Two weeks ago, Jeremy Gaucher, the then-artistic director of Sushi Performance and Visual Art was happy as he walked into his performance review. He was at the start of a fall season he had programmed in its entirety, and just the night before he'd attended a packed-house performance of Sushi's popular 4x4 dance series. He went to his meeting with Edward Hunter, the president of Sushi's board, armed with a presentation of his past success and his hopes for the future.
Instead, he was fired.
'It hurt,' Gaucher told CityBeat.
The reason had everything to do with fundraising. Hunter and the board needed Gaucher to do it, and Gaucher didn't want to devote half his time to a capital campaign.
'It was a bad match,' Hunter said.
For the members of the board--who had voted unanimously to let Gaucher go--the organization is entering a crucial moment in its history. For 18 years, first under founder Lynn Schuette, then under artistic directors Vicki Wolf, Allyson Green and Gaucher, Sushi has built a reputation for sussing out new artistic talent and producing innovative performances that fuse together myriad artistic disciplines. The name Sushi connoted more than just raw fish across the country, from San Francisco to New York, and even the artistic havens of Europe.
But in 2003 the organization was beset by problems. A national trend of reduced arts funding meant a dramatic reduction in Sushi's budget. Then its longtime East Village home was demolished as part of downtown redevelopment, forcing the group to spend the last several years wandering San Diego's arts-venue desert. Finally, after 10 years on the job, Wolf left. Allyson Green, newly arrived in San Diego, took over the organization. She righted the financial ship, nearly quadrupling the operating budget from $40,000 to $150,000, created relationships with venues citywide and established portable programs that could be flexible depending on the venue.
'We wanted to show people who maybe never get downtown what Sushi was about,' Green told CityBeat.
The organization also overhauled its board, adding members with more fundraising connections and business experience. They hired a part-time business manager to keep the books straight.
In 2005, Green handed the reins to Gaucher so she could focus on her work as head of the UCSD dance faculty. At the time, Gaucher, a Massachusetts native, had been in San Diego for three years, first with the San Diego Performing Arts League, then later as executive director of Sledgehammer, one of San Diego's edgier theater companies. He lasted only eight months there because he struggled to raise money.
But at Sushi, Gaucher felt he'd found his place. He told CityBeat that he funded his whole operating budget through grants and donations, including thousands of dollars of in-kind donations.
Soon Sushi will move into a new, permanent space downtown. Its board is initiating a $1 million capital campaign to fund the move and launching a national search for an executive director. Last year, the board re-hired Schuette as an interim executive director to prepare for the move and to conduct the search. Schuette was unavailable this week for comment.
'And that's why we added an interim executive director--to take over the capital campaign,' Gaucher said. 'I was glad to have brought the organization to this stable place where we could add someone who did fundraising.'
Gaucher told CityBeat he wouldn't want to be an executive director, and that he was willing only to devote about 25 percent of his time to development. As far as the board was concerned, that kind of thinking was exactly the problem.
'We need leadership who will give fundraising equal priority with programming,' Hunter said. 'We think he was a fantastic artistic director, but he was not one to focus on the practicalities. We can't afford that.'
The organization will preserve the fall schedule Gaucher organized and will continue his pay-what-you-can program. For the full season, tickets will cost only what patrons can afford. Hunter said ticket sales make up only 'a modest part of the budget.'
Gaucher's dismissal reverberated through the artistic world, but perhaps not in the way one might expect.
'It's just a little distressing. It seemed abrupt. I know it seemed upsetting to him,' said Liam Clancy, a UCSD dance professor who created 4x4.
'Doing it at the start of the season--the timing is unfortunate,' Green said. She pointed out that lopping off Gaucher's salary now, with the program in place, also represented some savings to the board as they prepare for the move.
But as those tepid responses indicate, the artistic community in San Diego might not have been wholeheartedly behind the young artistic director.
'I wasn't getting a sense of what Jeremy's vision was going to be,' Green said. 'He wasn't as proactive as he could have been, possibly.'
Green enjoyed the work that Sushi has presented the last few years, but she notes that many of Sushi's biggest successes are products of others' creativity. She cited the 4x4 series, one of Sushi's biggest hits of the last year, which was started by Clancy.
Other artists CityBeat spoke to declined to be interviewed on the record, but a couple suggested that Gaucher hadn't been reaching out to the larger artistic community as aggressively as Wolf and Schuette had done. The current program does include several international and nationally known artists. But there was also some discontent over the size of the program.
'I think part of being a community-minded director of a nonprofit means working with artists who are doing things. Sushi is a presenting organization by definition,' Gaucher countered. 'This entire upcoming season is programmed by me in my vision. Since I've been here, I've presented artists from Zimbabwe, Slovenia, Mexico, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, L.A., Seattle.'
Gaucher was disappointed to learn of the criticism. 'I've gotten so much support from professors, from the media, from the artistic community, in support of me in the organization. I'm in shock I have to defend myself in this way. It's disappointing.'
By now, Gaucher has already moved on. He has several consulting gigs set up, including work with the San Diego Children's Museum and the Liberty School.
'I put the season together; I think it's a great season,' he said. 'It's a group of artists that I really wanted to work with. It's kind of too bad that I won't be able to do that, from the [artistic director] position, but I'm going to the shows. I'll definitely be at the shows.'