Dance fever at museum
Plan to honor John Travolta at site known for tradition raises dispute
By DENNIS YUSKO, Staff writer
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First published: Saturday, January 12, 2008
SARATOGA SPRINGS -- Is the traditional -- and some say stodgy -- National Museum of Dance ready to transform into a modern-day Boogie Wonderland?
A recent decision by the museum's board of directors to offer actor John Travolta induction into a new wing, which honors dance and film, is causing a stir at the 22-year-old facility on South Broadway.
The controversial move is the brainchild of the board's chairwoman, Michele Riggi, who wants to modernize the museum's image and increase attendance. Critics say her decision-making ignores traditional protocol.
The clash of old ways and new ideas represents a changing focus and growing organizational problems at the museum, some say.
"The museum is primarily run by one person -- the chairwoman -- and she does things sometimes without board approval. They need to get an idea of where they are going," said Lauren Zoppa, who recently resigned her post as the museum's grant writer.
In the last six weeks, the museum has lost three of its five employees, including Zoppa and arts and programming manager Beth Hartle, who both resigned after parting ways with the board. Donna Galeoto, the museum's volunteer and gift shop manager, was laid off to save on costs.
Earlier this week, a debate broke out among museum officials over Riggi's decision to honor Travolta, whose title role of Tony Manero in the 1977 film "Saturday Night Fever" significantly helped to popularize disco dancing around the world, and made Travolta a household name.
But the decision is a symptom of a larger problem, according to Zoppa, who said she quit last month because "quite frankly, the board is out of touch."
Hartle echoed the differences.
"My vision for the museum and the board's vision didn't seem to be on the same pathway anymore," Hartle said Friday. "I think there's always, at least for me, a disconnect between business and the arts, and it's really hard to tie them together."
Riggi, a former child dancer who promised to "bring life back into the museum" when she became chairwoman in 2006, did not return phone calls requesting comment.
She instead e-mailed a statement, saying she's trying to increase the museum's public exposure by establishing a new wing called the Dancing and Film Hall of Fame, and including more mainstream modern-day celebrity dancers like Travolta.
"The Dancing and Film Hall of Fame is a new concept resulting from the growing need to increase attendance, develop new audiences and enhance membership," Riggi wrote. "The National Museum of Dance is in transition and the board of directors will be conducting a search for the new director of arts and programming."
The National Museum of Dance was established in 1986 at the spacious old 1918 Washington Bath House with a $750,000 cash infusion from Saratoga socialite Marylou Whitney and money from other donors. It contains photographs, videos, artifacts, costumes, biographies and more.
The wife of a wealthy entrepreneur, Riggi received support from John Hendrickson, Whitney's wife, who spoke in an interview from the couple's home in Florida.
"We think Michele is doing an excellent job," Hendrickson said. "She's breathing new life into it."
The museum, which receives about 6,000 visitors a year and started a school for young dancers, needs to evolve by honoring the living and not just the dead, Hendrickson said.
"Quite honestly, no one wants to see the tap shoes of Ginger Rodgers, and most people don't know who Ginger Rodgers is," he said.
Current museum inductees include Fred Astaire, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Martha Graham and Agnes de Mille. More modern-era stars include Bob Fosse and Alvin Ailey.
But Travolta is not the issue, said Judith Fiore, a member of the Hall of Fame's ad-hoc nominating committee.
"The issue is there was a process. And that process has not been adhered to," said Fiore, who said the decision to invite Travolta into its new wing was made without a recommendation from the committee.
She said she believes the board changed a system that worked well since the museum's inception.
In her statement, Riggi indicated that only the existing 38-member Hall of Fame is overseen by the nominating committee.
The museum is closed until Memorial Day. Travolta, who also starred in "Grease" in 1978, has yet to respond to its invitation.
Yusko can be reached at 581-8438 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.