Wednesday, Jan 16 2013 04:00 PM

CAMILLE GAVIN: Can the Arts Council be saved?

By The Bakersfield Californian

With its budget gutted, widespread doubts about its governance and a staff so decimated there is real concern over whether basic operational functions can be performed, bold action is required if the Arts Council of Kern is to survive.

But recent decisions made by the increasingly powerful board of directors reveal a philosophy that just may alienate the community of artists the organization was created to nurture and support.

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ABOUT THE ARTS COUNCIL OF KERN

When the council was formed in 1976-77, the purpose was to encourage the various local arts organizations existing at the time to collaborate instead of competing for a share of the audience. It also provided assistance and information about available resources. Eventually its name was changed from the Arts Council of Bakersfield to Arts Council of Kern to make it eligible for state money.

In the last 10 years the council has thrived and, as a result, it has provided short-term jobs for many local artists. It has supplemented art programs in public schools and connected with communities outside of Bakersfield by way of various performances, programs and projects, many of which are presented free of charge.

If that scenario weren't troubling enough, the board president recently dismissed a staffer many say was the star of the organization, and several board members have resigned in recent weeks (one tellingly noting she had no idea what benefit the council actually provided to the community).

At this point, however, many questions remain unanswered, due mainly to the inability of the executive officers to provide an up-to-date written record of how this financial crisis became so severe that they felt these actions had to be taken.

Yet as a founding member of the arts council, I happen to believe the organization is worth saving. So over the past month, I've attempted to find out what has caused the present situation by talking to staff and board members, as well as individuals who are active in the local arts community.

Jan Fulton, in her third year as board treasurer, conceded the council is struggling but is optimistic the situation can be turned around.

"We're not dead in the water yet, but we may be on the shoals," she said. "I'm sick at heart how things have disintegrated; I want the community to know we're working hard to make sure the Arts Council keeps going -- we have evolved from a passive board to an active board."

Who's running the show?

A number of people have asked this question: If the Arts Council is running out of money, why was Nicole Saint-John laid off? She brought in funds, and she was running most of the programs.

It's a valid question, one I've posed to board president David Coffey, who dismissed Saint-John in December during his temporary tenure as interim director.

"That was our decision," was his only response.

I reminded Coffey that Saint-John has brought in substantial grant money and coordinated perhaps the organization's most high-profile program, Young Audiences, a project involving schools and designed to meet state curriculum standards. The council sent Saint-John to Indianapolis and New Orleans to be trained on administering the respected national program, which has strict reporting requirements.

In fact, more than 20 ongoing council projects were managed either by Saint-John or Jill Egland, a longtime arts council employee who resigned in September. Kari Heilman, the only program manager remaining on the staff, is directing three projects, and Millar is charge of two.

So with Saint-John's departure, who will pick up the slack?

"Michael will," said Coffey, who added that some projects might be contracted out or run by volunteers.

Part of that idea has already hit a snag.

On Jan. 4, two days after Millar's return from medical leave, Claire Putney a professional artist and employee of the Bakersfield Museum of Art, resigned from Creating Community, another project that Saint-John designed and managed.

In her letter of resignation, Putney said, "I feel her (Nicole Saint-John) departure is a severe loss to the artists and community surrounding ACK and is debilitating in carrying out the vision of the organization."

A few days later, Millar informed me in an email that Nancy Putney, Claire's mother and also a professional artist, had declined to participate in a new $12,000 project called Energy Detectives, funded by Southern California Gas Co. Putney said Millar had asked her to run the entire program -- which involves designing a curriculum for the schools that meets state standards -- even though she had little knowledge about the project, having met with Saint-John on the matter just once.

As it stands now, there is no one to lead the project; Millar said he will send out a "call for artists" in February.

Leadership concerns

Almost from the time Millar was chosen by the board as arts council executive director in 2011, there have been questions about his qualifications, style and unwillingness to move to Bakersfield from his Santa Clarita home.

Some observers say the objections are simply sour grapes on the part of Saint-John and Egland, both of whom applied for the position.

But both women assert that their qualifications, in addition to their knowledge and experience in operating arts council programs, were superior to Millar's, who, they claim has no knowledge of visual art and lacks leadership experience.

About four months ago, rumors that Millar had been or was about to be fired reached a crescendo. On Oct. 8, Saint-John sent an email addressed to Coffey, Fulton and Lynne Hall, board secretary, asking about Millar's status.

Coffey responded two days later, saying the board was "extremely happy with the progress the Arts Council has made under Michael's leadership." Among Millar's accomplishments, he listed "revised bylaws."

It may be ignorance on Coffey's part, but revision of bylaws is not a function of an executive director. It's the board's responsibility, and it was the board that accomplished the task, according to Richard Collins, a member of the board's governance committee. The committee is headed by John K. Peltier, a local attorney, who put the revised bylaws draft in final form before the board's eventual approval.

In his response to Saint-John's email, Coffey also said that Millar had prepared "a budget for the coming year which incorporates costs for every program that we have and a chart of accounts and bookkeeping system soon to be implemented that will provide accurate, real-time information on our budget status to both program managers, the board and the ED (executive director)."

This is puzzling for several reasons. On that date, Coffey must have known about the sizable decrease in available money. And nothing was said about where the funds to carry out the budget would come from or any plans for fundraising.

At some point in 2012 the council had the first audit in its history, according to Fulton and Coffey. They were unsure about the date of the audit and did not reveal the findings. But the audit seems to have been the impetus for some of the board's actions over the past few months.

I have asked Coffey and Fulton repeatedly to provide these documents as well as a complete and up-to-date budget. So far, the only thing we have received is a statement of income and expenses for July through October of 2012.

On one occasion Coffey asked me why we were so interested in getting the reports. I answered that taxpayers' money was involved.

"I'm at a loss at this skullduggery," he said. "There is no malfeasance here."

The money

Funding for the council's activities comes from a variety of sources, including grants and taxpayer money. Indeed, from July through October 2012, the council received a total of $128,569 from city, county and state sources. That figure does not include rent-free office space, courtesy of the Kern County Superintendent of Schools. Rob Meszaros of the KCSOS communications office, said that the value of the 881-square-foot space would be $1,500 per month, including custodial services and utilities.

But much of the council's budget in recent years has come from a six-figure contract with Kern Regional Center for production of a film titled "Include Me: The Democracy of Inclusion," a documentary by and about developmentally disabled teens and young adults.

"I knew last spring when Kern Regional Center pulled out that things were starting to go bad," Fulton said. "That took half our budget."

KRC's action, she said, was due to funding cuts on the part of the state.

But Jill Egland, who resigned as project manager at the council in September and still acts as an independent contractor on the film project, has a different interpretation.

"KRC did not pull its funds; our contract expired," Egland said. "They (KRC) have asked us for a new contract. I am supposed to write it, and I've been having a rough time because their vendor requirements have shifted."

The film itself is funded partially by the California Council for the Humanities. It's a matching grant in which the state agency agrees to pay one-third of the cost if the grantee, the arts council, can provide the other two-thirds.

"I've raised the other (two-thirds) online through Kickstarter," Egland said. "Nobody else in the organization (raised money) for it, I might add."

Getting a broader picture of the council's finances has been difficult to come by despite repeated requests for such a report. Fulton, Coffey and Millar all say they aren't able to provide it because the council is in the process of changing its accounting system and the database is in the process of being set up.

After much urging, Fulton did send a statement of income and expenses. However, it shows figures for only July through October of 2011 and 2012 the first quarter of its fiscal years. Even so, a comparison of the bottom lines for these two periods is significant.

In 2011, net income for the period in question, in rounded numbers, was $61,532 as opposed to $28,238 for 2012.

The future

In an odd way, the present controversy may result in a new and more vigorous direction for the council -- if it can survive.

Hall, board secretary, indicated in a phone conversation that the present 15-member board is beginning to recognize its role in getting the organization back on track.

"We have to rebuild and get on a firmer footing," she said. "This has become much more of a working board -- we're much more engaged."

Coffey would probably agree. When I spoke to him last Thursday he was on his way to Taft, driving a truck loaded with "In Touch," a show designed by Saint-John that had its premiere in October at the Center for the Blind in Bakersfield.

"Everybody's jumping on board," he said. "John Enriquez is with me now and Lynne, Jan and Michelle McClure all are helping."

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