Bill Asti, a Little Rock architect and the former chairman of the board of directors of the Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute, had finally had enough. He quietly stepped down as chairman in late July, along about the time Brenda Hawkes, the executive director, also “resigned,” according to the board.
But, leading up to the Institute’s Documentary Film Festival last month, Asti heard all kinds of reasons that the board members were giving for his resignation after so much time spent with the Institute, so much money spent helping grow the festival, and so much love for the state’s film business in general.
None of the reasons he was hearing jibed with what he knew was the real reason.
So, he fired off a letter to the board, and it eventually made its way to this office. He told us, as we had suspected in July, that Hawkes didn’t simply step down; he says a small portion of the Institute’s board dumped her, and at a time when she was having major health problems, not to mention less than three months before the festival.
Asti’s 15-page letter cited his “moral outrage” at the work of a few HSDFI board members, and specifically their handling of Hawkes’ dismissal. He says that bylaws specifically said Hawkes was a board member, too, along with being executive director. The bylaws stated that a majority of the board had to vote on such items as the director’s dismissal, not a few select board members. Asti saw all of this, including the poor handling of what he terms a “very good person” in Hawkes, as personally affecting his professional life as an architect, including doing its business illegally in his eyes.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: After this column appeared in print, Brad Hudgens, who succeeded Asti as chairman, said that a quorum of members were present and no laws were broken. Hawkes was asked to resign, he said.)
So, Asti bid adieu. But the board’s pettiness didn’t stop there: Asti later saw his name no longer listed as a supporter of the festival for purchasing a table at its gala at the Arlington Resort and Hotel to close the festival.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Hudgens responded and says that Asti bought two seats to the gala, and that ticket buyers were not listed in the program. He said there was no effort to slight Asti).
“People continue to say there is more than one side to the story, but to me there is one side and my reason is the one side,” Asti told us last week about why he wrote the letter to the board. “If it’s stated that I resigned for reasons different from why I did, then that pisses me off. I tried to articulate those reasons. That way, everybody was clear. There were individuals on the board who didn’t even know I had resigned. A lot of board members were not at the meetings. It was just to clarify things.”
He added, “Regardless, if any of the board members had gone through what Brenda had gone through, I would have done it for them. There is right way and wrong way of treating people, and I’d like to think I’m one of those people who do it the right way.”
None of this may mean a whole lot to the average person who merely buys a ticket to any of the documentaries and expects only to see the films roll. It sounds like inside politics, and it also seems strangely similar to the politics that seemed this fall to surround another major Arkansas October event, the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival. There, Executive Director Wayne Andrews finally grew too weary of butting heads with the board that operates the festival, and quit just three weeks before the festival.
Both events went off just fine, and are likely to plug along fine next year despite what appears to be inner turmoil.
In Asti’s case, though, he’d been involved in the development of the institute and the festival for more than 20 years. He moved up to chairman and brought Hawkes on board. They and others began developing an economic and strategic plan to make the festival and the film institute viable in the coming years.
We couldn’t get any of the current board members to call us back last week, but what we gather is that a few members are happy with the festival as is, and they want to rub shoulders with filmmakers and keep doing things as they’ve done for 15 years.
Asti tells us that the bigger picture in all this is that Hot Springs and the state are missing an opportunity to take advantage of tax breaks already on the books that could build the documentary industry in Arkansas. Already, behind-the-scenes work by Asti and others got the nation’s largest documentary film group, in L.A., to make Hot Springs among the sites that documentaries must be screened commercially to be nominated for an Academy Award. The annual festival is a fine event for the city and Arkansas to hang their hats on, but small-minded board members should not fear a direction that is “bigger picture” and more beneficial to Hot Springs and Central Arkansas, as well as the state’s filmmakers, in the future. We’re talking in the many millions of dollars if business leaders pushed in this direction.
“There are issues, and the huge issue is viability of the festival,” Asti said. “The model 15 to 18 years ago was easy to figure out. That model has changed so radically. The viability of festivals is not what it was 15 to 18 years ago. It’s a different animal.”
The exact same advice should be heeded in Helena, where certain board members want their blues festival to continue as it has for years, ignoring the economic facts that it takes a significant sum of money to make the festival live up to its heritage.