with a board of directors to help him manage Outside the Box, but the board has never had a meeting, and several people listed as directors learned of their ostensible role only when contacted earlier this month by the Globe.

That call prompted four of them, including Museum of Fine Arts director Malcolm Rogers, Citi Performing Arts Center president and chief executive Josiah A. Spaulding Jr., and Boston Lyric Opera general and artistic director Esther Nelson, to ask to be taken off the board.

“We clearly made a mistake,” said Cutler, who chalked it up to a paperwork error.

Cutler remains the singular force behind Outside the Box. Every proposed performance must be approved by him. Disputes among staff are left to him to arbitrate. When Cutler discovered recently that the Tiger Lillies, the acclaimed British trio, were not a “family-friendly” band, they were abruptly dropped from the Spiegeltent that the American Repertory Theater is programming.

Cutler also hired managing director Kevin Carlon, who has spent much of his career in sports management and has been criticized for being difficult to work with. Carlon, in turn, hired his fiancee as the festival’s director of operations, though her background is largely in catering and sales. To take the job, she left a position coordinating weddings at Cranwell Resort in the Berkshires.

Cutler’s supporters are unapologetic.

“The boss isn’t always right, but he’s always the boss,” said Paul Roberts, who has worked on the festival as the attorney in Cutler’s business office. “The fact of the matter is, it’s his festival, it’s his money, and when the boss says march to the right, you can’t march to the left.”

Cutler said he first wanted to hold Outside the Box in 2008. By then, he was already known for his persistence as well as his philanthropy. His life story itself served as an inspiration, from growing up the son of a grocery truck driver to earning a liberal arts degree at Emerson College and heading to Las Vegas to make his fortune. In 1995, Cutler and his business partners sold the Comdex Trade Show for $900 million and he returned to the East.

He and his late wife, Joan, have a wide-ranging history of philanthropy, from paying to light the Commonwealth Avenue Mall during the holidays and leading a $35 million campaign for the Greater Boston Food Bank to contributing to local arts organizations, particularly at Emerson. The Majestic Theatre became the Cutler Majestic Theatre after a renovation in 2003. And it was Cutler who handpicked former ART executive director Rob Orchard to launch and run ArtsEmerson, which opened in 2010.

“He has an incredible love and care and affection for this city,” said Orchard. “He respects the profile of Boston as a place that’s known throughout the world for its medical facilities and universities, and he wants to ratchet up Boston’s artistic profile.”

That’s what led Cutler to gather a group of Boston’s most prominent arts leaders five years ago to get their support for the festival. He delayed the plan because of the economic downturn. But from the start, there were skeptics.

Martha Jones, the retired longtime head of Celebrity Series of Boston, felt that holding a lengthy festival in the summer would not give Cutler a chance to draw on the city’s biggest arts presenters, whose seasons would be over. She favored a shorter festival in the spring.

Cutler, she recalled recently, largely waved off her concerns.

“He said, ‘I love you and I love the Celebrity Series, but you’re not a festival director,’” said Jones.

That disagreement added to Jones’s surprise when she learned from the Globe that she had been listed as one of 12 members on the board of the Boston Arts Summer Institute Inc., filed with the secretary of state’s office. She asked to be removed from the list.

“Ted’s a sweet man, he’s always meant very well, but he doesn’t know how to manage an artistic organization,” said Jones.

A document refiled June 4 lists only seven people as board members, including Orchard, Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen, Berklee College of Music president Roger Brown, and retired Emerson president Jacqueline Liebergott.

A functioning board could have helped address the leadership turmoil at Outside the Box. Instead of leaving Cutler as the lone decision maker, experienced arts presenters and directors could have worked to mediate and perhaps help shape the direction of the festival.

“A well chosen board can be invaluable,” said professor Sharon M. Oster, an expert on nonprofit strategy and former dean of the Yale School of Management. “It’s a case of many wise heads are better than one wise head.”

Building a team

In a recent interview to discuss her exit, Sherrie Johnson chose her words carefully and declined to criticize Cutler, whom she called “a wonderful man who loves the arts and loves the city.”

But she acknowledged that her hopes of serving as the artistic leader of a world-class arts festival dissolved during her short stay in Boston. She imagined a role similar to that of the ART’s artistic director Diane Paulus. Instead, she said, she was frozen out of most festival planning.

Johnson, 45, arrived last summer from Toronto and rented an apartment with her son, Lakshya, 5.

Johnson had left her senior curator post at the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival in Vancouver to come to Boston with a resume thick with two decades of projects. In Boston, she worked to establish relationships, meeting as many as 300 artists in less than a year.

“I kept saying to [other arts leaders], you should meet Sherrie Johnson,” said Julie A. Hennrikus, executive director of StageSource, a nonprofit service organization for local theater. “They’d say, ‘Oh, I already met her.’ Sherrie really dove in.”

To be the festival’s associate curator, Johnson hired Lyman. Johnson had hoped Cutler would find an experienced arts festival producer to run the administrative side of Outside the Box. Instead, Cutler hired Carlon to serve as managing director.

Carlon, 53, has run the American Horse Racing Association, worked for professional sports teams, and served as chief operating officer of Ruth Eckerd Hall, a performing arts presenter in Clearwater, Fla. In May, Carlon resigned as executive director of the Palace Theatre in Albany, N.Y., where his performance had brought mixed reviews, with board members praising him but some staffers complaining about his sometimes overbearing demeanor.

In an interview, Carlon declined to provide his resume or discuss his working relationship with Johnson. He said that he had contacted Cutler last summer because he was inspired by his ideas.

“I had read about this festival of Ted’s ideas and reached out to him and asked, ‘How can I help?’ ” he said. “I spent an afternoon and listened to this vision. No one in my entire career has had a vision that was so pure and clean . . . He wanted to give individuals who never get a chance to go inside a theater because it costs so much a chance to see performances that were free of charge.”

Behind the scenes

Some had hoped Outside the Box would put more focus on innovative programming involving local arts institutions. Earlier this year, for example, Outside the Box announced that SpeakEasy Stage Company would be part of the festival. As it turned out, the company will not be participating.

That is puzzling to Robert Brustein, the ART’s founding artistic director. Brustein is being honored by Outside the Box, and a klezmer musical he co-wrote, “King of the Schnorrers,” will have a staged reading at Suffolk University’s Modern Theatre as part of the festival.

“If you’re reflecting the wonders of Boston theater, you want to have the best theaters represented,” he said. “Without SpeakEasy, which is the best small theater in town, there’s a gap there.”

SpeakEasy had planned to bring back the musical “In the Heights” for festival performances at the Calderwood Pavilion. To reserve dates, the company needed money from Outside the Box. In late February, Johnson told SpeakEasy that she had spoken with Cutler. All they needed was a contract.

Jeff Kubiatowicz, SpeakEasy’s artistic fellow, said he called and e-mailed Carlon more than a dozen times during the next three weeks. They finally talked in mid-March. But a contract did not arrive until the second week of April, he said, and it did not include the financial guarantees they had discussed.

By May, without a deal in hand and the Calderwood needing to book the dates, SpeakEasy dropped out.

Machover, a professor of music and media at the MIT Media Lab, had a similar experience. He worked with Johnson to develop a “collaborative symphony” for Boston, incorporating urban sounds and musical ideas submitted by the public, similar to one he had created in Toronto and another he is developing for the Edinburgh International Festival.

“Sherrie was a great collaborator and colleague, but support from the rest of the organization seemed slow, so I finally gave up,” said Machover.

Then there was the attempt to create a program around singer Ben Folds and performers he had judged on “The Sing-Off,” the TV show co-created by Weisman. Weisman began talking with Johnson in early October. Carlon came to his home for a meeting.

The idea grew into a concert featuring Folds with an orchestra, workshops, and performances with a cappella groups that had been featured on the show. Weisman said he persuaded more than 30 artists, from singers to choreographers and lighting designers, to participate for a fraction of their standard fees.

Folds, planning a summer tour, worked to open up his schedule so he could be in Boston for almost a week. Then, said Weisman: silence. Though Cutler now says Weisman’s plan was too expensive, Weisman said he never provided a potential budget to the festival. They never got that far.

Vision is questioned

Based on his impression of the leadership chemistry at Outside the Box, Weisman said, he advised Johnson to leave for her sanity.

He also began to question Cutler’s artistic vision. Instead of a program featuring the accomplished a cappella groups of “The Sing-Off,” Outside the Box decided to hold an a cappella contest with judges including Legal Sea Foods owner Roger Berkowitz and luxury home builder Cindy Stumpo.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘We’re going to do a world-class arts festival,” said Weisman. “It’s another to say, ‘Let’s just see who’s around in the summer.’ ”

Cutler said the SpeakEasy, Machover, and Folds projects were simply too expensive. SpeakEasy, Cutler said, wanted $25,000 to stage “In the Heights.” (The theater declined to comment on the specifics of proposals.)

“They were looking for three times what it was actually going to cost,” said Cutler. “You want to know something else? They’re a great organization. It all boiled down to these people who expected more than we had.”

By May 6, Johnson and Lyman had had enough. They resigned.

Cutler said he had not wanted Johnson to leave. Now that she’s gone, though, he’s disappointed the behind-the-scenes discord has gone public.

The real focus, Cutler said, should be on the free arts and culture being offered to Bostonians.

“This will get bigger and bigger every year,” said Cutler. “And I promise you. In the third year of this happening, you will hear the industry say, ‘You have to play Boston in the summertime.’”

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.
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