The Art Museum’s expansion plans, what has been said about them, and why it evidently doesn’t matter.
By Roger McCredie –
(Last in a series)
On Tuesday, April 9, 2013, Asheville mayor Terry Bellamy issued an appeal to her Facebook followers to join her in a 24-day period of fasting and prayer as a means of finding a solution to the city’s $6 million budget shortfall. (As an incentive, the Mayor later amended “fasting” to “limited diet”.)
In June, it was announced that the City of Asheville would be contributing $2 million towards the Asheville Art Museum’s six-year-old campaign to raise $24 million for extensive expansion and renovation of its space in the Pack Place Arts and Cultural Center.
Proponents of the $2 million award called it a farsighted investment in a valuable resource that would establish Asheville once and for all as a cultural destination, pointing out that the award itself was performance-based and amounted to less than 10%t of the museum’s fundraising goal. Detractors countered that the art museum’s intention to have a New York architectural firm initiate plans for a 55% increase in size would have the effect of “squeezing out” Pack Place’s other tenants – Diana Wortham Theater and the Colburn Earth Sciences Museum – and pointed out that the city was tying up monies amounting to one-third of the deficit that sent Mayor Bellamy to her knees for divine guidance. (The city subsequently found a stopgap solution to making ends meet by initiating a 7% raise in taxes. Whether this was as a result of divine revelation was not clear.)
A voice crying in the wilderness?
In early July, a specter appeared at the feast: Ken Michalove, former Asheville mayor and longtime city manager.
Michalove had been hired as a consultant to Pack Place in 2011 but resigned his position abruptly in order to “speak freely.” He then came before City Council to denounce the art museum award. He was armed with “14.8 pounds” of documents and recordings, which he distilled into a six-page indictment accusing Council and individual city officials of conflicts of interest, cronyism and general failure to exercise due diligence in connection with the art museum grant. The museum board and staff – particularly its executive director, Pamela Myers – he accused of withholding and manipulating information about the museum’s financial condition and its fundraising activities.
Among other exhibits, Michalove produced a July, 2012, letter from Ron Morin, the then head of the Buncombe County Tourist Development Authority, notifying Myers that the art museum was now considered to be in performance default on $1.5 million worth of grants similar to the city’s $2 million award, which TDA had made to the museum in 2007 and again in 2009. The money for the TDA grants was still being held in escrow pending proof by the museum that its own fundraising efforts would be brought in line by January 31, 2014 – a date Michalove claimed Myers had already admitted the museum would not be able to meet.
Michalove also produced documents showing that, without public scrutiny, the City was engaged in drafting a separate lease agreement with the art museum, thus separating it from its Pack Place neighbors and creating a tail-that-wags-the-dog situation at a venue that was always intended to provide a unified and balanced cultural experience. The art museum’s increased size and virtual independence would be “a path to destroying [Pack Place]” he contended. In a letter to Myers, which he circulated to media, Michalove asked Myers to explain what he considered her evasiveness in discussing the museum’s own fundraising efforts (apart from applying for city and county grants). He says she has never replied.
In all, three of seven city council members responded to questions from the Tribune about the $2 million art museum grant, including whether Council had been aware of the museum’s TDA default when considering the grant, and what the reasoning was behind creating a separate lease for the museum.
Marc Hunt, Council’s liaison member on the Pack Place board, pointed out that the separate lease idea was Pack Place’s and not the City’s. “In my role, I have … emphasized our message to Pack Place board members and partners that we greatly prefer that they work among themselves to chart a course forward for space, lease, and governance arrangements. The creation of Pack Place [in 1983] included the assumption that they would do that,” Hunt said. Of the TDA performance default, he said, “It’s not a real default,” and likened it to “one of those computerized late notice letters” that might be sent out by a credit card company.
Councilman Gordon Smith, the city’s representative on the board of TDA – which turned down a third grant application from the art museum because it was in default on the first two – emphasized that city funds would not be dispersed to the museum until it successfully completes its own capital campaign. “Should the campaign be unsuccessful,” Smith said, “it is conceivable those dollars could be repurposed.”
Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer seemed nonplussed. “…city council understood that the art museum was to receive monies from the TDA. The recent allegation of some kind of default is not something I am knowledgeable about,” she said.
Walking to Disneyland
John Ellis, Executive Director of Pack Place’s Diana Wortham Theatre, seems ambivalent about his co-tenant’s expansion plans. “Change is never easy,” he said in a recent Tribune interview. “I’m fully supportive of the overall vision the art museum has and I can see how it might be good for us in the long run. But it’s like being told you’ve won a trip to Disneyland, but you’re going to have to walk there.” Ellis was referring to art museum supporters’ repeated assertions that its expansion will ultimately benefit all pack Place occupants.
“Our challenge is, we’re going to be the hole in the [Pack Place] block’s doughnut,” Ellis said, adding that under the art museum’s architectural plans, “we’ll be losing our front-door community entrance, and that’s going to be an obstacle.
“Up to now,” Ellis said, “the [Pack Place] building has had a daytime life and a nighttime life, with the nighttime life consisting mostly of our events. We’re trading that for an almost stand-alone daytime life. We’re losing our integration as a destination.”
Ellis declined to speculate about the success of the art museum’s fundraising efforts, but observed, “Asheville just doesn’t have a lot of old money on the scale of Greenville or even Spartanburg, that the arts can count on for core support. There’s lots of new money, but everybody wants a piece of it. Whatever they’ve [the art museum] been doing [to raise money] it’s taken them a long time, and it looks like it’s going to take a lot longer.
“Maybe Disneyland isn’t worth the walk,” he said.
Colburn Museum Executive Director Vicky Ballard was not available for comment at press time.
An interview with Asheville Art Museum Executive Director Pamela Myers …
… was supposed to go here. However, art museum staff said she was unavailable last week and she did not respond to a detailed voice mail request for a face-to-face interview at her convenience. On Tuesday (August 20) just prior to press time, she returned the Tribune’s call. In the interest of time, the Tribune e-mailed her the list of questions below, hoping she could reply by e-mail in time to have her responses included in this story:
1. Ms. Myers, you have some heavy credentials. You’ve been at the helm of the Asheville Art Museum for 18 years and your resume includes a stint at the prestigious Guggenheim Museum in New York. Is that how you came to settle on Ennead Architects, the renowned New York firm, to handle your expansion project?
2. What would be your reply to critics who claim that the art museum’s dramatic increase in size and the relocation of the other tenants’ entrances and ticket offices will marginalize the other tenants?
3. Were you surprised when TDA rejected your request for a third Tourist Product Development Fund grant, given that you were already in default on the first two?
4. It apparently took some digging for media to confirm that the art museum’s fundraising goal is $24 million, of which only $11.4 million has been raised since 2007. Was this a matter of secrecy, or have fundraising activities and donation totals always been readily available?
5. Fundraising is the lifeblood of nonprofits and many of them, when kicking off a new capital drive, start blitzing both the corporate and the public sectors for donations all at once. In 2010 you told Verve magazine that you were “working with major donors” and were “in the quiet phase of the campaign now.” You gave substantially the same response to Citizen-Times reporter John Boyle just a few weeks ago. Given the TDA default problem and low donations-to-time ratio, why has the museum not gone fully public with its appeal for capital funds?
6. Ken Michalove, who resigned as a consultant to Pack Place apparently in order to criticize this whole issue, has stated, “The Art Museum and Executive Director are inept at capital fund raising, the private sector will not support such an outrageous spending program and the City, County and BCTDA shouldn’t either.” What’s your response?
However, Ms. Myers responded by e-mail as follows:
“I am sorry that we have been playing phone tag. I have been out of the Museum or in meetings much of the last two days, but did try to reach you. From the questions below, it seems that you have inaccurate information. I am unable to reply fully today, with this very short notice. I believe it would be beneficial to meet to speak with one and other. Please let me know if that is not possible I will reply as soon as possible.”
Accordingly the Tribune will schedule an in-person interview with Ms. Myers and publish it as an addition to this series as soon as possible.