Big Top Blunder
The flash of neon lights and the clank of a 50-foot Ferris wheel filled the vast Park Avenue Armory Drill Hall last October.
Magicians, stilt walkers, chair-stackers, contortionists, jugglers-even a juggling contortionist-performed for thousands alongside the cheesy children's rides and Coney Island-style "step right up" games over the course of four days to celebrate the $200 million renovation of the Upper East Side institution. The indoor carnival was part of a fundraiser that marked the launch of the historic building-which typically hosts antique fairs and other artistic events-as the city's newest cultural destination, complete with its own full-scale arts programming.
Josh Hickey, the ambitious young event planner and head of Hickey Shields Design, had been contracted to put together the high-profile, yet unusual, occasion. Hickey hired the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus to handle the performance elements, which ultimately included around 30 individual entertainers with their own distinctive talents.
Hickey Shields came highly recommended by top-notch clients; its chic, glossy website boasts W Hotels Worldwide, New York City Ballet and Dom Pérignon as just a few of its prestigiouspatrons. Hickey Shields has designed galas for the Brooklyn Academy of Music and The Asia Society. The entire four-day Park Avenue Armory event seemed to go off without a hitch. It was hailed as a success, written up in culture pages around the city and praised for its unique state fair-meets- Tim Burton
Then in February, a Facebook post appeared that alerted fans to the fact of Bindlestiff's dire financial situation. The organization followed by starting a web campaign to raise attention and money, headlined: "Hickey Shields Design cripples Bindlestiff Family Cirkus." It seemed the circus was in trouble.
Bindlestiff Family Cirkus claims that they have yet to be paid a balance of $26,700 from Hickey Shields. For a group that operates with a number of performers on shoestring budgets, and has a humble annual operating budget hovering between $150,000 and $200,000, this is not small change.
"It's been kind of a horrible process on our end, trying to keep our mission of entertaining New York in the midst of this," Keith Nelson, co-founder and executive director of Bindlestiff, says.
Known for its audacious sideshow and burlesque acts, the Brooklyn-based Bindlestiff Family Cirkus has been performing for over 15 years in various incarnations. Formed by Nelson and Stephanie Monseu as a non-profit 501(c) (3) corporation, the duo has produced shows around the world, from Avery Fisher Hall to Burning Man. A few years ago they launched Cavalcade of Youth, a program for young performers to hone their variety skills, and in 2007 Bindlestiff began to offer a Circus Summer Camp for Staten Island kids. But now the company is strapped for cash and is struggling to move forward.
The Park Avenue Armory's President and Executive Producer Rebecca Robertson, the person behind the impressive new cultural season at the Armory, declined to comment on the record. But representatives at the Armory did confirm the facts: that they contracted and paid Josh Hickey and that they were not involved in paying Bindlestiff. In a statement, an Armory rep said that they were "appalled that Hickey Shields Design has not paid the wonderful performers of Bindlestiff Family Cirkus that Hickey Shields engaged to provide entertainment at the Armory Carnival."
The ripple effects of Hickey's inability to pay out have been widespread and deep. Many freelancers came forward to say that they were not paid in full.
Adam Cardone is a magician and ventriloquist that Bindlestiff hired to perform at the show. According to Cardone, he and his fellow performers did an excellent job.
"It was one of the hardest jobs I've done in a long time, just because of the length and the amount of people," Cardone says. When he found out that he wouldn't be getting paid promptly, he was shocked. "I've done shows where there is some shady stuff going on, but you would never expect that kind of event to have that level of shadiness."
Cardone has been working with Bindlestiff for over eight years, and has nothing but praise for the way they run their organization.
"Whether we're doing a smaller-scaled event or a really extravagant event, the quality level is really high, and the professionalism is really high."
When Bindlestiff sent a letter to the performers explaining that they couldn't pay them out as planned, Cardone knew it was a serious problem.
"I feed a family of four performing," he says. "That whole weekend that I was working for them, not to have that money is serious. We all need it. It's my job." Cardone claims he often gets multiple inquires every weekend, so when he books a job, he's often turning down two or three other offers of paid work in order to do it. "It's like somebody who works a 9-to-5 job missing a week's salary."
Bindlestiff ended up paying their performers out of their own pockets. "Our organization decided to basically take out loans and everything to make sure the artists were compensated for their time," Nelson says. As of press time, they have raised $2,283.42 in donations from their online campaign to offset the costs.
Other contractors who worked with Hickey weren't so lucky to have a supportive middleman to negotiate payment. Mikaela Zimmerman was the head fabricator for the event. A carpenter who does freelance work, building anything from furniture to elaborate sets like the one for the Armory Carnival, he says that Hickey owes him $6,000 for a month-and-a-half of full-time work and materials, and a small claims court judge agreed, ultimately awarding that amount to Zimmerman. He's still waiting for a payment that he suspects will never come.
"I just want what's owed," Zimmerman says. "Some of my equipment got stolen, some got damaged. That's how I make a living, with that equipment. I had a rough end of the year." According to Zimmerman, by the last two weeks leading up to the carnival, he was working 19 hours some days, and that Hickey seemed happy with the job.
"I actually saved him a huge amount of money on the fabrication. I really lowered his costs," Zimmerman explains. "He thought he was going to spend 'X' amount of money, and I helped him by getting cheaper materials. He was happy with that."
Zimmerman remembers Hickey as slightly eccentric but fun to work with- until the end.
"I used to believe that he's not a bad guy; he's just a terrible businessman and he spent more money than he had," Zimmerman says. "But now I realize, no good man would forget about people and leave them with debts like this."
Josh Hickey is a slim, well-dressed young man who's been running his own design firm for the past three years. In a NY1 video (available here) that promoted the Armory Carnival, he wears tortoise-shell glasses, sports smartly trimmed facial hair and a tailored blue blazer over a light blue Oxford. He could pass for a chic boutique retailer or pleasant Brooklyn expat transplanted to the Upper East Side.
He's a sophisticated and worldly guy (he splits his time between New York, France and Florida), but he's a tough man to get a hold of these days. His New York City office address is a space he had once rented and hasn't been back to in months. His phone goes straight to voicemail. When we caught up with him, the first thing Hickey did was confirm that everything being said about him is, to a certain extent, true.
"The sad reality is that we owe quite a few people money," Hickey says. He doesn't deny that fact, and he readily admits that be owes Bindlestiff over $26,000.
According to Hickey, some of this problem stems from the Park Avenue Armory.
"There were certain contractual details that were not met," Hickey explains. "Certain timelines that were not met, certain engagement that were not met, that forced us to make many change orders, many last-minute additions. We just sort of motored through, and at the end of the project were met with a very icy response."
Hickey said that the total amount paid to him by the Armory for a 650-person seated dinner and opening gala, followed by four days of the carnival, was $220,000. However, last-minute changes at the Armory's behest pushed Hickey over budget. He claims that he made the Armory aware that all its adjustments would result in higher bills, and when it came time to pay up, they balked. Hickey decided to pay the differences from funds he expected through future jobs, but several of them fell through, and he was stuck.
"We've been working since November to try to pay everybody back. It hasn't happened as quickly as I would have liked," Hickey said. "I cannot pass judgment on the Bindlestiff Cirkus. They have every right to be extremely angry with me; I owe them money."
Hickey says that members of Bindlestiff began contacting his potential clients this past winter, telling everyone who would listen about its plight, and as a result, his business dried up faster than you can shoot a girl out of acannon. "They sort of shot themselves, and everybody else we owe money to, in the foot, because we lost our spring season in New York," Hickey
explains. According to Hickey, he plans on paying his debts to the carnival contractors as soon as new business comes in, but now he's struggling to book any jobs.
Before the Armory Carnival, Hickey seemed to enjoy a stellar reputation among his clients, receiving multiple contracts from several of them and booking gigs through word-of-mouth. Jeannine Glazewski, the director of special events at The Asia Society, which contracted Hickey for three different events a few years ago, raved about Hickey's work and professionalism.
"He worked within our budget, and we were happy," Glazewski says, explaining that they had to trim plans to meet the budget of only several thousand dollars, and that Hickey had no problem doing so. "He was reliable; he was cheerful; he was cooperative; he delivered on time."
Glazewski stresses that Hickey creatively accommodated Asia Society's needs, repurposing materials from a dinner he planned for them at the Waldorf for their next family benefit to cut costs.
It's unclear whether Hickey had ever produced anything on the scale of the Armory Carnival. He says that his company contracts "interior construction projects on a continual basis," and that they were involved with the renovation of a 17th-century landmarked building in Paris that cost, in total, about a million Euros. Still, Hickey claims he's unable to pinpoint the moment when he lost fiscal control over the Armory project.
"What I would have done [differently] is I would have every single contract in the name of the Park Avenue Armory," he says. "That's now my practice."
Hickey and his lawyers are exploring the possibility of litigation against the Armory, though Hickey is hesitant to pursue that avenue for fear of permanently destroying his stateside reputation. But he's also running out of options.
"It's not like we're running a multimillion dollar company and there's this huge nest egg I'm sitting on," Hickey says. "People look at my Facebook page"- now taken down-"and they look at my blog"-on which he describes himself as "the luckiest person alive" and boasts about his work on the Armory show- "and they come to these conclusions that I sort of deceive people to support some sort of extravagant lifestyle, and that's not the case." He said that he's lived in France for seven years, that his
family is there, and that he's not hiding from his responsibilities.
"One of our options is to file for bankruptcy," he admits. "It's not something that I want to do, because it's not right."
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