Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Cri$i$ at Center for Maine Contemporary Art

The venerable Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland is asking for planning and reorganization ideas as it struggles to right itself after declining revenue from attendance, membership and donations apparently created, in executive director Mary Ann Schierholt’s words, “exponentially increasing debt in recent years.”

Things came to a head last Oct. 30, when the center, which was founded in 1952, made a startling announcement: two months after Schierholt was named the center’s new executive director, the nonprofit said it had to cut its staff and hours because it was facing a financial crisis. What wasn’t immediately clear was that this meant laying off four staffers – all its staff except for Schierholt – and closing for much of the winter (Dec. 20 to May).

“During my first weeks here, “Schierholt wrote in a Feb. 19 announcement (entire text below), “I met with potential donors to discuss their support of CMCA. While they received me warmly, many of these individuals adopted a ‘wait and see’ attitude, having no doubt heard of the financial challenges the organization had faced in recent years. By mid-October, it was apparent that the funds needed to continue CMCA's status quo were not available.”

“An in-depth analysis of financial results from the last ten years made it clear that CMCA's current business plan was unsustainable in an uncertain financial future,” Board of Trustees co-chairs Dudley Zopp and Judith Daniels reported on Nov. 17. “A board's first duty is to ensure the survival of the institution. It was with great reluctance, after weeks of careful consideration of our options, that the board approved an extended winter recess with staff layoffs, during which we will restructure our business model to emerge a leaner, more focused organization. We will be working hard to come up with a new plan that will enable us to operate in the black, while allowing CMCA to adapt to the new reality of the contemporary art scene in Maine.”

The center continues to make plans for this summer. As Schierholt had announced on Dec. 18: “We have begun planning the summer 2010 season with the return of our curator emeritus, Bruce Brown. Bruce Brown's exceptional aesthetic is legendary in Maine's contemporary art scene and we are thrilled to have him with us. Plans for 2010 include our popular and important Biennial and major exhibitions of seldom-seen work by Yvonne Jacquette and Will Barnet.”

But for now the center’s future remains uncertain.

Center for Maine Contemporary Art Executive Director Mary Ann Schierholt entire Feb. 19, 2010, announcement:
Dear CMCA Supporters,

With this letter I am sending along many thanks to CMCA supporters who have made our 2009 annual appeal the most successful in our history. I also want to clarify our circumstances for those who have expressed their many concerns.

Last fall, financial realities compelled CMCA to make very difficult management decisions to reduce staff and close for the winter in order to keep the organization afloat. These changes are allowing us time to regroup and ready ourselves for a successful future. We expect CMCA to live up to – and build on – the rich history and tradition of this 58-year-old organization.

To put our current situation in perspective, allow me to review briefly the circumstances that have led us here. Over the past few years, revenue from attendance and membership has steadily declined. Concurrent with this decline, general financial support had decreased as well, resulting in exponentially increasing debt in recent years. Unfortunately, our sources of operating credit were depleted, as well.

When I took on the role as Executive Director, with all the responsibilities the position entails, it was with the understanding that CMCA was fast approaching a dire financial situation. It was also understood – by the board and me – that I would move swiftly to help this organization return to a positive direction and re- establish its half-century-old pattern of growth.

In recent years CMCA's annual operating expenses have been approximately $500,000 (of which our two annual fund-raisers, the art auction and craft show, net an average of less than $100,000). One of my first goals after accepting the position was to explore additional sources of funding. In today's climate of reduced public arts funding, the viability of arts organizations falls heavily on the generosity of private donors.

During my first weeks here, I met with potential donors to discuss their support of CMCA. While they received me warmly, many of these individuals adopted a "wait and see" attitude, having no doubt heard of the financial challenges the organization had faced in recent years. By mid-October, it was apparent that the funds needed to continue CMCA's status quo were not available.

With no recourse but to decrease the most expensive line item on our operating budget -- payroll in excess of $200,000 annually – we made a painful decision. We would close for the winter season and, unfortunately, we had to eliminate staff positions. Quite simply, we ran out of money, and keeping the staff any longer while still meeting our legal obligations was not possible. We felt the timing of this decision was critical, as we had to implement the action while we still had sufficient funds to pay three months of medical benefits, reimburse unused personal and vacation time due each employee, and pay unemployment benefits, for which the organization is responsible.

This decision was arrived at over the course of several committee meetings and after in-depth financial analyses before being presented to the full board. The board's decision was to close for the winter season and eliminate staff positions. The implementation of these events was assigned to a committee that included, among others, the Board Co-chairs and Executive Director.

We informed the staff that in order to attract additional sources of funding, a fiscally responsible restructuring of the organization would be necessary. Under the reorganization, different staffing positions would necessarily be created. It was clear that it would be a very long time before we would be able to hire four full-time staff members. Of course former staff would be considered, if interested, in the newly structured positions whenever our reorganization plan allowed for staff growth.

Our staff had worked hard for many months under very difficult circumstances. We, of course, acknowledged their hard work and dedication. We thanked them for persevering with inadequate resources. Certainly, this was a very upsetting situation, for which we are all very sorry.

To answer questions raised about my professional history, yes, some of my experience is in real estate, but in the management of such firms, not sales. I do not have a Maine real estate license and I do not intend to get one. During my management career, I have specialized in the turnaround of struggling organizations. I am confident that that process is now underway here at CMCA.

Much hard work still lies ahead. In the coming weeks we will continue to brainstorm planning and reorganization ideas. We invite your participation by sending your ideas along to us at info@cmcanow.org.

Thank you for your support, interest, and participation.


Mary Ann Schierholt
Executive Director


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