Artists, backers air outrage over Center for Maine Contemporary Art layoffs, closure

Posted Dec. 06, 2009, at 9:05 p.m.

CAMDEN, Maine — Dozens of artists and supporters of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art asked many probing questions but received few answers Saturday afternoon during an emotional forum on the future of the financially troubled institution.

Last month, four of the center’s five staff were laid off without warning, and it was announced that the Rockport building would close for the winter as of Dec. 20 because of mounting debts.

The abruptness of the decisions surprised many in the midcoast arts scene, and questions about exactly who made those decisions — and why — have spawned an atmosphere of concern, anger and suspicion among some CMCA loyalists.

Those emotions were palpable Saturday afternoon when approximately 75 people — many of then CMCA volunteers or participating artists — crammed into a room in the Camden Public Library to discuss the situation.

While several past board members were present, and one current board member attended on her own, the trustees officially sent a letter declining the invitation to join the public forum.

“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,” Judith Daniels and Dudley Zopp, co-chairmen of the board of trustees, wrote in the letter. “We are grateful for this opportunity to share with you our recent challenges and opportunities. When we begin working in committee after the first of the year, we will be most eager to have input from you, perhaps in small groups.”

The letter, which was read to the group by artist and moderator Robert Shetterly, sparked grumbles and frowns from many in the crowd.

“I wonder why they handled it the way they handled it,” said Camden photographer Bill Thuss, adding that the center’s financial troubles didn’t develop overnight. “If they are too damn busy to be here, then they shouldn’t be on the board. I would say to can them.”

Founded as Maine Coast Artists in 1952, CMCA has grown into a hub for the midcoast art community. More than 300 artists exhibit their work at the center’s historic building in Rockport Village every year.

But the nonprofit center has been struggling financially for several years. Tax documents show that CMCA had a deficit of $219,000 in 2008 and $115,000 in 2007.

The trustees’ letter offered no details of the center’s money problems other than attributing them to “several years of declining membership and revenues.” The letter goes on to state that the board’s first responsibility is to develop “a new and better business plan that will lead us to a financially healthy and artistically vibrant future.”

More than a few theories were floated at Saturday’s forum about who or what was to blame for CMCA’s deficits.

Some speakers accused the board of financial mismanagement, with a few even suggesting that the Attorney General’s Office be contacted to look into whether laws were broken at the nonprofit.

Others criticized the board for a lack of transparency and for failing to communicate with CMCA’s volunteers, supporters and artists. One woman said she has been preparing works for a coming exhibit with several other artists, but she has yet to hear back from CMCA’s new executive director and sole remaining employee, Mary Ann Schierholt.

“Whether or not they have a legal obligation, they have a moral obligation to its supporters,” added Alan Crichton, an artist from Liberty.

There also was considerable discussion about the search for an executive director and the decision in August to hire Schierholt.

But artist and former CMCA board member Jan Rosenbaum of Rockport sought to dispute the conspiratorial tone of some speakers, attributing the current situation to past incompetence rather than anything sinister.

Rosenbaum said he resigned from the board several years ago after members voted to hire a pricey consultant and then pay for marketing. Other past CMCA board members put the price tag for the consultant at $90,000 and the marketing work at $60,000.

More recently, some board members have been counting on the holding company Leucadia National Corp., which owns property in Rockport, to buy much of downtown and rescue CMCA, Rosenbaum alleged.

“What I found on the board was people interested in finding solutions without doing work, and the solutions were to hire people — very expensive people — to do the work for them,” he said.

Rosenbaum later added that the current board members are “trying their damnedest to figure out what to do.”

Laurie Adams, who resigned from the board last month over the handling of the layoffs, agreed that the center’s problems predate the current board. Adams said she has been concerned for some time about the lack of fundraising done by the trustees.

Adams said the board voted to close the center on Dec. 20 to save money. Her understanding at the time of the vote was that staff would be rehired when the center reopened in the spring, but that is now in question.

“I stayed on the board longer than I wanted to because I wanted to support the staff,” she said.

The sole current board member in the audience Saturday, Anne Edmonds, said the trustees decided not to attend because they did not feel prepared to answer all of the questions. Instead, the letter outlines general steps being taken as well as a long list of exhibitions planned for the spring.

“I just hope you will feel that CMCA is an organization worth supporting,” she said.

Near the end of Saturday’s two-hour meeting, Shetterly summed up many of the comments by suggesting that the board be more open with the public about the challenges it faces.

“The problem is not change. The problem is how that change has been effected and a lack of transparency,” he said. “As soon as you don’t have that transparency, everything becomes suspicious.”

Ultimately, attendees agreed to send the board a recording of the discussion as well as a list of key points. A smaller group also is being formed to act as liaison to the board, with Adams serving as unofficial point person.

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