Theater Mack is now the Cayuga Museum Carriage House Theater. But behind the venue's quiet name change is a bitter dispute between the Auburn museum and what was a major benefactor.
The theater opened there in 2012 under its old name to honor that benefactor, Peter "Mack" Maciulewicz, as well as his family.
Like his father, Casimir, Peter served for years as a member of the museum's board of trustees, including 10 as its president. He and his wife, Carol, gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to the institution — $150,000 alone to refurbish the former Willard-Case Mansion's 1850 carriage house as Theater Mack, plus another $50,000 they raised for the project from friends. And Mack Studios, the Auburn design/build company Casimir started and Peter now runs, volunteered its 80 employees and state-of-the-art equipment to create many of the museum's displays.
In gratitude, the museum board named the theater after Mack and his family.
"We have a lot of history with the museum," Mack said. "I felt like I was at home there."
By the beginning of 2017, a tired Mack had left the board, feeling Theater Mack completed a circuit of restoration projects on the museum's campus that also included the mansion's exterior, attic and upstairs storage space. But Mack, a renowned jazz bassist, had been returning to the theater to perform concerts with musicians of similar repute, paying them himself so the museum could raise money. At one concert, he recalled, Mack had about 20 people in the audience buy a copy of his CD, then gave the handful of cash to museum Executive Director Eileen McHugh on the spot.
Mack was set to return for two free concerts this year. They were to be funded by a $2,000 grant to the museum from state Sen. John A. DeFrancisco's Arts in Cayuga County program, as well as a matching donation from Mack. The grant program, which is administered by Auburn Public Theater and its executive director, Carey Eidel, funded a Mack jazz concert at the museum's theater the year prior. Assuming Mack and the museum were still close, Eidel met with him in January to arrange the next two concerts.
"This grant came to fruition because Sen. DeFrancisco is a big fan of jazz," Eidel said. "Peter is one of the best around. He plays with the best people, and he's really on a different level."
After Eidel proposed the concerts to the museum, however, he was asked to meet with McHugh, board President Christina Calarco and another board member. Eidel said the three wanted to know if they could replace Mack with a different performer at one of the concerts, and if they could charge admission, without forfeiting the grant. Eidel explained that they could. Though he was taken aback by the museum's resistance to Mack playing both concerts at the theater, Eidel said he understood McHugh and the trustees wanting a say in how their grant money was spent.
Indeed, McHugh said they met with Eidel because he and Mack, neither of whom work at the museum, were proposing to spend that money on something that wouldn't support it.
And that, McHugh continued, was "unacceptable to our board."
"We are not in the business of promoting Peter's band," she said. "That is doing nothing for the museum."
While McHugh and the board saw the concerts as a matter of self-interest, Mack saw them as one of respect. He may have no longer been on the board, but he had been one of its most active and giving members for years. And that time and money, Mack reasoned, was more than worth a couple of nights on the stage of the theater he helped renovate.
That's why, when told by Eidel what happened at his meeting with the museum, Mack experienced what he called "a fit of anger." He phoned McHugh and, she said, "behaved extremely unprofessionally." Within minutes, Mack emailed her and the board to sever his longtime relationship with the museum. He also made another request: He wanted his name off the theater.
"After the hundreds of thousands of dollars I gave, they basically sold my relationship to them down the river for a grand," he said. "I couldn't control myself. I had that much anger after I heard what they had done. I felt terrible that I did it, but I'm a human being. I couldn't help myself."
Weeks later, Mack was approached by attorney John Rossi. The former board member, whom Mack recruited during his time as president, was accompanied by two current ones. Rossi said he advised his friend that after all the time and money the Maciulewicz family gave the museum, as well as the fiery impetus for Peter's request, it was in everyone's best interest that the board vote to keep "Mack" on the theater. Still angry at the museum, but agreeing that "Mack" also meant his family and company, Peter backed Rossi's position: He wanted his family's name to remain on the theater.
Rossi then sent a letter to the museum board Feb. 22.
"I believe that if the name is removed there would be substantial inquiries throughout the community for the reason. All parties have people who would be favorable to their position, however airing one's 'dirty laundry' will benefit no one," he wrote. "I can not recognize any positive benefits for the Museum as a result of this action."
Rossi said he never received a response to the letter. He did meet with a few board members, as the vote on the name's removal from the theater drew near. All but one reacted positively to his argument for keeping it, Rossi said, and the other was noncommittal. But on Feb. 27, the board voted: Theater Mack would become the Cayuga Museum Carriage House Theater.
A few of the "nos" Rossi and Mack anticipated weren't at the vote, they said. Board President Calarco said the board members who did vote to change the name were motivated by the opportunity to rebrand the theater "so that it is more in line with our mission." She deferred further comment on the matter to the museum's legal representative, Jeff Gosch, who declined comment.
McHugh said the new name emphasizes the theater's history — and by bearing the museum's name, the new one makes the theater easier for visitors to find. But she added that the museum's relationship with Mack also motivated the board's vote. Though he has been "extremely generous" to the institution, Mack could be commanding toward its personnel, McHugh said.
"We debated long and hard, but in the end, we decided we couldn't allow someone to call the shots for us," she said. "You don't talk to people that way."
Mack responded that the only thing he wanted to command was the respect a donor of his magnitude deserves. With its vote, he continued, the museum board denied not only him that respect, but his family.
"I told them to take my name off the building. My mother didn't. ... My sisters and brothers haven't. My two kids haven't. And that's our name," he said. "It's ironic that they decided that someone else can't make a decision who's going to play there, but they can make a decision who's in charge of my name."
For that reason, Rossi sent the museum board another letter on April 17. After suggesting that some members may not have understood the Maciulewicz family's legacy at the museum when they voted to rename the theater, Rossi requested on Peter and his family's behalf that the museum repay them $125,000 in funds they gave to renovate it. He argued that the board accepted the money on the "express condition" that it name the theater after the family, and that the board's vote to rename it made repayment to the family "properly and legally demanded."
McHugh, however, said the theater's naming wasn't a quid pro quo.
"I deal with donations all the time. I'm careful about accepting things that have strings attached," she said. "Our museum and our legal advisers feel we have no problem defending our decisions."
The name change didn't take effect until late August, after the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival's The Pitch series ended its summer run at the theater. Meanwhile, the museum presented a new Earth Fest event in April and a jazz concert by another artist in May, both with funding from DeFrancisco's program. Eidel said the museum is in line to receive another grant from it next year.
Less certain is the possibility of legal action against the museum by Mack and his family. Peter said he's "still cooling off," so he has yet to decide. Rossi has been in contact with the museum's legal representation, but said it is unclear what a resolution would look like. Additionally, Rossi is unsure "if Peter would accept anything different besides restoration of the name."
Whether or not the dispute is resolved, Mack said he is done with the Cayuga Museum until McHugh and a few members of its board of trustees are, too. It's them he blames for ruining his relationship with what "was really a special place to me," a place he'd stop on the way home from school to gaze at its Native American artifacts and cases of glow-in-the-dark birds — a place he, his family and his company helped build into what it is today.
"They can't remember the history of what people do there," Mack said. "They're in the history business. And they don't even know their own history."
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