They Shoot Divas, Don't They?

Robert Rosenberg, ex-director of Miami's Gay and Lesbian Film Festival

Steve Satterwhite

"A lot of people say I'm difficult," Robert Rosenberg muses with an awkward smile, pausing over a description he's been hearing quite a lot lately. Leaning forward at a table inside the Beach's Wild Oats market, he continues: "Look, it takes a certain kind of obsessed person to want to do an arts project, particularly a film festival. You have to be a tunnel-visioned perfectionist. Every frame has to look right when projected, every page has to look right in the program book. You have to be confident that your creative choices are the right ones."

That's Rosenberg's way of assessing his stewardship of the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, which he founded in 1999 and, as its director over the next four years, turned into one of the city's annual cultural highlights -- gay or straight. It is also the organization from which he has just been ousted, a move he is still trying to process.

"Yeah, I'm difficult," he concedes with a shrug. "What's the surprise here?"

Since the news of Rosenberg's forced resignation, that's the very question local film fans have been asking as well. How exactly could the figure virtually synonymous with the festival itself, be kicked out of it?

Dueling press releases from Rosenberg and festival board co-chairs Fran Levey and Mike Perez, as well as a subsequent Herald account on September 27, have only confused matters. Rosenberg cites "differences in the visions of the direction the festival should take," while the board's statement speaks vaguely of "struggling with management, structural, and financial issues." In the Herald piece, board co-chair Levey opined, "We've been phenomenally successful in a very short time. You can't have that kind of success without some kind of growing pains."

Amid these abstract explanations, one thing is clear: The crisis within the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival couldn't have come at a worse time. That much was driven home by the razor-thin preservation of Miami-Dade's gay-rights law on September 10, a ballot victory that left few people popping open champagne bottles. In a city of 2.5 million people, a margin of less than 17,000 kept the anti-gay-discrimination ordinance intact. The numbers -- 47 percent voted for a repeal -- are even more alarming when broken down by neighborhood: Predominantly Hispanic precincts backed the repeal effort by 63 percent.

Gay life in Miami may be larger and more visible than ever before. Yet despite a multimillion-dollar media campaign on the part of the gay-rights group SAVE Dade -- one that bent over backward to present a politically sanitized version of gays who wanted only to serve in the military, marry in a church, and quietly raise their adopted children in their Morningside manors -- a broad swath of Miami harbors deep antipathy toward it.

All of which makes the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival -- one of the few unified tents under which the area's gay community assembles -- that much more important. Presented there, without apology, is an honest portrait of the fractured reality of gay life in all its glory. Yes, there are freshly scrubbed Anglos, ready to bring home to Mom. But they rub up against throngs of shirtless queens packed together on the dance floor, towering black transvestites, and Latino lesbian drag kings -- all of whom need to carry on with their lives regardless of anyone else's sentiments or ballot choices.

"My heart is broken over this," says local philanthropist Harvey Burstein, a former festival board member who says he has donated nearly $80,000 to it. "The film festival was the largest GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered] event in South Florida. A lot of other arts organizations came about as a result of it. People said, 'Wow, there's an audience here! Let's do the South Beach Gay Men's Choir! Let's do gay theater!' Now that the main organization is faltering, it's a blow to the community."

For Burstein, who says his checkbook is now closed as far as the festival is concerned, the villain in this story is obvious. "The board was there to support Robbie [Rosenberg]'s dream, not push him out and take over. Robbie's very difficult to work with" -- there's that word again -- "but so is Judy Drucker," Burstein argues, referring to the president of the classical-music and dance-oriented Concert Association of Florida. "You don't see Judy Drucker's board pushing her out. A lot of arts organizations have directors that are difficult. These are artistic people, it goes with the territory."

So is this entire dispute just a personality conflict played out to an extreme end, a case of too many drama queens off the screen instead of on it?

In a conversation with Kulchur, festival board co-chair Mike Perez stressed irreconcilable "managerial differences" even as he saluted Rosenberg's programming choices. "Robbie's artistic experience was lauded everywhere," Perez noted. "We wanted him to focus on the things he's so wonderful at."  

Was there a dispute over the festival's direction and its recent expansion to ten days? "That never came up at all."

How about finances, then? There are allegations from some former board members that much of the festival's nearly $100,000 debt is the result of Rosenberg's refusal to budge on issues such as high-end projection facilities and the treatment of visiting filmmakers. "The board did not look at financial matters as the reason to say, 'We need to [oust Rosenberg].' Living hand-to-mouth, juggling money, trying to keep the vendors happy, might all have added some edge to our conflicts, but there still would have been change." In fact Perez even praises Rosenberg for deferring his salary over the past few months to enable certain vendors to be paid first as a cash crunch set in.

Mike, I'm confused about these 'managerial differences.' You're telling me there's no creative friction here. And there's no financial dispute. So why did Rosenberg get the boot? Was he leaving the cap off people's water bottles?

"People will not interpret my comments as just leaving the cap off somebody's water bottle," Perez bristles. "If I read in the newspaper that there were 'managerial conflicts' within an organization, that would be enough for me to understand exactly what had happened. I would not need specific personal details about someone who was part of an organization I believed in, that I was a member of, that I funded."

Now we're talking about unacceptable personal conduct?


This sounds like a social situation where you could've used some outside help.

"That's how it sounds to me also."

So there was no money for an office therapist?

"No," Perez chuckles ruefully, breaking the tension. "That wasn't one of the budget line items we approved." With a sigh, he continues, "I'm sad to see Robbie not with us ... but board members were quitting, staff morale was starting to dip, and we knew we had to balance out doing something quickly with the need to keep the festival going forward."

Perez says that program manager Carol Coombes will be stepping up as an interim director, and he's confident that the quality of the festival will be undiminished come this year's edition in April. "As terrible as all this is, I think Robbie would find comfort in the fact that this is something many other organizations have gone through." Perez adds that the scenario even has its own term in the nonprofit world: founderitis, where emotional attachments impede an organization's health.

A series of acrimonious e-mails exchanged between Rosenberg and various board members in the weeks leading up to his departure clarify some of this backroom tension. There are charges that Rosenberg snooped into his colleagues' office e-mail, and counter-accusations that effective personnel, such as long-time festival publicist Lisa Palley, were being fired simply for siding with Rosenberg. Meanwhile sources say administrative director (and ex officio board member) Philip Matthews was given a salary bump to $60,000, a sum overshadowing the $40,000 paid to Rosenberg, his ostensible superior.

Amid the screaming matches, the overall vibe is more akin to a junior-high lunchroom spat than a nationally regarded nonprofit arts group power struggle: The statutes of an employee manual are bitterly thrashed over -- no small feat in an office with only four employees -- and Rosenberg is given written warnings for "insubordination" after storming out of a meeting.

"We cannot continue to cater to your emotional outbursts," Perez writes to Rosenberg in one e-mail, "and will no longer be bullied by your threats of resignation. There are much greater issues at stake for the [festival] and the South Florida gay & lesbian community. Staff and board members (including Fran and I) agree that you are the problem and are not contributing to the solution."

Back at Wild Oats, Kulchur gets blunt with Rosenberg.

With so many folks saying you're insufferable -- three boards have completely turned over since the festival's 1999 inception -- isn't it possible that it's not them, it's you?

Rosenberg arches an eyebrow and flips the equation: "If there's been such a massive turnover in the board and staff every year, and I'm the only constant -- yet every year the festival gets bigger and better -- what does that say about my abilities as director?"

Hubris aside, Rosenberg's right. Yes, as Perez and some festival backers have insisted, it is possible that another director will be located to fill Rosenberg's sandals, someone with his artistic flair, international contacts, and unique understanding of Miami's disparate gay tribes. But it would seem even more productive to simply fire the six-member board and start over again. It's a lot easier to replace administrators than visionaries, however much of a handful they might be. In the meantime, not just the gay community, but the entire city is the poorer for Rosenberg's getting axed.  

We'll leave the last word to Nat Chediak, another expelled film festival director who's been saddled with the "difficult" label. "My advice to Robbie's successor?" he offered to Kulchur with a knowing laugh. "It's the same advice I'd give to my successor at the Miami Film Festival, or anyone coming to Miami to head an arts organization: Pack a parachute."

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