ASPEN - Alan Fletcher is close to signing a contract that will keep him as the president and CEO of the Aspen Music Festival and School through the 2010 summer festival season, and possibly well beyond.
Fletcher said Friday afternoon that he had been offered a new contract by the board of trustees, and that while certain terms were still being worked out, he saw no impediments to finalizing an agreement that would clear up his status as the administrative leader of the 60-year-old festival.
Fletcher's position with the festival became muddled in mid-October, when the organization issued a brief and vague press release stating that Fletcher would "step down," effective at the end of the month, from the job he had held since early 2006. Fletcher said that the abrupt announcement did not, in fact, terminate his contract, which runs through the end of February 2010.
The "stepping down" statement followed a vote of the board's nine-member executive committee seeking to terminate Fletcher's employment with the festival. After protests from members of the larger board, a meeting of the full board was held last week. At that meeting, it was voted to extend a new contract to Fletcher.
Assuming that the two sides do reach a new agreement, Fletcher says he will pay "special attention" to the Music Festival faculty in this new phase of his tenure.
"I want to give special attention to the faculty," said Fletcher, who has been a teacher, of music theory and composition, at the New England Conservatory and at Carnegie Mellon University. "I emphasize, they are the core of the organization, both teaching and performing. I've been a faculty member all my life. I think their work is superlative. So I want to make sure we really communicate."
Among the issues that led to the "stepping down" announcement was a reduction in faculty. That reduction was mandated by a Strategic Plan adopted by the board last spring. (The Strategic Plan also calls for shortening the summer festival by a week, and reducing the student body by approximately 125 students, with those changes being implemented for the 2010 season.)
But there have been charges that the faculty cuts were handled with a lack of sensitivity. One person connected with the festival said that the option of wage cuts, rather than layoffs, was proposed, but never seriously considered by the administration. In the end, after discussions with David Zinman, the festival's music director, there were fewer layoffs than originally proposed. The total cuts amount to less than 10 percent of the faculty.
Fletcher said that there was no pain-free way of making the cuts. "I understand the stories that have said things like I mishandled the reduction in faculty positions. I think there will always be a debate about that," he said. "Every major nonprofit has had some reduction in staff and there's no way to do that that doesn't hurt. It's true that there are people on that faculty list who are wonderful people and it was painful for them. But it was painful for everybody."
Another point of contention has been Fletcher's interaction with some members of the Music Festival audience. Several letters to the editor of local newspapers this past summer charged that Fletcher had a habit of ignoring people.
"I am tremendously sorry that anyone thinks I have ever snubbed them," Fletcher said. "It doesn't correlate to the way I think of myself. I can't imagine a moment when I think, 'Oh, I don't care about him.' But those people who are most vociferous, I must have mistakenly done something to them."
The contract being negotiated would be effective through September of 2010, and would be, like the current contract, "evergreen" - meaning, unless specific action is taken to terminate Fletcher's employment, his position is renewed for another year. Fletcher added that, over the past year, he has agreed to wage reductions: He himself proposed last year not accepting a bonus, and took a 10 percent cut in his base salary for 2010.
At least one person connected with the festival believes the organization is better off replacing Fletcher.
"There was the greatest relief that he would be done. That we would get a new CEO and we'd be moving forward and life would be wonderful," the source said. "This guy's done enough damage for a lifetime."
Fletcher believes that is a minority opinion among festival insiders. "I really believe that a great majority of the faculty wants to do their work and is not part of this agitation."
Asked if the organization had suffered from the recent episode, he acknowledged that it was "bruised." But he expressed confidence that his authority has not been compromised to the point of rendering him an ineffective leader. And he said he has not hesitated to consider a new contract.
"It's a fantastic organization," he said. "And it's a fantastic city. Clearly, the staff is very supportive. And now we have numerical proof the board is behind us. I feel very confident."