Saratoga County

Controversies trip up Museum of Dance

Staff resignations, a layoff and a debate about John Travolta’s induction into the Dance Hall of Fam

Staff resignations, a layoff and a debate about John Travolta’s induction into the Dance Hall of Fame have thrown the National Museum of Dance, once again, into chaos.

Michele Riggi, chairwoman of the board at the museum, said the museum is running on “a skeleton crew” after losing three of its five employees. This came at the same time that members of the Hall of Fame nominating committee expressed frustration with Riggi and the board for bypassing the process and inviting “Saturday Night Fever” star Travolta as the next Hall of Fame inductee.

Riggi invited Travolta to enter the Hall of Fame, joining dance luminaries like George Balanchine, Martha Graham, Isadora Duncan and Fred Astaire, last fall. Riggi said she would honor Travolta, as well as Ben Vereen and Tommy Tune, in what she calls the Dancers in Film, a new branch of the hall.

Judy Fiore, a member of the hall nominating committee, would not comment on Travolta’s worthiness to enter the hall. However, she was not happy that the committee was not consulted on Travolta.

“I can tell you that we were bypassed. I am definitely upset about that. I have been on the committee a long time,” said Fiore who is on the committee with other area dance advocates such as Pat Peterson and Mary Anne Fantauzzi. “As far as I understand the process, the committee makes the nominations. This goes back to the beginning of the museum. John Travolta is not the issue. The process is.”

Riggi said since the executive board agreed that Travolta should be in the Hall of Fame, she took it upon herself to invite him. Travolta has yet to respond to the invitation. However, Vereen, known for his work on Broadway and in the miniseries “Roots,” has accepted a place in the hall.

“You know they call the museum the ‘Dead Museum.’ I’m trying to make the museum alive. I want to induct people who are living. John Travolta would bring in excitement. He would bring revenue into Saratoga. He is a dancer. The board said ‘yes, let’s do it.’ So I did it,” Riggi said.

Besides, she added, the Dancers in Film Hall, which is to be located opposite the original hall of fame, does not yet have a nominating committee as it is new.

In addition to the Travolta controversy, staff reductions are affecting the museum.

Donna Galeoto, who managed the volunteers and gift shop, was laid off as a cost-cutting measure. The resignations of arts and programming manager Beth Hartle and grant writer Lauren Zoppa followed.

Hartle, who took over at the museum in fall 2005 when Garrett Smith quit, said she resigned in December because “It was time for me to do something new.”

“The fact is the museum is demanding. I learned a lot. I just knew it was time,” she said.

Riggi said that she felt Hartle “didn’t want to be questioned on things she was doing.” Still, she said, “When Beth left, I was blown away. I had no idea. I’m Italian. We can disagree. But then it’s over. I still love you. I just bought Beth a wedding gift. I love Beth. When she left, I was so shocked. She did a wonderful job. I hope the best for her.”

As for Zoppa, Riggi said, “She was there for a year and didn’t bring in one grant. We had to re-evaluate what was going on there. That’s my job.”

Zoppa, who worked two days a week for the past year, said that is not true. She said she secured three grants, and two more were pending, when she left.

“The primary reason I left was I had difficulty with the board,” said Zoppa. “I didn’t think they were acting in the best interest of the museum. I would give them monthly reports, they didn’t read them. It was frustrating. And their priorities were changing on a weekly basis. But it was difficult for me to leave because the museum has tremendous potential.”

The museum, which is usually open on weekends in the winter and spring, is now closed until Memorial Day. Two employees remain, administrative assistant Lindsay Kiddle and rentals manager Jo Ambrosio. Raul Martinez took over teaching for Hartle at the museum’s School of Arts. The museum, a program of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, is interviewing candidates to replace Hartle.

Riggi said they are not looking for people with museum experience.

“We don’t have the proper lighting and air to protect things in the museum. I think it would be difficult to get people in here because the museum is not Smithsonian quality,” said Riggi.

The state of flux is nothing new for the museum. Since its opening in 1986, nearly all the directors have either been fired or resigned because they were at odds with the board or SPAC administration. Just two years ago, most its staff was laid off. Its remaining director and board president resigned in unison just months later.

“This seems to be the pattern for the museum,” said Zoppa. “We were hoping it won’t happen again, but it did.”

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