Changes are afoot at the Mabel Tainter Center for the Arts. On Tuesday, the board of directors announced that it has ended employment of Executive Director Steve Renfree, whose last day was Dec. 29.
According to a media release, the board emphasized that Renfree is not the employee under investigation by the police regarding a Dec. 9 incident involving sexual assault allegations at the Mabel.
The board was informed at its Dec. 19 meeting that Menomonie police had responded to the Mabel Tainter around 2 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 9 after receiving a report about an alleged incident. The employee, who has not been identified, was suspended without pay pending the outcome of the investigation.
Menomonie Police Chief Eric Atkinson said on Tuesday that the case is pending and neither charges nor an arrest have been made.
In the interim
Asked about why Renfree was dismissed, MTCA Board President Andrew Mercil said there was no particular reason: "The ongoing issues that we've had with Steve Renfree that basically began with the start of his employment were substantial. And the sexual assault allegations which now turn out to, it sounds like, be more serious than we were initially informed of — and the mismanagement of that situation put the Mabel at risk."
Calling it one of the "big turning points" that led to the firing, Mercil added, "The employee who the allegations were made against continued to work for the next 10 days even though Steve was informed ... until the board was notified. Two board members, myself and [attorney] Charlie Huff, were the ones who immediately suspended the employee the following day because keeping the Mabel safe is the top priority of the board."
As the search for a new executive director is underway, daily operations are being overseen by the board, spearheaded by Mercil who said he is taking a partial leave of absence from his position of degree audit coordinator at University of Wisconsin-Stout.
The board is in the process of forming a hiring committee with plans to post the position. The recruitment process for a new executive director will be undertaken by Michelle Dingwall, board vice president, who said, “We look forward to filling this vital position soon to ensure the Mabel’s vitality for generations to come.”
Mercil added that among the board's plans are working to build stronger community partnerships, set the 2018-19 season, launch a new website, start new arts programming, all while working on bringing in new patrons to the Mabel.
“The Mabel Tainter has been the creative cornerstone for our community and will celebrate its 128th year in 2018," Mercil said. "Many people have come and gone during her history, but the one constant is that our Mabel remains a center for the arts for everyone. Our dedicated team of board members, staff, and volunteers are working hard to ensure that 2018 will be a wonderful year at our Mabel."
At its January 2015 meeting, Renfree was introduced as the new executive director to the Dunn County Board of Supervisors by Lucy Weidner, long-time MTCA board member who was serving as interim director following former director Amy Reises's resignation the previous fall.
“We’ve had a busy couple of months transitioning since Amy [Reise] left," Weidner said at the time, adding that with what she called three very strong candidates, “It was a very difficult choice for us to have to make — and it was nice to be in that position.”
In his end-of-year message to Mabel patrons, Renfree wrote: "In 2017, the Mabel Tainter Center for the Arts experienced one of its most successful years in its 126-year history. Adults and children participated in a variety of art classes, facility rentals surpassed budgetary goals, and audience members enjoyed many remarkable performances from renowned artists such as Paula Poundstone, Noel Paul Stookey, Marty Haggard, John McCutcheon, TG Sheppard, Olate Dogs, Judy Collins, and the Cinderella and Nutcracker ballets. Furthermore, we are so very fortunate to be receiving generous end-of-the year donations from our supporters."
Following his dismissal, Renfree said, "I look forward to spending more time with family and volunteering for local community agencies like Rotary. I will always be a loyal supporter of the Mabel Tainter Center for the Arts."