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The art thingamajig

Change is afoot at the Art Center--but some artists are afraid they'll be left behind

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- THE NEW MUSEUM :  A rendering of the Art Center’s planned structure -  - IMAGE BY BARCELON & JANG
  • IMAGE BY BARCELON & JANG
  • THE NEW MUSEUM : A rendering of the Art Center’s planned structure
On the heels of the city of San Luis Obispo’s October decision to allow the Art Center to push forward with plans to construct a new three-story, 26,000-square-foot structure, the Art Center has announced plans to change its name. To what, nobody yet knows. But the new name will likely incorporate the word “museum” in its title, a decision that has drawn heat from members of the center’s six artist groups who claim the shift can only deepen the center’s recent trend of devaluing local artists’ work.

Spearheaded by Executive Director Karen Kile, master plans for the new structure were crafted 11 years ago, beginning with an assessment of the ways the current structure failed to meet the center’s needs. After receiving proposals from nearly 20 architecture firms, a selection committee chose the designs proposed by San Francisco design firm Barcelon and Jang. What followed were eight years of submitting fees to the city and attending meetings in an attempt to overcome the city’s objection to the structure’s contemporary design. Kile laments that this prolonged period landed the Art Center in a position to launch its capital funds campaign for the new structure smack in the middle of a recession.

Kile estimates that the Art Center has spent $100,000 on the effort thus far, and though it’s impossible to guess how much the new structure will cost, the objective of the capital funds campaign is to raise $10 million. The new structure boasts three times the exhibition space as the current facility, including temperature- and humidity-controlled spaces for the center’s permanent collection.

What the new building will be called when it eventually opens—as well as what the current center and attached organization will be called in the meantime—is what’s up for grabs. According to Kile, a name change came at the recommendation of iii Design, a SLO-based company the Art Center tapped to assist with marketing development. After interviewing 21 community members selected by Kile, iii Design suggested the Art Center alter its name to incorporate the word “museum.”

At iii Design’s advice, the Art Center is taking public suggestions for the new name via a tab on the Art Center’s website through Jan. 31. Both the Art Center and iii Design will make their own recommendations as well, and a review committee will cull the top 10 options from among these, allowing the public to vote for their favorite suggestion beginning Feb. 5.

- CAST YOUR VOTE:  To make a suggestion for the Art Center’s new name, cast your vote at sloartcenter.org. New submissions are accepted through Jan. 31. After a review panel selects the finalists, voting will commence Feb. 5. -
  • CAST YOUR VOTE: To make a suggestion for the Art Center’s new name, cast your vote at sloartcenter.org. New submissions are accepted through Jan. 31. After a review panel selects the finalists, voting will commence Feb. 5.
“If we had the word in our name, we know we would reach more people,” Kile said. “Their recommendation was that the name ‘museum’ would change the recognition for what we already do. The timing’s perfect. We want to bring along the community as best we can.”

The Art Center’s relationship with iii Design began as part of the Art Center’s $225,000, three-year grant from the James Irvine Foundation. The second and current phase of the grant is marketing development. Kile is pleased with the results of this phase, complaining that passersby are often uncertain as to whether they can enter the Art Center. Some people even think the center is a place to buy art supplies, she said. Additionally, the use of the word “museum” in the title is expected to produce better results in the capital funds campaign.

But to the six artists groups comprised of hundreds of artists that pay dues to the Art Center—Central Coast Craftmakers; Central Coast Photographic Society; Central Coast Printmakers; Central Coast Watercolor Society; Oil, Pastel, and Acrylic Painters Group; and Central Coast Sculptors Group—the word makes their own place at the Art Center uncertain. And the past few years have been filled with uncertainty.

“We had been hearing about Karen wanting the Art Center to be a museum, but you know how rumors are,” said Mary Turnbull, president of the Oil, Pastel, and Acrylic Group.

According to Turnbull, Kile dismissed the rumors whenever they arose over the past couple of years. Then, in November, Turnbull attended a meeting at the Art Center where Kile announced a proposed name change to incorporate the word “museum.” The board of directors was scheduled to vote to approve the change the following week when Turnbull sent an e-mail to Board President Joseph Timmons requesting he delay voting to give the artist groups time to review the proposal. The concerned artists, who had banded together in a group called the Art Center’s Artists Consortium, drafted a letter to the board of directors with a list of questions and concerns. Among them was the fact that they felt betrayed.

In an e-mail Lucie Ryan, representative of the Art Center’s Sculpture Group, sent to Timmons on Nov. 23, she said “Our [Executive Director] has publicly insisted to AC members and community for the last two years that we will not become a museum; and now we change our name to a museum. Again, loss of credibility.”

In December the board of directors convened and voted to approve the name change. Kile insists that the change won’t negatively impact the artists. In fact, according to Kile, the change won’t mean anything in terms of the Art Center’s working operations.

“We’re not changing what we do,” she said emphatically. “We’re changing our name, but it’s still going to be the very, very community-based place that will have children’s classes, adult classes, that will have places for locals to show.”

The Art Center would not become a member of the American Association of Museums. The lengthy and demanding accreditation process isn’t something Art Center staffers are prepared to undertake, although Kile said it could be a possibility 15 to 20 years down the road. For some artists, such assurances are satisfactory, but others aren’t as optimistic.

- FLOOR ONE : -  - IMAGE BY BARCELON & JANG
  • IMAGE BY BARCELON & JANG
  • FLOOR ONE :
“As a member of the public, I support an institution that is what its name implies or honestly is striving to become that,” Ryan continued in her letter to Timmons. “I would not support one which changes its name to attract funds but openly states it has no intention of achieving the reality of that name.”

Part of the distrust stems from scheduling changes to the group shows. Several years back, when Amy Grimm was curator at the Art Center, she announced the six artists groups would be divided into groups of three and be allowed to exhibit collectively. Before that, each individual group had its own annual show in the Gray Wing. Though the artists preferred this arrangement, the Art Center viewed it as problematic because six shows that each ran for five weeks each year left little time to exhibit anything else. Grimm’s method of resolving the issue, which Kile called an experiment, wasn’t popular.

Under the current setup, each group shows every other year in the Art Center’s upstairs McMeen Gallery, which Turnbull compared to an attic. The groups have also been pressured to exhibit work from regional artists, instead of working solely within their local talent pool. The artist groups organized and began to negotiate with the Art Center several years back. They also began seeking alternative venues to show their work, finding an ally and gallery in the Morro Bay Art Association.

But the trouble escalated in the past year, when Gordon Fuglie assumed the role of Art Center curator. Local artists felt Fuglie belittled their work.

“He came across very pompous in his approach to us and very demeaning, like he was from the big city talking to us little country folk,” Turnbull said. “It’s family. And they’re treating some members of their family like they’re second-class citizens. If we were the bankers and could get on the board—that’s what the board is, all financial people.”

Ryan also took issue with this attitude in her letter to Timmons. She claimed Art Center staff conveyed “a desire to exhibit art that was ‘benchmark,’ professional, high quality (insert any superlatives you wish) with the underlying premise that this was doable primarily with art created outside the area by those not associated with the artist groups.

- FLOOR TWO : -  - IMAGE BY BARCELON & JANG
  • IMAGE BY BARCELON & JANG
  • FLOOR TWO :
“The inference in the use of the superlatives used to describe the art that should be shown is that the members of the artist groups are content to show crap,” she wrote. “The sense of insult and dismissal the artist group members are feeling from Board members is growing, not getting better.”

Membership in the six artist groups dropped, and one group held a vote as to whether they should leave the Art Center altogether. While Turnbull believes Fuglie was merely acting on Kile’s orders, and Kile acknowledges that Fuglie’s decisions as curator were guided by herself and the board, the artists began digging into Fuglie’s background. According to an anonymous artist, the board’s decision to terminate Fuglie’s contract as curator—a decision first announced in September—was directly tied to artists’ queries regarding his past employment, and not due to a decline in Art Center revenue, as the center announced. Fuglie now works as the Art Center’s adjunct curator, taking on shows on a freelance basis.

Fuglie cites the artist groups, particularly the artist group leaders, as the source of malcontent.

Kile refused to comment on the issue, stating, “for whatever reason, he’s no longer here.” She’s eager to look to the Art Center’s future, which she insists is as hopeful as it’s ever been.

“One director told the board in 2008 during one of the periodic episodes of artist group dissatisfaction that there was a sense of entitlement in the groups to exhibiting at the Art Center. My recollection of the participation of artist group board directors while I was at the AC was that they often changed representatives, missed monthly meetings, and neglected to attend board development workshops. Moreover, their efforts in obtaining resources were minimal.”

- FLOOR THREE : -  - IMAGE BY BARCELON & JANG
  • IMAGE BY BARCELON & JANG
  • FLOOR THREE :
Despite the acrimony, the artists believe Kile has the Art Center’s best interests at heart and the determination to push what she sees as the center’s best future into reality.

“I admire Karen. I admire what she has done for the Art Center, but I don’t admire the way she’s gone about it,” Turnbull admitted. “As far as the Art Center is concerned, having it called a museum is good business. Karen can see the only way to keep the Art Center going, you’ve got to have money. It’s not that anybody’s wrong. The Art Center’s not wrong because it wants to stay in business.”

In her e-mail to Timmons, Ryan called for the Art Center to encourage its local artists to found an alternative center or organization focused on their own needs. That way, when the Art Center transitions into a new building—and a new identity as a museum—the artists won’t be left without a place to call home.

For Kile’s part, she’s asking that the artists and community proceed with her plans for the Art Center’s future in good faith. With a name change and $10 million capital campaign fund drive underway, the Art Center staffers and board members have their work cut out for them.

“Your life is a lot happier if you presume the best in people,” Kile said. “Don’t presume anything. We’re going to be a place where it’s lively. It’s active.”

Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach can be reached at aschwellenbach@newtimesslo.com.

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