After more than four years as artistic director of Baltimore Center Stage (BCS), Stephanie Ybarra is moving on.
The theater organization announced this week that Ybarra will step down on April 1 to become program officer in Arts and Culture at the Mellon Foundation, one of the nation’s largest supporters of the arts and humanities.
While Center Stage conducts a nationwide search to identify Ybarra’s replacement, director and producer Ken-Matt Martin will serve as interim artistic director. Martin is also directing Center Stage’s production of “Tiny Beautiful Things,” scheduled for March 9 to April 2.
Ybarra is the latest of several arts leaders to leave key roles in Baltimore, along with Rebecca Alban Hoffberger at the American Visionary Art Museum; Marin Alsop at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; and Christopher Bedford at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Ybarra was named to replace Kwame Kwei-Armah as artistic director of BCS in August 2018, started in October 2018, and was in place full time by December of that year. Her departure was announced less than a month after Adam Frank joined BCS as its managing director.
“I’ve spent most of the last 30 years making theater in some shape or form, so this is not a leap I make lightly,” Ybarra said in a statement on the BCS website. “I’m humbled and honored to have the chance to serve the national arts and culture sector during this time of enormous challenge and opportunity.
“My great comfort as I move forward is that BCS has a staff and board team, community partnerships and an artistic network that are aligned and collectively reaching toward a bright future of their own imagining,” she said. “I’m proud to have worked alongside them, and prouder still to introduce my dear friend Ken-Matt to this organization and city, which have become so special to me.”
Ybarra has been a “transformative leader” for BCS, said Sandy Liotta, president of its board of trustees.
“Over the last five years, Stephanie and her team kept BCS open for storytelling through the hardest moments of the pandemic and amplified the theater’s relevance and service to or communities by welcoming new voices into new civic conversations,” Liotta said.
“We fully support Stephanie and know she will exceed expectations and make another major impact in her new role at the Mellon Foundation. The BCS family is also lucky to have the incredible Ken-Matt Martin join us in an interim capacity.”
During Ybarra’s tenure, BCS produced 10 world premiere works; expanded its commissions; launched a civic dialogue series and bolstered its reputation for making a strong commitment to anti-racism in the workplace. The productions that received world premieres at BCS include “The Swindlers;” “The Folks at Home;” “Dream Hou$e;” “Glorious World;” “A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction,” produced in partnership with the National Aquarium in Baltimore; “The Garden;” “Thoughts of a Colored Man;” “Richard & Jane & Dick & Sally;” “Where We Stand;” and “How to Catch Creation.”
According to the BCS website, Ybarra will leave the organization, Maryland’s state theater, in a “strong and stable financial position,” by reducing its liabilities, increasing its assets, and broadening its audience.
“The implementation of robust civic programming and artistic partnerships led to the expansion and diversification of the BCS audience, including 48 percent of audience members coming to the theater for the very first time in the last year alone,” the organization noted.
Martin has worked around the country as a director, producer and artistic administrator. According to BCS, he co-founded Pyramid Theatre Company in Des Moines, Iowa, where he served as executive director. He has been the producing director at the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts; associate producer at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago; and, from April 2021 to June 2022, artistic director at the Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago. He has two degrees from Drake University in Des Moines and a Master of Fine Arts degree in directing from Brown/Trinity Rep, part of Brown University in Rhode Island.
According to BroadwayWorld and The Chicago Tribune, Martin was “placed on leave” by the board of directors at the Victory Gardens Theater in June 2022, an action that caused other staffers to resign. According to Playbill.com, the board’s move was controversial and the theater community has largely supported Martin.
“Martin was terminated from the Chicago theater by its board of directors last year amid criticism of the board’s alleged lack of transparency and dedication to diversity, equity, and inclusion, along with further allegations of financial malfeasance around a real estate transaction,” Playbill’s Logan Culwell-Block reported.
“The theater industry has largely coalesced in support behind Martin following the controversy, with a number of major regional theaters (including BCS) sending Martin a $30,000 joint commission for a new autobiographical work as a show of support in the days after his firing,“ Culwell-Block said.
Martin wrote in his own blog, kenmatt.com, that he was released from his artistic director contract “with cause” on June 30, following a disagreement with the board about the direction of the company, but was never told the cause.
“I asked twice in the meeting what was the cause and was not given any,” he wrote. “Instead, I was offered a minimum amount of severance and was asked to sign an NDA [non-disclosure agreement] and give up all claims on future lawsuits.
“After I cited the lack of cause, the board offered more severance, but still with an NDA,” he continued. “I requested the inclusion of language allowing me to make “truthful statements” and was refused. I have received no disciplinary notices, formal or informal warnings, and have had no complaints filed against me or any documented infractions. I am declining the offer. It is vitally important that I be able to speak truthfully about the needs of the artists and staff.”
In a statement on the BCS website, Martin said he looks forward to being in Baltimore.
“It’s an honor to join the BCS team during this time of transition,” he said. “I’ve come to know and love Stephanie’s work as a leader of change. Although I will miss having her at BCS, I am inspired to continue the work that she has done, and I’m looking forward to calling Baltimore a new artistic home for me while the team searches for the next BCS leader.”