SF's Circus Center reorganizes

  • by Seth Hemmelgarn
  • Wednesday March 9, 2011
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A San Francisco center that teaches circus skills has reorganized after experiencing financial troubles.

A transition went into effect this week at the Circus Center, 755 Frederick Street, that includes new board members and a new executive director.

Last week a note was posted on the school's website stating the center might have to close. But since then, the situation has improved, center officials said.

The center encompasses a professional performing company, a student performing troupe, and a school with programs and classes in acrobatics, flying trapeze, and other areas.

Sumit Agarwal, the center's new board chair, said he and others stepped in "to help put the school back where it belongs." He said that he and others are "very confident" of the center's survival.

Ayla Agarwal, Sumit Agarwal's wife, is the new executive director. She said she's been a student and a teacher at the school, "so I know how this school functions."

Ayla Agarwal, 33, said she has "no intention of taking a salary." She and her husband have a business renting out vacation homes.

Sumit Agarwal, 35, came to the center three and a half years ago as a student. He pointed to the troubled economy when asked about the center's problems.

"There may be a slight reduction in the number of students, but also the students themselves are going through financial difficulties" and class enrollments are down, he said. In addition, he said, there's been more need for financial assistance from the center.

Also, on the grant side, there have been more donors in the past making larger grants than there are now, said Agarwal.

The school has more than 50 teachers and over 500 students enrolled in classes. Agarwal said that, anecdotally, the number of LGBT students is "fairly healthy."

Financial oversight

The center's 2011 budget is about $1.4 million, which Sumit Agarwal said is similar to last year's. About 85 percent to 90 percent of the annual budget is earned income, while about 10 percent is contributions from foundations and other sources, he said.

Agarwal said the center has kept almost all of its classes and it has retained "the vast majority of instructors." Teachers have taken some pay cuts.

"We had a few more non-teaching staff that weren't directly interacting with students than we thought we should, so we've tried to rebalance that," he said.

The school "is solvent and has always had enough revenue and contributions and grants to match expenses," he said. There is some debt, but he didn't know exactly how much.

In response to an e-mailed question about the size of the center's debt and how much is in the bank, he said, "The situation is very much in flux so it is hard to give you numbers that won't be out of date immediately. We're taking in cash daily (both via tuition income and donations) so our position is getting stronger every day."

Asked about former board members' financial oversight skills, Agarwal said it was hard for him to say what the specific problems were, but the leadership team now "is very, very focused on financial oversight."

He said the new board members can "raise a great deal more money" for the center and manage money "in a more disciplined way."

The board is "transitioning" and "expected to be fully refreshed in the near future," he said. There are eight board members.

Ayla Agarwal acknowledged that some people may see a conflict of interest in her being the executive director while her husband serves as board chair, but what has been found, she said, is that "having that relationship deep inside the school and board of directors level is incredibly helpful, because it brings the passion and dedication to a level that we're not able to draw from other members of the board or community as easily."

Michael Kesselman, 59, was the center's executive director for two and a half years before he was laid off in October.

"The board was doing some restructuring, and they didn't want to have a full time executive director," he said. He and the board had been dealing with a lot of "issues" for years, but according to the board, that was not the reason he was laid off, said Kesselman, who called the center "a superb organization."

He said an "ongoing" issue had been about encouraging the board to get more involved in fundraising.

Robin Acker was president of the center's board "for at least a year or two" before she left in August.

Asked about problems getting board members to be involved in fundraising, Acker said, "I don't think I'm the person you want to talk to," and suggested talking to current board members.

Student shares views

Grey Lux, a 28-year-old gay man, started taking classes at the center about two and a half years ago. In an e-mail, he said his focus for the last year has been in static trapeze, where the trapeze bar and ropes are mostly stationary and he dances using the bar and ropes. He said the average cost of attending the center is about $30 to $35 a class, depending on the instructor.

"The level of skill that is taught at this school is astonishing," he said. "Some of the greatest performers in the circus world have been students, and the current student body is a true example of the amazing things we can do. I've learned so much, met so many great people, and have really found a place to explore my art."

Lux appeared confident the center would be fine. He said, "It will be a difficult process to rework how this organization has run ... but the dedication of the staff, students, and teachers to keep the school alive is strong."

For more information, visit http://www.circuscenter.org.