Art Center Board Stonewalls Critics

by AVA News Service, October 28, 2009

An overflow crowd packed the main gallery of the Mendocino Art Center for last Wednesday after­noon’s highly anticipated Board meeting. Board President Brandt Stickel said that each speaker would have four minutes each to address the board. He explained that there would be no board response — this was simply the community’s chance to be heard by the board.

Margaret Paul spoke of “the erosion of trust that has been steadily increasing since August with each new unpopular board decision, including the cancella­tion of the Thanksgiving Fair and next year’s Summer Fair, the dismantling of the computer lab and ending of the digital arts program, the remodel of a fine arts studio into an unproductive office, the discontinuance of the local schools’ instructional field trips to Center, the closing of the gift shop, the questionable hiring practices coupled with the firing of all of the coordi­nators, the intent to outsource the Mendocino Arts Magazine, the planned disposal of Art Center’s Library and all its books, the hiring of an outsider from Sedona, Arizona, for one day to develop a unnecessary “Strategic Plan” for the art center, the disposal of Center’s art collection without the knowl­edge or consideration of its value, the turning over of Center’s website to an outside company in Arizona, the discourteous treatment given to visitors, students, artists, instructors, community members, artists in residence, and so forth.”

Ms. Paul added, “The community’s loss of trust in the Art Center’s administration cannot be regained under the current leadership. Reversing or amending these ill-advised decisions would only be a beginning. It will take a long time to regain the good will of the community. For starters, many, many people are due an apology. I would be happy to provide the names and reasons to the board of the Mendocino Art Cen­ter if there is an interest in righting wrongs.”

Ms. Paul presented a petition signed by hundreds of community members. The petition seeks a review of the actions of the Board of Directors and calls for the immediate formation of a seven-person commit­tee to do so. The committee would be made up of three current board members, three community members, and an attorney who has never been a board member.

Former Art Center Director Peggy Templer said, “At a board retreat three years ago, some staff and volunteers discussed where we wanted the Art Center to be in the future, we all agreed that we wanted to keep the Art Center just the way it was. We brought up and discussed each of the Art Center’s overall pro­grams, and decided there wasn’t anything we wanted to give up. We were proud of our educational pro­grams, our gallery and gift shop, our residency pro­gram, our children’s program, our magazine, our fairs and our Garden Tour, and we just wanted to keep doing what we were doing, but do it better. We all realized that doing it better would require raising more money. Just before I left, two things transpired which put the opportunity to do everything better right in the board’s lap: the sale of a piece of property for $600,000, and the donation of $100,000 from a board member. At that point, the board made a deci­sion — the decision to hire Karen Ely — which not only did not result in us being able to do things better, but resulted in the Art Center being stripped of all those things we were so unanimously proud of — our fairs, our children’s program, our magazine, etc. The board failed to protect the heart and soul of the Art Center, and instead allowed all those things the com­munity held dear to be basically vaporized.”

Ms. Templer also questioned the wisdom of “…employing people with absolutely no formal educa­tion — no degrees in anything — for key administra­tive positions. The combined salaries of the new Executive Director and the Education Director comes to nearly $100,000, very high salaries for the coast and normally reserved for people with some level of educational attainment. People with relevant degrees were replaced with people with no relevant educa­tion.”

Bruce Levene, local author, mentioned that although the Mendocino Art Center Board of Direc­tors voted unanimously in April, 2007 to pay him $4,800 to research, edit, and compile a book about the history of the Art Center to be published during the 50th anniversary year this past September, the board told him they had no money and publication might be delayed until 2010. So, on November 2, Levene will send the book off to be printed. The books will be here in mid-December. Levene will publish it himself and the estimated $15,000 in profits will be given to Kelley House Museum.

Pamela Kahlo, former jewelry coordinator, was offended by statements made by Stickel and Ely to the effect that “employees have failed to do their jobs” — “Why do we have a jewelry program?” — “the fail­ing education program” — “lost vision, lost mission” — and “community events, like fairs, are not part of our mission.”

Other instructors and former coordinators expressed similar disdain for these groundless and offensive statements by the new executive director and the president of the Board.

Nancy Nelson, a local artist, was concerned that the membership has not been heard. She said she found it incredible that an original Charles Stevenson painting was sold at the Center’s yard sale for $100! She objected to a classroom being turned into a stor­age room. The Art Center was built with local effort and local money. To bring in a consultant from Sedona to help the board develop a strategic plan is an affront to the community from which it sprung.

Local author Jay Frankston stressed that the Men­docino Art Center is a membership organization. “This is our Art Center and we need to vote for Board members”.

Philo potter Jan Wax made the point that artists depend on the Center’s fairs for their livelihood. “The decision to cancel a fair shows a lack of respect for the artists.” Wax expressed grave concern about the number of traditions being torn apart — dismantled — piece by piece by piece and wondered what would be left of the Center when what amounted to an evis­ceration of its core functions was finished.

Local artist and instructor Judith Greenleaf said she felt badly that the coordinators were fired so impersonally by a email without any of the ordinary courtesies typically extended to long-time employees and affiliates. She said she no longer likes to come to the Art Center. In the last three months, she’s been treated disrespectfully as have other artists she has talked with. “No one feels welcome. The change doesn’t look good.”

Pam King said she has loved coming to the Art Cen­ter since the 70s and wants all the programs and events to continue.

Coast artist Laurel Moss stated that the board needed to focus more on what the community has to offer than on finances.

Textile artist Emily Whittlesey said that as a coor­dinator, she spent an enormous amount of time on just the textile program. “One person [the new Educa­tion Director] cannot do it all.” She wants the board to answer the concerns expressed, such as “Who owns the property?” And, “What happens if Art Center goes down?”

Retired art teacher and former board member Bill Brazill made several points. In his long history with the Mendocino Art Center he said the Center never had money. Now that there is money for the first time, Brazil urged the board of directors to take their time and analyze what will benefit the Art Center in ways that will keep it going for future generations. He urged the board to “hang on to that money [the dona­tion and the property sale proceeds]. Heritage House had grandiose plans. Look at it now. (It's bankrupt and closed.) Listen to these people who know the Art Center.”

Fort Bragg resident and Coast Hospital Board member Mike Dell’Ara made the point that the plan for the Art Center needs to be developed with com­munity input that everyone can get behind. He also mentioned the need for transparency.

Coast resident Toby Wade read aloud from a let­ter from Nancy Gardner, President of M.U.S.E. As Ms. Wade read her letter of praise for the new execu­tive director, an audible gasp and hissing could be heard from the audience. (Ms. Gardner’s organization is one of the beneficiaries of Ely’s dismantling of the Art Center programs. Ely turned over the $30,000 in profits from the Thanksgiving Fair and the 2010 Summer Fair to M.U.S.E., the organization that will now conduct these two events.)

Coast activist Beth Bosk felt that continuity was what sustained the Mendocino Art Center for the past 50 years. “The continuity has been stripped,” said Bosk. “The disrespect on the part of the Executive Director is intolerable. You may have selected the wrong person. It was a very inadvisable decision which needs to be reviewed.”

The crowd was startled later in the meeting when it was revealed that a loan against the Stevenson prop­erty for $175,000 at 10% interest is being arranged to stem the $123,000 projected April, 2010 budgetary shortfall.

Everyone wanted to know: WHERE HAS ALL THE MONEY GONE?, some resisting an impulse to sing the inquiry to the tune of “Where Have all the Flowers Gone?”

Short answer: the $170,000 projected loss in reve­nue from cut programs and events, and a 300% increase in administrative salaries.

Ms. Ely, lately of Sedona, Arizona, the woman responsible for all this fury, sat silent throughout, looking very uncomfortable when she wasn't furiously taking names, er, notes. When board member Don Paglia asked the Center's new director why she'd taken two studios off-line, digital arts and a fine arts studio, Ely's answer consisted of many words, no five of them adding up to anything approaching a coher­ent answer.

This open session of the Board of Directors meet­ing will be broadcast by MCTV repeatedly. Check the schedule.

* * *

The full text of Bruce Levene’s statement to the Board:

In 2007 the Mendocino Art Center Board of Direc­tors voted unanimously for me to research, edit and compile a book commemorating the Art Center’s first 50 years—and for that book to be published during the anniversary year. I was to be paid $4800 for work that in the real world would have cost $50,000. If I only earned 15¢ an hour that was okay because it was a labor of love. Okay, that is, until a few months ago when I was told the Board had no money and publication might be delayed until 2010.

Last year Kelley House Museum published a book that I did for them comparable to the new Art Center book. Kelley House has perhaps one-third the mem­bers and probably 1/50th of MAC’s assets, but their board members gathered $10,000 from sponsors toward that book’s production costs. A year ago I told the MAC board that it should get sponsors also. Two months ago I gave that board mockups of the book so that they could solicit donations. The board members did absolutely nothing. The only board sponsorship was $200, from Leona Walden.

A few weeks ago your new Executive Director announced publicly, referring to Mendocino Arts Magazine, that “MAC is not in the publishing busi­ness.” I can only assume this also applies to the book. Needless to say, this situation — of being involved with unfocused people who think they have control over me — has become both disgusting and intoler­able. Therefore it must end. The book is completed, all conditions met, but I haven’t been paid one cent. Nor has this Board agreed to publish the book. I think eventually, and grudgingly, in its own good time, the Board would pay me. But, like the famous New Yorker cartoon, “I say it’s spinach and I say the hell with it.”

I have a moral obligation to the memory of Bill and Jennie Zacha, to Lucia Zacha and to the history of the Mendocino Art Center, to publish the book during 2009, MAC's anniversary year. The Board either doesn't understand this, or refuses to accept that consideration or, as I truly believe, simply doesn't care. It prefers spending money foolishly, like paying a facilitator to come here next month from Sedona to write MAC a new mission statement. The profit from the Art Center’s Thanksgiving Fair, if you believe Peggy Templer’s figure of $9,000 or even Karen Ely’s public lie stated at the Town Hall meeting, of $5,000, would have paid to print the book. But that has been thrown away, on a whim, like shooting an arrow at the heart of the town.

So on November 2nd, next Monday, I will send the book off to be printed. The books will be here in mid-December, fulfilling my moral contract. Either MAC publishes the book and makes a profit of about $15,000 or I publish it myself and give all profits to Kelley House Museum. You would be wise to con­sider the consequences when you make a decision — which must be made today — during your closed ses­sion.

On October 3rd, I spoke with Janis Porter at the Kelley House Silent Auction at Crown Hall. I told her how upset I was and that she should tell Brandt Stickel that if I wasn’t paid by October 15th I would sue for Breach of Contract.

On October 4th I received this email from Brandt Stickel:

“On a more serious note I understand you con­fronted Janis Porter yesterday and threatened her, the Board and Executive Director. This must stop, Bruce. I know you are worked up about this but these con­frontations are wholly inappropriate. If necessary we can and will get a restraining order against you.”

Brandt forwarded this email to all Board members and, unless he is some sort of king, I assume his use of the word WE meant that you would all agree to get a restraining order against me. Except for one board member, none of you objected.

The one person who did respond was Janis Porter, who on October 7th sent me this email:

Bruce: “I agree that the restraining order reference was appalling. I most certainly did not say anything to him which would imply that there was any physical threat.”

Perhaps the scurrilous innuendo Brandt passed on to you isn’t actionable in law, but I regard it as both libelous and defamation of character. It certainly does bring disrepute on the Board by its president, as his charge against me was false and unwarranted. I haven’t decided if I will launch a complaint for Unethical Behavior by an Attorney to the State Bar of California, but I have downloaded the forms.

In 1971 Bill Zacha opened the Helen Schoeni Thea­ter with the play Our Town. It was more than just a symbolic gesture. To Zacha it meant that the Men­docino Art Center and the town of Mendocino were one, and that both, together, indivisible, were Our Town. Mendocino is my town, as the Art Center is my art center. It can be your town and your art center too, but you have to earn that right, to cherish the two as one, and recognize that if you damage one you harm both. This board is failing in its responsibility as guardians of what is almost a sacred trust. If the direc­tion the board members have taken recently doesn’t change, that trust will be broken. The Art Center will close its doors, and instead of wearing a shirt that states “WE LOVE MAC,” your shirt will contain only a scarlet A.

* * *

In a subsequent effort to get clarity on a very spe­cific financial irregularity, former Art Center staffer, Margaret Paul, went to three board members, including Brandt Stickel. The simple question to which she sought an answer was, “Why is there only one signature, Karen Ely’s, on checks being issued by the Art Center? In the past, there were always two signatures required, either two board members or the executive director and one board member.”

Ms. Paul's email was sent to Tom Becker, Board Treasurer.

“Tom: Several of us would like to know why the change in MAC allowing Karen to issue checks with only her signature. In the past, two board members, or, the executive director and one board member were required to sign all checks. Are you aware of this? Don Paglia referred me to Brandt who has ignored my inquiry. I would appreciate an answer ASAP. — Mar­garet

Mr. Becker responded: “Hi Margaret! I have reviewed your request, but don’t think I have the authority to respond to your specific question. I have forwarded a copy of your email to MAC President and MAC’s Legal Advisor (Brandt Stickel) as well as to each member of MAC’s Executive Committee. If I am directed to respond to your request, I will do so promptly. — Tom

Ms. Paul responded: “You are the treasurer. THIS IS RIDICULOUS! It is the board’s stonewalling that feeds the rumor mill. Many of us are of the opinion that Karen Ely took it upon herself to change the two signature policy without the board’s knowledge or input, the way so many other changes have been made. It is your responsibility (as a board member) to set the record straight and you have failed to do so. At Wednesday’s board meeting, some 35 concerned community members expressed very real and serious concerns about recent changes at the Art Center. We also presented almost 300 signatures on a petition to form a committee to review board actions. Much time and energy was expended in an effort to get the board’s attention. Will there be a response to these concerns and to our petition? If so, when? We truly want to hear what you have to say.”

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