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Turmoil at the Contemporary Arts Center 

Charles Maldonado reports on the CAC: high-profile departures, membership woes and New Orleans artists in open revolt

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The Contemporary Arts Center's website (www.cacno.org) advertises 30,000 square feet of event space, including 10,000 feet of gallery space, but the vast majority of that was unoccupied on a Wednesday in late May. Shortly after 11 a.m., five men who appeared to be European tourists entered the four-story building at 900 Camp Street in search of New Orleans' cutting-edge art.

  They made their way through the first floor (now showing NOLA Now Part II: Abstraction in Louisiana, an exhibition of paintings and sculptures from the CAC's archives), then walked up a winding oval ramp to find what's left of the second floor exhibit. That exhibit — Spaces — couldn't be more aptly named. There was some art on the walls here and there. But just as often, small white markers — with artwork titles, artist statements and biographies — were affixed next to empty wall space.

  Elsewhere on the walls, in place of artwork, there were letters of protest addressed to the CAC's board of directors. A handwritten note from Antenna Gallery co-founder Bob Snead and Good Children co-founder Stephen Coller was taped to a tarp. It begins, "This piece has been altered in protest for many years of mismanagement and lack of direction."

  These notes are now what greet visitors at the museum, which described its mission in 2010 tax filings: "to provide public access to contemporary art."

  Later that day, the CAC announced the resignation of Jay Weigel — the museum's executive director and a prolific film composer — in a three-page press release. Weigel was in China at the time.

Weigel's was the third major departure at the CAC in less than a year and a half. The museum lost two visual arts curators in less than 14 months. Amy Mackie, who came to New Orleans in January 2011 from the New Museum in New York, resigned in March.

  Mackie's departure followed that of Dan Cameron, who was responsible for Prospect New Orleans, a 2008-09 international arts biennial with exhibits at sites all over town, prominent among them the CAC.

click to enlarge One of the artworks remaining at the CAC's current exhibition Spaces. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER

  Cameron was told in 2010 that his contract would not be renewed past the end of that year. He told Gambit he was given no reason for his dismissal, though in an email to Gambit, Weigel writes that Cameron's appointment was always intended to be a three-year position. (Jan Gilbert is serving as interim visual arts curator.)

  The CAC also has no education director at the moment and recently posted an ad on its website seeking applicants.

  Critics, including Mackie and Cameron, say CAC management, particularly Weigel, has become less and less concerned with the museum's three-discipline programming mission — visual arts, performance arts and education — and has spent too much time and emphasis on its secondary role as a rental facility.

"An art institution's job is to serve as a haven and a resource for the community in which it is situated," Mackie says. "And I think the CAC has strayed pretty far from that."

The CAC will unveil its 2012 Strategic Plan June 11. Its purpose will be to improve the CAC's organization, fundraising and programming. The presentation will mark the institution's first strategic plan since 2007, though the meeting had yet to be announced on the museum's website last week.

  Based on a weeks-long investigation of the museum's finances and management, the board should have some questions to answer.

  The CAC's most recent troubles involved the Spaces exhibition, which was to feature works by artists from three Bywater galleries — The Front, Antenna and Good Children — that have helped rejuvenate contemporary visual arts along the St. Claude corridor. Spaces opened on Feb. 25. Technically, it doesn't close until June 10, but many of the artists pulled their work in March after Mackie resigned.

  "When Amy left, it felt like pretty solid evidence to me that something was pretty wrong, mainly because I thought she was doing a good job," says Kyle Bravo, one of the Spaces artists and co-founder of The Front.

click to enlarge Dan Cameron's contract as the CAC's visual arts curator was not renewed in 2010. Cameron has been critical of former executive director Jay Weigel. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Dan Cameron's contract as the CAC's visual arts curator was not renewed in 2010. Cameron has been critical of former executive director Jay Weigel.

  But Mackie's departure wasn't the only problem. Bravo says the tipping point came when the artists learned the second floor, which housed Spaces, would be closed for five days in April and rented out for a film shoot. That decision appeared to have been made after Spaces was scheduled. "They had never communicated that to us," Bravo says.

  Mackie says she learned of the film shoot secondhand from one of the Spaces artists who overheard the news. Merit Shalett, associate director and special projects manager at the CAC, says Mackie should have known about the decision, but assigned responsibility for the communications breakdown to CAC leadership.

The CAC was founded in 1976 as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, tax-exempt organization. The building — worth nearly $10 million — was donated by philanthropists Sydney and Walda Besthoff. It received local, state and federal grants totaling $101,006 in the 2009-2010 tax year, according to its most recently available filing. It gets these benefits because it's a museum — a "cultural leader," according to its mission statement.

  But the Spaces troubles brought to light private concerns that had been whispered for years among many in the local arts community.

  Financial records — 990 tax filings and yearly audits handed over to the state Legislative Auditor — show that third-party rentals have become increasingly important to the museum's budget. The fourth floor is, as of this writing, filled from one end to the other with rows of costume racks. It's being rented to a film studio for wardrobe storage. The third floor is unimproved and, most of the time, unused.

  "Well, after 35 years, I think the support that the city can provide for contemporary visual arts has a ceiling," says Shalett. "And two floors of programming is what we've been able to sustain," Shalett says. (By comparison: Though Houston is much larger than New Orleans, its Contemporary Arts Museum is similarto the CAC in size — 11,500 square feet of gallery space — and income — $2.4 million in 2010. The Houston museum has scheduled and publicized four upcoming visual arts exhibitions.)

  One of the CAC's biggest problems is the fact that the institution has failed to meet its budgetary goals. It ended the 2010-2011 fiscal year with an operating deficit of $222,000 — an improvement from the previous year, which ended with a $483,000 deficit.

  It's also falling short of many of its fundraising, programming and development goals. In the press release announcing Weigel's resignation, the museum claimed its current endowment fund to be roughly $3 million. (Gambit confirmed $2.7 million as of the CAC's last available audit.) That's up significantly from 1996. That year's audit shows an end-of-fiscal-year balance of $47,000.

  The 2007 strategic plan, however, called for the museum to increase its endowment to $9 million by 2010. "That was the goal. That was the original strategy when we went to the Besthoff family and asked for an endowment gift. They instead donated the property," Shalett says. The building was donated in 1999.

  "Most of the [2007] goals were met or deferred because obviously there was a recession [starting in 2008], so some things changed in their importance or hierarchy," Shalett says.

click to enlarge Artists removed their works from the CAC's current Spaces exhibit, replacing them with letters and cards critical of the museum's stewardship. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Artists removed their works from the CAC's current Spaces exhibit, replacing them with letters and cards critical of the museum's stewardship.

  Past financial statements suggest a pattern of missed fundraising goals. According to its 2000 audit, CAC received a $300,000 grant pledge from the Ella West Freeman Foundation on March 17 of that year. "However, this grant is contingent upon the Center receiving grants of firm pledges in the amount of $15 million by February 1, 2003," it says. By 2003, the capital campaign had collected only $1.4 million, less than one-tenth of the goal, while costing more than $1 million.

  Those numbers, Shalett writes in an email, don't include the value of the donated building — more than $9 million. With that, she contends, the CAC had raised more than half the goal by February 2003, and the foundation agreed to give $150,000, half the originally pledged amount.

  The deadline for the full $15 million was moved back to February 2004, the 2003 audit shows. The 2004 audit reports only an additional $184,000 in revenue generated from the campaign.

  Shalett says institutions like the CAC have taken hits not only from the recession but also from a gubernatorial administration that's uninterested in funding the arts. The Louisiana Division of the Arts' budget was nearly $8 million in the 2007-2008 fiscal year, according to state budget documents. In 2011-2012, that went down to $4.1 million.

  "It's become almost negligible. We no longer budget what we used to budget," Shalett says. "We've always scored quite high in our state grants. So we measure up well, but the money just isn't there."

  In 2011, the CAC spent nearly $1.2 million on support services — fundraising (including rental and hospitality) — which was nearly as much as the $1.25 million it spent on arts and education programming.

Money woes aside, the announcement of Weigel's departure seemed an odd way to quit — in several ways.

  Weigel had been at the helm of the CAC for 16 years and worked as its music director for seven years before that, but he wasn't even in New Orleans when news of his departure broke. He was in China. His resignation preceded a formal public search for his replacement. Weigel plans to remain with the CAC for up to 12 months as a consultant.

  Weigel turned down an interview with Gambit, but answered some questions about his departure by email.

  "First, my trip (to China) has been planned over eight months ago; it was scheduled around some family matters that are happening at this time. We felt it best to announce now, for a couple of reasons," Weigel wrote. The first had to do with the search for a new education director, which began while he was gone. "As the final shape of that position and job description was just posted, I felt it unfair to wait until I returned."

  The second reason, he wrote, was the upcoming announcement of the new strategic plan: "We felt that letting the community know would allow the final shape of the Strategic Plan to be informed by the process."

  Then there was the press release's explanation for Weigel's departure: "He will return to his lifelong love, music composition and production." Those who know Weigel know he has never left it. Credits at IMDB.com list Weigel as composer, arranger or orchestral conductor for dozens of films and TV shows, all since his 1996 appointment as CAC director — prestige projects including the movies The Green Lantern, I Love You Phillip Morris and the HBO series Little Britain.

  During his CAC tenure, Cameron says, Weigel seemed to be more concerned with his film career than his full-time job — for which Weigel drew a $108,000 salary plus benefits in the 2009-2010 tax year.

  "He was rarely seen. He was always off on trips in Hollywood promoting his career. ... He was doing soundtrack work," Cameron says. "That salary is intended to be used for someone who is actually a professional in that field, not someone who decided to step into that field one day."

  Shalett disagrees.

  "That's not true. ... He does work for film, but in Louisiana, in New Orleans," she says, adding that Weigel is in the museum "every day."

Richard Read agrees, saying the people managing the museum, including Weigel, are "a very dedicated group of people."

  From 1997 to 2009, Read was the managing director for DramaRama, the annual theater festival held at the CAC. He also worked as a consultant for the CAC's performing arts department. Today Read is director of marketing at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.

  "I feel a lot of camaraderie with Jay because we both come from performing arts backgrounds," Read says. "He comes from a strong music background." Read praises Weigel's work, particularly in performance art — and even someone as critical of the museum as Cameron agrees with that praise.

  "Jay is a performing artist. He comes from a music background and knows all the players," Cameron says.

  "The trick is how to make it financially feasible, and it doesn't always work," Read says. "My impression is that the CAC is facing the same problem that a lot of us are, and that is how to keep the lights on and the art flowing all at once."

  

click to enlarge Jay Weigel resigned his post as the executive director of the Contemporary Arts Center in late May. Weigel was in China at the time. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Jay Weigel resigned his post as the executive director of the Contemporary Arts Center in late May. Weigel was in China at the time.

In 1996, when Weigel was brought on as director, the CAC's annual financial audits did not reflect any income or expenses from hospitality and rental services. Total revenue for that year came to $1.4 million. Of that, grants for programming services accounted for just $94,000 — $51,000 of that from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The largest source of income — more than $550,000 — came from individual contributors, mainly members of the CAC's board of directors or companies and foundations under their control. Next largest were admissions and membership dues, at about $161,000 each.

  Like many museums, including the New Orleans Museum of Art, the CAC supplemented its budget in recent years with event rentals. By 2000, "rental/hospitality" was not only added to the audit as a category of revenue, but it was grossing more than $500,000 a year.

  Meanwhile, everything else went up as well. Total revenue was $2.5 million, with $1.4 million coming from contributions, $109,000 from programming grants, $199,000 from membership dues, more than $180,000 from admissions and fees for arts programs, and $121,000 from admissions to fundraising events.

  Today it's a different story. By the end of 2011, individual contributions were down to just under $600,000. Programming grants came to less than $80,000. Admissions for visual arts, performances, education programs and special projects was $66,000. Of that, only about $15,000 came from the CAC's visual arts galleries, even though it claims, on its 2009-2010 990 form, that 50,000 people visit those galleries every year. (A board member who spoke to Gambit said that estimate sounded high.)

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