ROCKPORT, Maine — The Maine arts world was rocked last Friday to learn of the sudden layoffs of four full-time employees at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, the resignation of two of its board members and the decision to close the midcoast institution for the winter.
The troubles stemmed from ongoing financial difficulties that were made worse by the recession, board members said, and they are looking at “outsourcing” work in the future to save money.
“What we’re hoping to do is restructure ourselves, so that we’re operating with a better business model,” said Dudley Zopp, co-chair of the board of directors.
According to executive director Mary Ann Schierholt, the center’s financial picture has been getting bleaker, and it became necessary to close from Dec. 20 until “sometime” in May.
“It’s a very difficult thing to let people go who have been doing their jobs,” she said. “We simply ran out of money.”
The nonprofit institution’s most recent income tax documents showed that CMCA had a deficit of $219,000 during 2008 and a deficit of $115,000 in 2007.
Schierholt, who started her position in August, is now the only paid staff member for the center. At noon last Friday, the other four staff members — the curator, education director, operations and finance manager, and curatorial and development assistant — were told it was their last day.
Curator Britta Konau said that while the staff knew the museum had financial problems, the suddenness of the layoffs was disrespectful.
“I am very sorry and disappointed that the board of trustees of CMCA could not think of other solutions to the financial crisis they are facing that would have been more respectful to the professional staff who have kept the organization running for the past two years without adequate leadership,” she said in a prepared statement.
In an interview Tuesday, Konau said she does not feel that outsourcing work would be a good solution for the center.
“The institution would lose its coherent voice. It would lose its identity, in my opinion; and making sure the overall quality of the program was high would be very difficult,” she said.
The Maine Arts Commission recently approved a stimulus grant in order to retain CMCA’s director of education, Cathy Melio. That grant is now under review, according to a statement from the commission.
Zopp said she and other board members on a “transition team” would work over the winter to restructure the center’s business model as well as to take care of some structural damage to the building, which overlooks Rockport Harbor.
“I know that [employees] are upset,” Zopp said. “We really regret that we had to do it that way. … Looking at the books that week and the bottom line, that was the decision we had to make.”
She said that the institution was not able to meet its future payroll obligations and that potential donors typically are not willing to give money to an organization to reduce debt.
“They like to invest in programs,” she said.
While the center’s problems may begin with its bottom line, they don’t end there. Board member and longtime volunteer Laurie Adams resigned her position when she learned of the layoffs. She, along with other board members, had voted to close the center in December but had thought the “majority” of the staff could be kept until then.
“I had been growing increasingly uncomfortable about some things that were happening,” Adams said. “Difficult times make for difficult situations. I stayed on the board to be supportive of the staff. When they were let go, I resigned.”
Longtime board member Barbara Michelena also resigned Friday, although she said her move was unrelated to the staff layoffs.
Other fallout from that act included cancellation of a talk by Maine photographer Patrisha McLean that was scheduled to take place this Sunday at the center.
Longtime board member Davis Thomas struck a hopeful note about the future of the center, which originally was called Maine Coast Artists when it was founded in 1952.
“Like a lot of cultural not-for-profits, we’re in trouble,” he said. “I’ve been with the organization long enough. We’ve had crises before. We’re going to survive. But in order to do so, we’ve had to buy time.”