Accusation of ‘unwelcome contact’ played role in VCA director exit | Updated

On Voice of Vashon, Kevin Hoffberg explained his abrupt resignation.

Kevin Hoffberg

Kevin Hoffberg

Former Vashon Center for the Arts Executive Director Kevin Hoffberg revealed last week that his recent exit from the organization was motivated in part by an accusation that he had engaged in inappropriate behavior with a VCA guest.

Hoffberg abruptly resigned from the position on Aug. 8, citing only “personal reasons” in brief letters of resignation emailed to the organization’s staff and board.

But in a 30-minute interview with Jeff and Cindy Hoyt, hosts of VoV’s Morning Scramble show, Hoffberg gave more details about the factors in his snap decision. After the radio show, which took place on Thursday, Aug. 15, Hoffberg canceled a previously scheduled interview with The Beachcomber, saying in a text that he would make no further comments.

Hoffberg began the radio interview by reading aloud a statement that he had prepared for the occasion. The statement first said that his resignation was in part fueled by mental and physical exhaustion from working long hours, as well as his father’s encroaching dementia and other serious illnesses of a relative and close friend.

Then, in guarded language, Hoffberg addressed the allegations of impropriety.

“A few weeks ago, I became aware that my presence in a public setting had caused somebody discomfort,” Hoffberg read. “The accusations against me were honestly shattering, not because of what was alleged, but because of the huge void between my desire to create a friendly, welcoming, inclusive environment and the apparent effect my actions had created.”

Hoffberg’s statement also called the incident “a sad misunderstanding about social interactions.”

Immediately after Hoffberg read the statement, Jeff Hoyt stated that “the news that comes out of this is the comment about unwelcome contact,” to which Hoffberg replied, “Yes.”

During Hoffberg’s subsequent back-and-forth with the Hoyts, he provided only a few more substantive details about the incident.

He only defined the interaction as something “you’d have seen on any given First Friday, you know, maybe a hand on the back or whatever.” While not responding to Jeff Hoyt’s inquiry as to whether the person who made the complaint was from on or off-island, he did say that the complaint came from “a guest of VCA.”

Hoffberg did not elaborate on how and to whom the complaint against him had been made. He also said that the person who made it had not asked for his resignation, nor had he been pushed out by VCA’s board of directors.

“I think I can say fairly accurately that [the board] would prefer I was still there,” he said.

Hoffberg also said he had consulted with an attorney about the accusation, but did not want to suggest he was in legal peril.

Later in the interview, Hoffberg seemed to lament that his accuser had not spoken to him at the time of the interaction.

“I have many thoughts on what the lessons might be,” he said. “And one of them is that when we stop talking to each other, it then creates a space for us to become objects to each other and imagine things about each other.”

Hoffberg was not asked by the Hoyts, nor did he say during the interview, if he had apologized to his accuser or attempted to clear up any misunderstanding, as an alternative to resigning suddenly from the organization.

Reached by phone shortly after the interview, VCA board president John de Groen said that he could not comment on personnel matters, including whether he or any other members of the board had been aware of the allegation against Hoffberg. He did say the board would take steps to address the needs of the VCA staff in the wake of Hoffberg’s revelations.

“I’m not an expert on this, but it’s my job to find someone to help us,” said de Groen. “Training of staff and board members comes to my mind immediately.”

But on Monday, in another phone interview, de Groen provided more information. He said that the board had received the complaint about Hoffberg about a month ago, and then contacted VCA’s lawyer about it. Subsequently, he said, the board began an investigation conducted by VCA’s lawyer and another third party. He declined to say exactly when the investigation began.

De Groen followed up his Monday interview with an email.

“My first point is that if society has learned anything in the #MeToo era, it is that we have a duty to treat allegations seriously and investigate carefully,” de Groen wrote, adding, “It falls to the board to ensure that VCA employees, artists, guests, or any others associated with VCA, are safe from any inappropriate behavior. In addition, the board has a fiduciary duty to prevent or minimize any potential legal or financial liabilities against VCA.”

De Groen also said that the board would, within months, form a search committee to hire a new director — a process that would include a call for applications and interviews with candidates.

Upon Hoffberg’s resignation, VCA named Allison Halstead Reid as acting director of the organization. Halstead Reid, a former board member, joined the organization’s staff in April as associate executive director.

In an interview shortly after Hoffberg’s resignation, Halstead Reid said that his resignation had come as a shock to her and that she would not speculate on his reasons for leaving. She added that, as his close friend, she would not discuss his personal issues.

De Groen, both before and after Hoffberg’s radio interview, said he too was shocked by Hoffberg’s departure and had not asked him to explain his resignation more fully.

“He said it was for personal reasons,” de Groen said. “I took him at his word.”

De Groen has also declined to comment on whether Hoffberg had been under contract with VCA or if he had asked for or would receive any severance package from the organization.

Hoffberg, a former board member, joined VCA’s staff as director of operations in March 2018, after the brief, tumultuous tenure of VCA’s previous director, Susan Warner. He was officially hired as executive director in June 2018. During his time at VCA, Hoffberg oversaw a busy calendar of classes, exhibits and events that included two editions of an annual Vashon Summer Arts Fest and such high profile performances as the debut program of the Seattle Dance Collective. Hoffberg also said last spring that VCA had received $1 million in donations in 2018.

On March 29, a year into his employment at VCA, Hoffberg told The Beachcomber he planned to stay on as executive director for several more years.

“When I [took this job], I told the board I would do this for five years,” he said.

Hoffberg then enumerated three goals he wanted to accomplish prior to his eventual departure.

“The first is to set the course. … What is the strategy, the business model?” he said. “The second is to put the finances on a stronger footing and the next thing is to hire and onboard the next executive director. … That is what I told the board I would do. Now is that going to take five years? But I’m not exiting the building anytime soon.”

Less than five months later, Hoffberg had resigned, expressing regret on Voice of Vashon that he had “created a cloud of dust” in his departure from VCA. He also said he didn’t think he ever wanted to be an executive director “of anything” going forward.

“It’s a level of public visibility and scrutiny that I think is just more than I want at this point,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean there aren’t lots of ways to support this wonderful organization.”

Kevin Hoffberg’s Aug. 15 Voice of Vashon interview can be accessed in its entirety online.

The full text of Hoffberg’s opening statement, made on Voice of Vashon, is posted here:

In 2016, I retired from Russell Investments with a plan to farm, do some writing, serve on some boards, and possibly do some consulting. One of those boards was VCA’s. In 2018, I stepped into a difficult situation and became the executive director. I had the opportunity to work with a wonderful staff, board, volunteers, artists, performers, patrons, donors and guests. It was a job and an adventure that I loved and to which I poured everything that I had. I dove behind three big questions: How do we create more invitation, how do we do more to celebrate and how do we proceed with love. Instead of retiring, I found myself working 60- and 70-hour weeks. I put the organization through tremendous change. I went to nearly every opening, I checked in on all the classes, I wrote the Fish Wrap, I remodeled parts of the Blue Heron, I even mowed the field — which I actually even did yesterday. It became physically and mentally exhausting to be always there and to be always on. During this past year, I’ve also had my share of personal challenges. I have a father who is slipping into dementia, and honestly, that scares me. I have blood relatives who are struggling with cancer. I have a dear friend who will be dead soon from a horrible brain disease that came on two months ago, and I have my own personal health issues that scare me.

A few weeks ago I became aware that my presence in a public setting had caused somebody discomfort. The accusations against me were honestly shattering, not because of what was alleged, but because of the huge void between my desire to create a friendly, welcoming, inclusive environment and the apparent effect that my actions had created instead. All of that taken together, my exhaustion, my personal health issues, the challenges my family and friends are facing, and finally, a sad misunderstanding about social interactions were too much for me to manage. So I did what I felt was the best thing for me, my family, and VCA. On August 8, I stepped aside. I love VCA and I want to find some way to support it going forward. And my biggest hope is that anyone who is reading this or hearing this will feel the same and do the same.

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