New England Center For Circus Arts Founders Fired After Clash With Board

Jul 14, 2017

The New England Center For Circus Arts board of directors has fired the organization's founders, and supporters are rallying to their defense as the group faces an uncertain future.

Update 6:55 p.m. the NECCA board of trustees announced that it had accepted the resignation of Michael Helmstadter as director and the president had stepped down and was replaced.

Original story

NECCA has been a Vermont success story.

Serenity Smith Forchion and her twin sister, Elsie Smith, moved to Guilford, Vermont about 15 years ago. They setup a trapeze in the backyard, and began giving lessons.

Their personalities and talents drew students from across the country and last month NECCA opened a million-dollar training facility, with plans in place to start a year-round circus school in the fall.

But then this week a volunteer board shocked the school, and the international circus community, when they fired the two sisters.

Erin Lovett Sherman is NECCA's director of youth programming and she says there can't be a future without the sisters.

"We're asking for help at this point to help us right the ship," Lovett Sherman says. "I love the people here, and the students love me. I want to continue this work. I'm passionate about it. I have begged the board to step down so that we can re-form and save the school before it's too late."

Lovett Sherman says she's hanging on, for now, because she's got a camp to run and shows to put on.

But since the bombshell announcement, board members have resigned, staff have left, donors are demanding their money back, and some parents have pulled their kids out.

And all of this has happened before the grand opening of the organization's new training facility in North Brattleboro.

NECCA's new facility in North Brattleboro opened in June and the organization has not had its grand opening yet. Staff members have quit since the announcement and some parents are pulling their children out of the program.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

Smith Forchion and her twin sister built NECCA, literally from the ground up. About 10 years ago they made the very big decision to seek nonprofit status.

When an organization becomes a nonprofit they don't have to pay taxes, and they're able to apply for grants that aren't open to profit businesses. But it also means the group has to be run by a board, and when a group goes nonprofit the founders need to step back and relinquish a lot of control.

Smith Forchion says she and her sister knew the risks.

"We're asking for help at this point to help us right the ship. I have begged the board to step down so that we can re-form and save the school before it's too late." — Erin Lovett Sherman, NECCA's director of youth programming.

"Elsie and I wanted to build something that would outlast us, and that would belong to the world and to the community," she says. "And we knew in doing so you run the risk of not having control of that. We were employees at NECCA. We did that with our eyes open."

For a long time NECCA was the poster child for Brattleboro's thriving arts community.

And with 6,000 students, and more than two dozen employees, it was a model for how the arts can drive economic development.

The summer camp has been proceeding through the turmoil. About 6,000 people take lessons over the year.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

The twins travel the world performing and teaching circus, but they're not businesswomen, and Smith Forchion says it was clear they needed help running what had become a million dollar business.

Smith Forchion says a lot of this conflict with the board was precipitated while looking for the right executive director.

"Somewhere along that process there was a difference of style  and a difference of perspective of the best way to move NECCA forward into the future," she said. "And I think communication breakdown happened."

So over the past few years, while NECCA was trying to raise money for its new building and putting on its best face for the public, internally, the organization was roiling with division and infighting.

And it all came to a head this week when Smith Forchion and her sister were fired.

"This has been an 18-month-long struggle. There's nothing new about this," said NECCA board member Mel Martin. "This has been slow. It has been agonizing and it has been painful."

The news spread quickly through Brattleboro, and reverberated across the international circus community, exploding on social media. People gathered in Brattleboro Friday to support the sisters.

Martin has seen the Facebook posts, and he's heard some of the accusations lobbed at the board about power struggles and about board over reach.

In a prepared statement, the board said it's nonprofit status would be at risk if things stayed the same, but Martin says he can't provide any details about what's going on behind the scenes.

"We're sitting here and unfortunately, we're in a position where we even can't go out and begin to defend many of the allegations that are made," Martin said. "So that's why I've got a statement I can speak to and read and share with people in emails. We're trying to come back with something that's substantive and true and factual to try and set the record straight."

Martin says he hopes there's a way to get creative and bring the twins back as coaches in some capacity.

But the two sisters say they would not even consider it with the present director and board in place.