CRANSTON, R.I. — For Ailey Wilder and other teens and preteens, volunteering at the Artists’ Exchange was a way to escape.
The nonprofit arts collaborative houses multiple studios and hosts events centered around the arts. It offers an “exploration of the arts” through classes, summer camps, school programs, birthday parties, and partnerships with other organizations on performances.
“For those of us who didn’t come from great households, it was our home away from home,” Wilder, 29, told the Globe recently. “We were always there.”
She started going there when she was about 12, she said. Some of the adults who worked there were like parental figures who doted on the kids, giving them gifts, and emotional support. One staffer in particular — John McKenna — paid extra attention to her, she said. She said he would give her gifts, such as CDs, and notes about how “different” she was from other children. She felt special, singled out for the attention from him.
But from the time she was about 14 to 16, she wrote in a Facebook post in late June, the attention from adult staffers became less innocent. In retrospect, she alleges that McKenna was “grooming” her for inappropriate sexual activity.
He wasn’t the only one, Wilder and other women who spent time there as teens told the Globe. They described lurid texts, sexually explicit comments, inappropriate interactions, and attempts by adult men in their 40s to date teenage girls. Of the nearly two dozen former Artists’ Exchange employees and volunteers interviewed by the Globe, several said they had witnessed inappropriate behavior, and the rest said they had heard similar allegations at the time.
From flattering to frightening
When Wilder was about 13, she said, adult staff members — both men and women — started telling her she was “very developed for her age,” had “very large breasts for a young teen,” that she “could someday be a star” because of her looks, she said. Older male staffers said they were “excited to see what she would look like when she got older,” she said.
The attention made her feel uncomfortable and she tried to brush off the comments. But it continued to escalate, especially with McKenna, who wrote a play, casting her as his lover, and told her she would have to act out having sex with him on stage.
“Then he started telling me that we needed to ‘rehearse,’” said Wilder.
“Between the gifts and unwanted attention he was giving me, and now trying to have sex with me in a play … It was so devastating. And at the time, everyone around me kept telling me to never find myself alone with him,” Wilder told the Globe. “He was like a warm father figure and friend. I have never been the same.”
While their interactions did not become physical, Wilder said, “Looking back, I’m like how did no adult think, ‘This doesn’t look good’? Here’s a middle-aged man wanting to act out sex on stage with a 13-year-old girl.”
Cathy McGillivray is the executive director of Gateways to Change, the nonprofit that owns Artists’ Exchange. In a written statement to the Globe sent by her spokesman, Jeffrey Kasle, who is a lawyer, she acknowledged that McKenna had written the play that Wilder described. But, she said, she and some of the other administrators thought the play was inappropriate and “directed the same day that the play not be produced.”
“AE subsequently filled the resulting gap with a play that had previously been performed, a highly unusual step. It’s important to note that the decision to cancel the initial play was controversial — the director of AE at the time, among others, strongly objected to the decision,” said Kasle in a written statement.
The director of the Artists’ Exchange at the time was McKenna’s sister, Elaine McKenna-Yeaw. McKenna-Yeaw is now the executive director of the Worcester Center for Crafts, one of the oldest educational craft centers in the US. She did not respond to requests for comment.
McKenna did not respond to multiple inquiries from the Globe, including calls made to a Newport theater group that lists him on its website as a staff member.
Fired, but later rehired
In her Facebook post, Wilder says that pattern extended to other staffers at the Artists’ Exchange as well.
“When I was 14 I saw texts from Tom Chace, the former music director of Artists’ Exchange, to a 12 yr old cast-mate describing the size and curve of his penis and what he was going to do to her with it,” she wrote. The two girls reported the texts to several staffers, she wrote, including Rich Morra, a director at the Artists’ Exchange.
In a written statement to the Globe, McGillivray’s lawyer and representative, Kasle, acknowledged that the incident did take place, and that Morra told McGillivray about the texts “the same day” that the girls told him. He said that McGillivray fired Chace and met with the 12-year-old girl’s mother “in less than 24 hours.”
“During that conversation, [McGillivray] expressed her outrage at what had happened, apologized on behalf of AE and discussed how to proceed on the matter, including offering to contact the police. The recipients’ mother asked that [McGillivray] not contact the police, and [McGillivray] agreed,” Kasle said in a written statement.
“Confronted at the time about his behavior, [Chace] acknowledged that it reflected a grave error in judgment for which he expressed deep remorse,” said Kasle.
Still, Chace was rehired at the Artists’ Exchange two years later. From that point on, Kasle said Chace “did not work with children, but only with adults.”
“In that capacity there were no complaints about Tom, who left AE altogether a few years ago,” said Kasle.
Chace responded to a Globe reporter’s inquiries with an emailed statement, in which he brought up other allegations that the Globe had not asked him about.
“I did not kiss or in any way have a physical interaction with a 12-year-old as alleged,” he wrote. “This is not who I am, who I was, or who I will ever be. The idea of it disgusts me and I’m mortified and embarrassed to see my name associated with it. How [Wilder] came to that belief is unknown to me. I’ve tried to contact [Wilder] and the individual who I allegedly kissed so that I could find out why. I’ve offered to accompany them to the police or to mediators so we could get official help getting to the bottom of it.”
“I did not ever purposefully send explicit details of my body or a description of sex acts to a 12-year-old as alleged,” he wrote. “There was an exchange of text messages about shaving pubic hair, which I recalled to the best of my recollection in a statement to Artists’ Exchange when these claims surfaced in 2019. This flip exchange referenced an amusing and slightly awkward moment in class during an improv game; meant to be silly, but reckless nevertheless. I took full responsibility for that 13 years ago, and still do today.”
After Wilder named Chace in her Facebook post, Chace sent her a series of Facebook messages, which were shared with the Globe. In them, Chace wrote: “I’m so sorry that I repressed the truth to everyone, including myself for so long, and for the pain and damage I’ve done to lives affected. I honestly don’t remember my exchanges with [the 12-year-old girl] ever becoming physical at all, but the texts may have been more explicit than I wanted to remember.”
Chace, who has been a music teacher “in good standing” at St. Andrew’s School in Barrington since 2015, was placed on paid administrative because of the Artists’ Exchange allegations, according to the school’s communications director, O’rya Hyde-Keller. The school has hired Elizabeth H. Canning, Esq., an independent counsel, to conduct a review.
Longstanding policies, but not enforced
In a statement sent to the Globe and posted on social media, Artists’ Exchange officials said they “have recently been made aware of specific allegations of misconduct by people who were involved with our programs in the past, but are no longer part of Artists’ Exchange.”
“Although these alleged incidents occurred many years ago — some more than 15 years ago — we want to be very clear that the behavior in these allegations is completely unacceptable to us and runs counter to the culture of support and encouragement that Artists’ Exchange strives to nurture every day,” read the statement, which does not deny that the alleged incidents took place. “Nothing is more important than the safety and protection of the children in our programs — it is our top priority.”
We have recently been made aware of specific allegations of misconduct by people who were involved with our programs in...Posted by Artists' Exchange on Friday, July 9, 2021
In the statement, Artists’ Exchange lists several policies that they say have been in place “for many years,” including prohibiting carpooling between students and staff, prohibiting the sharing of personal information by staff “with students of any age,” and having the R.I. attorney general’s office conduct background checks for employees, contractors, and volunteers. Kasle said Morra received a clean check from the state Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation in 2002. But former employees and volunteers says such policies were not enforced.
“I was there for years. No one ever said to me, ‘We’re running a BCI check.’ No one ever said ‘go to your local police department.’ I never signed anything. No one ever asked,” Mary Paolino, a former volunteer at the Artists’ Exchange, told the Globe.
Several former employees described incidents of teenage girls “hanging out” with adult male employees, alone with adult male employees in cars, and going to bars and restaurants with the adult employees at night — all things supposedly prohibited “for many years.”
Paolino recalled seeing a girl who looked to be 7 to 9 years old sitting on an adult male staffer’s lap. Though Kasle said it is longstanding policy for more than one staff member to be assigned to a classroom at a time, Paolino said no other adults were in the room, though other children were.
Paolino said she could not identify the child but thought it was inappropriate for her to be sitting on the man’s lap — but she did not report it at the time.
”I didn’t because I didn’t want to make a scene with so many kids there. I feel like a jerk for not saying something at the time. I really regret it now,” Paolino told the Globe.
Another woman, who had attended Artists’ Exchange as a young teen, told the Globe that Morra “texted me the day I turned 18 and said he wanted to take me out on a date.” She and Morra later had a relationship while she was in college, she said.
The woman, who asked to remain anonymous for privacy purposes, said Morra told her she could never return to Artists’ Exchange, not even to watch a play, because people would call their relationship “inappropriate.”
“He would often tell me that he noticed me from the day we met,” she told the Globe. She started at the Artists’ Exchange when she was 16.
“Some people won’t see the big deal in our relationship because I was 18,” she said. “But as a woman, who works with kids now, I know that he groomed me the entire time I was a minor. Just like the other men did with other teenage girls there.”
Other female employees, volunteers, and former attendees interviewed by the Globe mentioned this particular relationship as one they watched develop before the teenager turned 18 and Morra asked her out. They described Morra’s behavior toward the teenager as “controlling” and “manipulative.”
She added, “We were all victims.”
Morra did not respond to repeated requests for comment from the Globe.
Kasle said Artists’ Exchange notified Rhode Island State Police of “all the information [it] had received about the issues raised on social media.” But Major Laurie Ludovici, a spokeswoman for the state police, told the Globe in an email that there was “never an open investigation.” No charges have been filed, though Burrillville Police Lieutenant Guy Riendeau, who investigates sex crimes, talked to Wilder in May about her allegations. He told the Globe that he found her “credible” and described what she had to say as “alarming.”
‘No one listened to me’
Derek Montecalvo, now 31, was a performer at Artists’ Exchange around 2009. He said when he read about allegations of sexual misconduct in Wilder’s Facebook post, he wondered “what took so long” for the information to go public. He told the Globe that he had witnessed inappropriate interactions himself.
During a rehearsal for a production of “Cider House Rules,” Chace made an explicitly sexual comment to a “younger castmate,” who Montecalvo described as around “middle school or high school age.”
Montecalvo told the Globe that he heard or witnessed several other incidents and tried to speak up. But as an adult with Prader-Willi syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes intellectual disability, obesity, and shortness in height, he said he felt like his concerns were “brushed off.”
“I was told by one of the former executives that I shouldn’t worry about it because I probably don’t even know what I’m talking about,” said Montecalvo. “It was like they were saying to me that I was stupid because I was disabled. And that I didn’t know what I was talking about. I know exactly what happened.
“I reported some of this behavior to at least four different people. Some were people who were able to make decisions at Artists’ Exchange, and the others were from Gateways to Change,” said Montecalvo, who said he stopped performing at the theatre in 2011 because he felt as though he was “not treated equally.”
“No one listened to me,” he said.
The theater community calls for change
In July, members of the theater community and donors to Gateways for Change sent an open letter to the Artists’ Exchange staff and board of directors, demanding an investigation into child sexual abuse by Artists’ Exchange employees and partners, as well as the allegations of sexual abuse raised against Epic Theater’s artistic director, Kevin Broccoli, who worked with Artists’ Exchange until recently. Nearly 100 people had signed the letter as of Sept. 3.
WomensWork Theatre Collaborative announced in July that it had suspended its use-of-space contract with the Artists’ Exchange because of these allegations.
“We stand with all survivors of power-based violence, including, and most especially, victims of sexual trauma,” said the announcement.
Artists’ Exchange came under new leadership in 2019, Kasle said, and is “taking concrete steps to update and put in place strict safety policies for children, similar to the extensive, effective polices already in place for all participants in Gateways to Change and AE programs.”
Kasle also said that under the new leadership, the Artists’ Exchange has engaged with the Rhode Island Theater Coalition, which is an effort to improve safety policies throughout the entire theater community. Kasle said leadership “looks forward to constructive input from that process.”
The supposedly “extensive, effective policies already in place” were not enforced when they were at Artists’ Exchange, according to the women who attended programs there as teenagers.
“The people at Gateways to Change knew what was happening. They allowed these men to create a space in which teenage girls were targeted,” said Megan Miele, who worked at Artists’ Exchange as a teenager. “AE was supposed to be a safe space for us. It became hell. And reporting incidents didn’t mean anything.”
Miele has daughters of her own now, and she and her husband often help with local theater programs in the summer.
When asked if she would send her daughters to Artists’ Exchange now, she replied simply: “Never.”
Alexa Gagosz can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.