Public forum seeks CMCA answers
Camden — As the season's first serious snowflakes began to fall Saturday afternoon, artists and art-loving community members from the Midcoast and beyond gathered at Camden Public Library to talk about the recent firings at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art and what the future may hold for the financially strapped nonprofit organization.
The library's Jean Picker Room, hung as it has become tradition in December to be with colorful mixed media paintings by Clarity (Robert and Su.Sane Hake of Rockland), was filled almost to overflow. The crowd included a number of former CMCA board members, one current board member, artists and volunteers from as far away as Corinna and Sedgwick.
Organized by several local artists, the public forum was moderated by artist Rob Shetterly, president of the Union of Maine Visual Artists, who facilitated the two-hour session and passed a wireless microphone around the room. Natasha Mayers, an artist and activist from Whitefield, sat nearby, writing down questions and concerns on a large pad of paper.
Shetterly opened the session by referencing the Oct. 30 "Black Friday" firings of all CMCA full-time employees, with the exception of newly-appointed Executive Director Mary Ann Schierholt of Owls Head.
"If everything had been done right, there would be no need for a meeting like this. There are a lot of fundamental questions; I don’t know if they will be answered today, but they should be asked," he said.
Those with the answers — the CMCA board of trustee members — were not in attendance, officially. Board Co-Chairwomen Judith Daniels of Union and Dudley Zopp of Lincolnville had sent ahead a letter to be read at the meeting, which Shetterly did before starting around the room with the mic.
"We hope you will understand that because this is a very busy time as we prepare our Annual Appeal and begin the critical work of re-positioning CMCA, we are unable to join you in person. We are grateful for this opportunity to share with you our recent challenges and opportunities … We wish above all to maintain a positive relationship between CMCA and the community," the letter stated.
The letter went on to say the board deeply regrets "the abruptness with which we were forced to lay off staff, and the fact that there were not sufficient funds to allow us to offer either severance or advance notice. The decision to close the galleries from January to May 2010 was also necessitated by our financial situation."
Mention in the letter of "the work of re-positioning CMCA" and of former curator/current Curator Emeritus Bruce Brown's offering to oversee the exhibition schedule on an interim basis elicited murmured response, and the inclusion of CMCA's mission statement was returned to several times in the discussion that followed.
Photographer Bill Thuss of Camden started things off by asking why the dismissals happened the way they did and why the board was too busy to attend.
"If they're too damn busy to be here, they shouldn't be on the board," he said.
Laurie Adams, a book artist from Camden, found herself in a somewhat uncomfortable position. Having recently resigned from the CMCA board, she was able to answer some questions about how and when certain decisions were made.
"The board did make the decision to close [Dec. 20]; it didn’t make the decision to fire the staff like that," she said.
"The way the staff was fired is how for-profit businesses fire people in America," said Leslie Trudeau, a CMCA volunteer with a nonprofit background.
Adams said a primary reason for her resigning from the board was because there was no fundraising being done on the board level, which she found disturbing. When she tried to do some fundraising herself, she said she was told it was the executive director's job to fund raise.
"And I disagree, I think it's the board's job to raise funds," she said.
That the nonprofit art and education organization needs some serious funds raised is clear. In recent years, CMCA hired a consultant to reorganize its financial dealings and an advertising firm to develop a new logo, among other public relations tools. Responding to a question by Belfast artist Dina Petrillo, Adams said that the cost was $90,000 for the consultant and $60,000 for the advertising firm.
She also said that when the building was winterized to become a year-round facility, the board did no fundraising for the project, which added to CMCA's debt. She said as far as she knew, the organization has been making its mortgage payments but that its credit line had been maxed out.
Sandra Nault of Lincolnville asked whether hiring Schierholt at the end of the summer had put the organization into a pay-for-the-new-hire or pay-the-staff bind. Shetterly said he did not think so because he had been told someone else had been hired for the position "but she declined when she found out she had to raise her own salary."
Bob Nault asked about rumors that CMCA planned to sell the building and lease it back. Developer Leucadia National Corporation was mentioned in the letter.
"A number of the people on the board now including the new executive director are into real estate," he said.
Artist Jan Rosenbaum of Rockport who served on a previous board, said he thinks the board has looked on Leucadia's investment in Rockport as a magic bullet.
"My supposition is that they thought it was the next best thing to MBNA," but the company didn’t come through, he said.
Rockport gallery owner Edie Caldwell said when she heard the Leucadia rumor, she went right to the source and called up Mike Sabatini, the company's local liaison. She reported "it was news to him."
Artist Jay Sawyer of Warren said he was fairly new to the CMCA scene but from what everybody is saying, "It sounds like a speeding wagon out of control. Who are they accountable to?"
Discussion ranged around the room about how nonprofits are chartered and run. Artist Jay Gibson of Morrill called the CMCA board "a tight-knit little cabal," while muralist Lyn Donovan of Camden brought up the possibility of illegalities in how the board has acted.
"They have done things that are illegal and outside their bylaws," said Patrick Cardon of Cushing, who had a copy of the CMCA bylaws in his hand, "and the Attorney General has every reason to look into this."
Rosenbaum tempered the discussion, taking issue with Shetterly in regards to the current board's motivations.
"I have not heard such a conspiracy theory day since Nixon was president. Rather than thinking a coup d'état, you should think incompetence. There was financial incompetence in a time of financial incompetence … to accuse the current board of nefarious behavior is really unfair," he said.
Anne Edmonds of Camden was the lone current board member to attend. She said she did not do so in an official capacity but because she wanted to hear what people had to say.
"We felt we weren't ready yet to answer all the questions that were being brought up … we hope you will feel CMCA is an organization that is worthy supporting and continuing. We all try, we're fallible but we're trying to do our best," she said.
Artist Nancy Glassman of Searsmont also appealed for the benefit of the doubt at a time when "it's natural to feel really upset and suspicious." Daniels is her first cousin, and Glassman said she has "done a desperate job to try to pull this together."
Lorraine Brown, who said she is close to the fired staff members, countered by saying the firings "had a terrible effect on the staff. They had to leave the building as if they'd done something wrong."
In regards to the staff, Adams reported that the Appreciation Group Fund she created to benefit the fired workers has received more than $9,000 in contributions.
Directions was a theme that recurred throughout the afternoon. Some questioned how the organization would go forward under the current leadership. The board's letter outlined exhibitions for 2010, but did not address the ones that had been planned for the canceled winter season. Mary Anne Lehmann of Rockport is among the artists who have spent months preparing work for the canceled shows.
"I called the executive director three weeks ago and have heard nothing," she said.
Shetterly raised the question of whether an art organization can really function without a curator.
"If there is no curator there, how do you as an artist connect to it," he asked.
Artist Greg Dunham of Castine asked about the percentage of the operating budget that is raised by CMCA's annual Art Auction, to which he has donated work. Adams said the summer auction and the fall's "Work of the Hand" juried craft show and sale are the two largest fundraisers for the organization.
"They don't have the power, you do. It's like what if they gave a war and nobody came? What if there were an arts organization and no artists took part," said Shetterly.
Allison Kuller said she would play Devil's Advocate by reminding everyone that the model that has been in place at CMCA for years clearly is not working.
"We're in a process of change, all of us. I think we should come to the table with very specific ideas of what we as a creative community need as opposed to going in attack mode," she said.
Another direction discussed was sideways — a former CMCA curator is looking into starting up a nonprofit arts organization that no one will talk about on the record but that was alluded to several times Saturday afternoon.
"Let's move sideways; let's start the Maine Center for Contemporary Art," said Mary Barnes of Sedgwick, garnering a hand.
The other direction mentioned was backwards, both in a positive and negative light. A Camden artist said going back to Maine Coast Artist configurations, including only being open in the summer, might not be a bad thing. Lolly Mitchell, who served on the CMCA board some 15 years ago, said she thought the current board is taking a step back in time.
"If we're going to go forward, they need to come to a meeting and tell us what's going on," she said.
Indeed, as the afternoon began to come to a close, that was the consensus. Daniels' and Zopp's letter stated the board looked forward to receiving the audiotape and other recordings of Saturday's meeting, and Rockport filmmaker Walter Ungerer, one of the forum's organizers, said he hoped CMCA board members will call a public meeting after they have heard the concerns expressed, perhaps at the Rockport Opera House.
"A nonprofit organization has a moral obligation to its supporters to fulfill its mission," said Alan Crichton of Liberty, one of the founders of Waterfall Arts.
Ann Donaldson of Union, who served on the board in the late 1970s, agreed. She said she is not an artist but represents citizens who care about art in the Midcoast.
"Transparency is what the public wants and if we don’t get it, we will go elsewhere," she said.
VillageSoup Art/Entertainment Editor Dagney Ernest can be reached at 207-594-4401 or by e-mail to email@example.com.