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Shinn, Smith on different sides of Storytelling fence

With Storytelling’s future hanging in the balance, all parties concerned are waiting to see if former NBA team owner George Shinn will proceed with a game on approach or choose to take his ball and go home.
Shinn and the ISC Board of Directors are apparently at an impasse, both citing very different visions for the financially troubled organization whose future rests ultimately with a decision in federal bankruptcy court.
Discussions between current ISC President Jimmy Neil Smith and Shinn have ceased following Shinn’s presentations to the ISC Board of Directors, the National Storytelling Network and the creditors committee.
Shinn is proposing a new direction for the ISC that includes the resignation of the current board and the removal of Smith as the organization’s president.
He is also advocating for a revamping of the current festival, the addition of a spring festival in Jonesborough and development of a storytelling brand that would include recording and broadcasting components.
Smith and the ISC board have gone on record rejecting Shinn’s plan, saying that his “takeover” of the organization could “damage the cultural integrity of storytelling.”
Shinn told the Herald & Tribune during a phone interview last week that he was caught off guard by the ISC’s strong opposition.
Since his earlier communications with Smith had been pleasant, Shinn said, he was taken aback by his first meeting with the ISC board, a meeting he described as the “first real uncomfortable, negative conversation for us.”
“They put me at one end of a table and my wife, Denise, all the way at the other end with a speaker phone in the middle, while the board sat at a u-shaped table,” Shinn said. “Their attorney set it up like we were the enemy and it was like a deposition. It was extremely uncomfortable.”
Until that meeting, Shinn thought things were progressing well.
“When we first had meetings with Jimmy, I offered my help,” Shinn said. “But I made it very clear that if I got involved, I was going to pick my own board. I made it very clear from the beginning and I re-emphasized that a number of times during a meeting with him and two of his key people, Susan O’Connor and Sandy Reaves. They all responded positively and seemed to like the direction.
“If something is slipping down the tubes, I would be foolish to put up a lot of money and keep the same management there. I was led to believe we were going to join hands with everyone including the creditors. I thought the best thing to do is get all the parties together and see what it will take to make this thing work.”
Smith confirmed that Shinn did tell him he would have to step aside as the president of ISC and that there would be a new board. Smith also acknowledged that he had not indicated to Shinn that there was a problem with the plan.
“As time went on and we started understanding more about what he wanted to do and his desire to make changes that were or could be detrimental to the festival and this program, we became concerned,” Smith said. “(Shinn) asked for time with the board in late February. I don’t have the authority to accept or reject anyone’s plans or proposals. That was a decision the board would have to make. Consequently, I was open to his discussions with the board.”
Smith said the issue is more about awareness, knowledge and sensitivity to the festival and storytelling.
“It’s difficult for me to understand that someone without serious experience in storytelling and the festival could install changes,” he said. “I would be fearful that George’s experience wouldn’t ensure that the changes in storytelling and the festival would be sensitive and appropriate.”
Such changes could actually damage the brand, the quality and the success of the festival, Smith said.
Smith cited one specific change — the addition of music to the festival — as problematic.
“Music isn’t in and of itself a bad decision,” Smith said. “We have storytelling and music currently. However, music for its own sake may be a decision that would change the appeal of the festival. Does then the storytelling festival become something else?”
Smith said Jonesborough is eager to retain the storytelling brand and retain the claim as the storytelling capital of the world.
“Something other than that could be harmful to Jonesborough and the festival,” he said.
Shinn maintains that his purpose for getting involved is just to help and he has no intentions of harming storytelling.
“I felt like, well, this thing is going under. It could end up in Chapter 7, on the courthouse steps. But I’m not going to go in and pay off all the bills. I’m not dumb,” Shinn said. “Jimmy will try to defend his turf, but good grief, our goal is only to help. I wasn’t going to the courts. We’re trying to resurrect it. If anything is damaging storytelling, it’s the bankruptcy.”
Responding to the ISC’s allegations that Shinn plans to take control of storytelling and move it out of Jonesborough, Shinn said, “That’s the most foolish thing I’ve ever heard. I would never. That’s where it should be. That’s where it’s got to be.”
Shinn plans to include adding a second storytelling festival in Jonesborough in the spring and creating additional storytelling festivals in other cities. He has also suggested a tie-in with new Christian broadcasting and recording entities in Nashville he has recently acquired.
Whatever the outcome, Shinn is making it clear he doesn’t intend to be sitting on the sidelines. He has already created a new non-profit entity, the American Storytelling Association, that is up and ready for operation pending the bankruptcy court’s decision.
But almost in the same breath, Shinn says he doesn’t want to fight and he’s still willing to work with Smith.
“I’ll work with him if he’s willing to work with me. But he’s not going to be driving the car. I’m going to be driving,” Shinn said. “If people are saying, ‘Here comes this rich man and he’s going to barrel over poor old Jimmy,’ I’ll walk away before I do that.”
During their previous conversations, Shinn said he reminded Smith that the ISC was in trouble, and a lot of people blamed him.
“I also told him that I would hire his people,” Shinn said. “And as long as they do a good job, they’ll stay on board.”
Jane Hillhouse, owner of Hillhouse Graphic Design and chairman of the creditors committee, said she and the group were “excited” about ideas that Shinn presented to them.
“We did tell him that we would have to see a plan before we could endorse anything,” she said. “He understands that; he’s a businessman. He’s been a supporter of storytelling for many years and is a resident in the area and wants to ensure that things progress well for storytelling and the community.
“We talked about a whole range of ideas and overall, the committee was enthusiastic about his ideas.”
Hillhouse added that there has also been no discussion concerning “anything concrete about the payment plan” to repay debt.
“It wouldn’t be fair to him or to the creditors to say anything about that,” she said. “It would be premature.”
Hillhouse, who has worked with the ISC for 26 years, emphasized that the creditors are “interested in making sure the movement continues in a positive way for everyone and for the art of storytelling.”
“I think that’s what all parties are interested in,” she added. “We can’t do an ‘us-vs- them.’ We have to work together. The negotiations are all about what paths we’re going to take. But we’re all working toward a common goal – the continued health of the storytelling movement.
“There has to be some kind of change to get on stronger financial footing – but how we are going to get there is yet to be seen.”
Another group that Shinn has approached with his plans is the National Storytelling Network’s Board of Directors.
Caren Neile, chairman of the NSN Board, responded to a call from the Herald & Tribune on Monday morning, sending an e-mailed statement.
“Both the National Storytelling Network and ISC evolved from a single organization that was created to support the National Storytelling Festival,” the statement reads. “Over nearly 40 years, many of NSN’s members have contributed an extraordinary amount of time and expertise to the Festival for little or no compensation. We did so because we knew we were building something that belonged to us and in which we believed.
“Out of duty to our membership, the NSN Board must listen to any offer by an individual or organization that respects the professionalism of our storytellers and recognizes our half-ownership of the Festival.”