Bath’s Chocolate Church searches for new leadership after ‘unexpected’ resignation of executive director
BATH, Maine — The “unexpected” departure of Barbara Bowers has the Chocolate Church Arts Center searching for an interim executive director.
While the search is ongoing, board President Joe Byrnes will serve temporarily in that capacity.
The center, one of the midcoast’s premier performing and visual arts facilities, announced Bowers’ resignation Wednesday, a day after she advised the board.
“It was time for me to move on,” Bowers told The Times Record. “I’m not moving on to another job, but I will be.”
“It’s her choice,” board member Thom Watson said. “She’s pursuing other opportunities. Her resignation was unexpected.”
Watson said a search committee is in place to find a permanent replacement, and that there are several local people who might be good candidates.
He said the board hopes to have someone in the post by the end of June.
“We have numbers and names,” Watson said, “and we will contact them.
“There’s only two more concerts scheduled before the 2013-14 season begins in the fall, so there’s time for a new executive director to get feet on the ground, and begin fundraising. We’re not going to do a national search,” he said.
Byrnes said the pressure of fundraising in a tough economy might have taken a toll on Bowers, who lives in Walpole, near South Bristol.
“There’s the pressure of a tough job and the economy,” Byrnes said. “It was a long commute for her. I think it was just a lot of mounting stresses.”
Bowers, who became executive director May 11, 2009, had a slightly different view of her departure.
“It was sudden for the board,” she said. “I got the feeling they were looking for something else for that position. I thought I would be there a really long time.”
Bowers said the center improved under her leadership, saying it “was ready to fold when I took over four years ago, and I kept it going.
“Artistically, it has a great reputation as a music venue. I take credit for that. I took pride in being a good presenter. It’s one of the things I’m good at — reading an audience and bringing in talent.”
Watson and Byrnes agreed, praising Bowers’ work.
“Barbara’s done an outstanding job with regard to performers,” Watson said. “She’s brought in people with national billing who in the past would not have considered coming to Bath. We hope to continue that trend.”
Watson said the Chocolate Church — which, for more than 30 years, has offered a rich program of arts to the area — operates on an annual budget of a little more than $200,000.
The challenges of running the venue — the mission of which is historic preservation in addition to offering music concerts, live theater and children’s programs — are well known to Roo Dunn, who served as executive director from 2006 to 2009.
“I’d cover the part-time box office person’s lunch break, run upstairs and talk to an agent to book a band, then go down and fix the furnace or scrounge up someone else to do it for me,” he said.
The mission is unusually broad. “One: It’s midcoast. Two: It’s quite small. And three: It’s a difficult building,” Dunn said.
Over the years, the center has seen a succession of executive directors, boards and even names, but it has continued as the year-round performance center Jack Doepp imagined in 1977.
“Doepp was a designer of theater sets from New York who had worked at the Maine State Music Theater, and he was interested in establishing a year-round performance center in this area,” Sagadahoc Preservation Inc. board member Jane Morse said.
Doepp and Sagadahoc Preservation worked together to acquire and renovate what was then called Central Church into an arts center.
Morse said the Central Church was about to be sold and demolished for parking when Sagadahoc Preservation stepped in.
Martha Mayo, who produced and directed the “Hot Chocolate Jubilee” there in April, got involved with the center back in the 1980s to help raise money and “bring in new people to support a worthy cause,” she said.
That was just a few years after a nonprofit was formed to raise money and obtain grants for what was originally called the Performing Arts Center of Bath, Morse said.
Doepp left and returned to New York City in 1980. Sometime in the 1980s, the name was changed to the Center for the Arts at the Chocolate Church.
“I’d guess we’ve averaged one executive director every three to four years — I have worked with at least five since becoming associated with the Chocolate Church in 1980,” said Watson, the board member who also is director of Studio Theater’s “Moon Over Buffalo,” currently in rehearsals on the main stage of the church.
The theater might be cold, the curtain threadbare and the outside shingles akimbo, but those who have watched the ups and downs of its evolution have faith in the future of the Chocolate Church.
Byrnes said the board wishes Bowers well.
“The ideal successor will step into the job ready to continue the fine programming CCAC has offered over the past seasons, and is ready to continue our commitment to bring arts and entertainment to the midcoast region,” he said.
That person will have to be good at raising money. Byrnes characterizes this as a “challenging time” for fundraising.
“The big check writers aren’t around anymore,” he said. “But we’re going to be fine. We’re looking forward to an exciting future.”
“I loved what I did,” Bowers said. “I loved it. I’m very sad.”