Financial farce at Sadler's Wells as chair quits after just three months

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The Independent Online

Sadler's Wells, London's premier dance venue, was plunged into management meltdown yesterday with the shock resignation of its new chairwoman after a clash with the board.

Less than a month after the surprise departure of the chief executive, Jean-Luc Choplin, Denise Kingsmill announced that she was quitting as chairwoman because she had failed to win backing for modernisation plans.

Ms Kingsmill, a City lawyer and former deputy chairwoman of the Competition Commission, took up the role at the troubled venue in January.

Her departure prompted speculation - officially denied - that the organisation was heading towards a financial crisis. Her resignation statement emphasised the need for proper management to secure a "robust, financially viable future".

Last month's appointment of Chrissy Sharp, who formerly ran the Sydney Festival, as interim general manager, and the promotion of the popular programmer Alistair Spalding to artistic director, had "stabilised" and "strengthened" the theatre, Ms Kingsmill said.

"However, it has become increasingly clear that the board is not in agreement with my actions to stabilise Sadler's Wells and is not supportive of the change programme that has been initiated," she said.

No one from the board was available to comment yesterday. Sources have suggested to The Independent that the large-scale programming advocated by Mr Choplin, who booked international names such as the opera singer Jessye Norman and the theatre director Robert Wilson, were way beyond the budgets of the organisation.

Furthermore, Sadler's Wells has traditionally raised comparatively little private sponsorship, but relies on the box office to balance books.

But the venue's problems go back even further. Its millennium refurbishment took a year longer than expected and cost £22m more than planned.

Mr Choplin's arrival from EuroDisney led to a poisonous dispute with several female members of staff who claimed sexual discrimination and constructive dismissal, though this was eventually settled. But it contributed to a turbulent atmosphere topped by amazement in January when Mr Choplin was unveiled as the new director of the Châtelet, one of France's most prestigious theatres. He left last month.

Ms Kingsmill acknowledged these difficulties yesterday. "It is widely known that Sadler's Wells has had a difficult recent history," she said.

Sadler's Wells insiders suggested that this may have contributed to a desire by the board for a period of calm reflection now before any further action was taken. But critics will point out that many of the board members, who are not named on the company website, were the people who oversaw the redevelopment, appointed Mr Choplin and backed his ambitious plans.

Alice Rawsthorn, who runs the Design Museum, where Ms Kingsmill is deputy board chairman, said she thought Ms Kingsmill would have been an asset at Sadler's Wells.

"She has been absolutely fantastic for me here. She's got extraordinary experience of management and governance and on a personal level she has been fantastically generous with her time and energy. She understands the intersection between the particular requirements of cultural organisations and the corporate sector - but that is, perhaps, something that traditionalists in the art world find uncomfortable."