FEVA Dream

The East Village's Howl festival collapses amid mudslinging, debt, and broken promises

"The first year was like, 'Let's put on a show, kids!' " Van Cook says. "The organization wasn't there because it was so spontaneous. My friend's son wanted to be an intern, and the next minute he's running the film festival. Decisions were made based on whoever was in the room at the time. Of course things went wrong."

"The spirit of the festival was so great that the people running it deserved a lot of the benefit of the doubt," says Leslie McEachern, owner of Angelica Kitchen and a former Howl patron. "But after a while, there seemed to be a pattern evolving of disorganization and carelessness." McEachern enlisted the Angelica florist to do work at cost for a FEVA benefit gala at Capitale, only to discover that he still hadn't been reimbursed a year later—a story that's all too familiar to FEVA's bevy of creditors. "I talked to Joseph Pupello on the phone. He says, 'I'm writing this check right now,' " McEachern recalls. "I wait a week, I don't get a check. I call again, he says, 'I'm writing it right now, I'm walking it over to the restaurant.' Well, he must still be walking around, because that was a month ago. They're supposed to be representing the community, and this is how they behave?"

These kinds of frustrations are echoed many times over in the grievance report. "We would have a lot more sympathy with the mess over there if we were given an honest explanation of their ability to pay us what was agreed to, rather than offering up different explanations, or simply ignoring us each time we billed them," says Wigstock co-founder Scott Lifshutz in the report.

Wigging out at Wigstock during the 2004 Howl festival in Tompkins Square Park
photo: Aaron Lee Fineman
Wigging out at Wigstock during the 2004 Howl festival in Tompkins Square Park

By all accounts, the FEVA member who lost the most is Phil Hartman himself. Hartman says he put $250,000 of his own money into FEVA in 2005 alone, the year he stepped down as executive director in favor of Pupello, former president of the New York Restoration Project. "We were an upside-down pyramid, because we started with the philanthropic efforts of one individual," Pupello says. "Now we need to get the corporate support behind it, and we need a diverse portfolio."

Board member Bob Perl of Tower Brokerage says that, after Pupello's appointment, "Our hope was to find alternative funding sources." And how has that gone? "Poorly."

"Pupello came on as a fundraiser and he didn't raise a dime," David Leslie says. "All he did was fire the [Artists] Advisory Board and cancel the festival." Pupello retorts that it was Leslie who was in charge of the March 2005 Capitale benefit that, according to Pupello, unbenefited FEVA to the tune of $80,000. "All of our debt stems directly from that," Pupello says.

Officially known as the 1st Annual FEVA Pantheon Gala, the Capitale benefit honored local legends including Jonas Mekas and Tuli Kupferberg at what's arguably the gaudiest private-party space on the Lower East Side. It also produced the episode that, to many observers, summed up FEVA's organizational bedlam: the Case of the Missing $52,500. Two members of the East Village Community Coalition, Michael Rosen and Aaron Sosnick, chipped in this combined sum to underwrite the gala; a week after their donation, FEVA's bank balance stood at $125, and no one can explain exactly why. "Phil put the money toward another debt," Van Cook said. "Which one? I don't know. We had so many debts."

When the Voice asked Hartman about the money, he wrote in an e-mail that, of the $250,000 he contributed to FEVA last year, $50,000 was a loan. "About $47,000 was repaid, and the rest I forgave," he writes. Asked to clarify, Hartman explains, "[T]he money went into the general fund and was used for staff salaries, overhead, benefit expenses . . . and payback of the loan."

Of course, why the finances of a public organization are so unclear to its own patrons and organizers is something of a mystery in itself. And some observers say that FEVA isn't the first Hartman venture characterized by extreme disarray. Hartman's cinema, the Pioneer Theater, has been a veritable assembly line of disgruntled ex-employees and associates since it opened in 2000; one local filmmaker and curator who has shown her work at the Pioneer jokes about her $6.20 cut of a well-attended screening. "They were always trying to cut corners, always trying to cut people's wages, always trying to get one person to do three jobs," says Moira Tierney, a former projectionist at the Pioneer. "Their whole East Village–bohemian thing is so hypocritical. They want to seem like they're down with the people, but they show a total disregard for the people who actually work for them."

"It was rough going the first few years," says Todd Verow, a former manager at the Pioneer. "I think it was an organizational problem—they had a really hard time getting all their paperwork together. They didn't really know what they were doing. Their hearts were in the right place."

Hartman would concur with that sentiment as it applies to FEVA. "Most of the FEVA staff who were underpaid or, in my case, unpaid did the best they could, and most of them are incredibly proud of what we accomplished," he says. Though he remains on FEVA's board of directors, Hartman indicates that he has distanced himself from the organization's day-to-day operations, while new branches of the Two Boots franchise are in the works on Grand Street and in Bridgeport, Connecticut. "It's time for others to carry on," he says.

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