Entertainment & Arts

Drama reaches new high over how to run Irvine Barclay Theatre

Irvine Barclay Theatre

The Barclay will remove the Cheng family name from the theater.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

For the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 2015 was supposed to have been a year of celebration — a 25th anniversary season spotlighting the company’s reputation as one of Orange County’s premier presenters of dance, music and theater.

Instead, at least four prominent donors have said they are withdrawing financial support following a clash between board chairman Robert Farnsworth and former president Douglas Rankin, who left the company in August. The family of the late Dr. George and Arlene Cheng, who donated $750,000 to the Barclay the year it opened, have taken the unusual step of demanding that its name be taken down from the Barclay’s 756-seat Cheng Hall.

In a letter to Farnsworth, city leaders and officials at UC Irvine, where the theater is located, Jennifer Cheng said her family and her late parents’ foundation are “compelled to cut all ties” with the Barclay, including the removal of the Cheng name from the building, brochures, programming and other material. The letter praises the work of Rankin in the last five years, criticizes the “unwelcome” naming of Jerry Mandel as Rankin’s interim replacement and accuses the Barclay of leaving artistic programming to “a committee of individuals who have no or very little programming experience of ability.”

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Farnsworth fired back by email, saying a Barclay programming committee that includes Mandel, the theater’s operations manager and its finance, marketing and development directors is “standard operating procedure.” His note, sent to Cheng, Mayor Steven Choi, UC Irvine Chancellor Howard Gillman and other officials, points out that Mandel is the former head of the Orange County Performing Arts Center (now the Segerstrom Center for the Arts) in Costa Mesa and that a search is still underway for a permanent president.

Farnsworth’s email also says Cheng pledged $62,500 in March, and “we would like to know when we can expect a check.”

Jennifer Cheng in an interview this week confirmed that she resigned her board seat in April but said she was unable to discuss other Barclay matters, due to board confidentiality. She said the Cheng Family Foundation has donated an estimated $2 million to the Barclay over the years but will offer no support moving forward.

The Barclay will honor the Chengs’ wishes and remove their name from the theater, Farnsworth said in an interview. He characterized the family’s donations as generous but said their support “is not a catastrophic loss to the theater. We still have good support in the community.” He said his theater “exceeded our development goal by 7%" in the fiscal year that ended in June and is “running slightly ahead of our plan for this year.”


When reached by phone, Rankin said he was unable to comment on his departure because of his agreement with the company. But he said that “it was widely known” that he and Farnsworth “didn’t enjoy each other’s company.”

Longtime Barclay supporters said Rankin and Farnsworth sparred over various issues, including Rankin’s international travel and the hiring of Farnsworth’s girlfriend, Lori Grayson, to a consultancy position for special events and fundraising. Interim president Mandel said in an interview that Grayson will become the Barclay’s full-time director of development starting Jan. 1.

Farnsworth called the accusations of conflict of interest “totally unfounded.”

He said he disclosed his relationship with Grayson at a board meeting in April 2014 and “played no role in the hiring of her.”

“It was president Rankin’s sole discretion to retain her,” said Farnsworth, who is head of Irvine-based Sonnet Technologies, a computer and networking company. “I haven’t since interfered with Ms. Grayson’s relationship with her manager.”

Mandel said Grayson “has been a consummate professional in the handling of her duties” and that Farnsworth “has never interjected himself into any of my interactions with staff members, including Ms. Grayson.”

Opened in 1990, the Barclay was created as a public-private partnership between UC Irvine and the city of Irvine, which support operating costs, and a nonprofit organization whose board raises money to cover programming costs. It was named after Richard and Marjorie Barclay, who pledged $1 million for the building of the venue, which consists of the Cheng Hall auditorium, rehearsal rooms and other facilities.


The departure of board members and major donors, however, has left the Barclay in rebuilding mode. The theater said it has 11 full-time and two honorary board members, down from 21 members in 2010. Of the 13 current members, some are nondonors who represent the city or university.

“It’s a tragedy,” said Richard Sim, founding chairman of the Barclay and a longtime supporter. He and his wife have given money since the theater’s beginnings, he said, but they stopped in the most recent fiscal year.

Sim, a former executive at the Irvine Co. real estate development firm, cited Farnsworth’s “rogue” leadership style, including the making of decisions without consulting the full board. He also cited the way Rankin’s departure as president was handled.

Sally Anne Sheridan, a former mayor of Irvine and a longtime supporter of the theater, said the dispute has left the Barclay board “toxic.”

“This has become such a mess, and the board has become so divided and nasty.”

She worried that if the Barclay fails to raise enough money for programming, it could be vulnerable to a takeover, potentially by the university. Such a takeover, she feared, would alter the artistic identity of a company they worked hard to build.

The Barclay is primarily a presenting organization, attracting groups such as the Mark Morris dance company of New York and Ballet Preljocaj of France to perform on its main stage. It has been a frequent venue for the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, and it conducts community outreach for disadvantaged youth.

“It’s a complicated place in terms of how it is governed, and Doug was adept at keeping that balance going — and keeping the quality high,” said Dean Corey, former president of the Philharmonic Society.


The artistic programming of the Barclay operates on an annual budget of about $3.5 million, according to recent tax filings. The theater estimates that close to 2 million people have attended its events since the opening 25 years ago.

But the internal quarreling has put some Barclay donors on edge.

“It has sent my head spinning,” said Bobbi Cox, a donor and former board member who said she has given money consistently since the Barclay opened.

“If things continue to spiral down the way they are, I will have to reevaluate.”

Times staff writer Deborah Vankin contributed to this report.


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