The Siskiyou Arts Council board of directors is moving to close the organization down after assessing that there is no way to keep the organization going given its current dire financial straits.
The Siskiyou Arts Council Gallery and Cultural Center in Mount Shasta closed on April 1, and an organization that started more than 40 years ago is poised to dissolve.
SAC board president Kris Taylor said the financial picture revealed as board member John Rogers, a CPA, went through the books indicated that even with “the best of intentions and the best creativity,” it would not work to keep the organization running.
“It became clear there was no way we could go on, given our financial obligations in relation to the legitimate funding available to us,” she reported.
Siskiyou Arts Council is the local arts agency designated by the county board of supervisors to serve the county’s citizens in partnership with the California Arts Council.
Taylor said she is in conversation with the California Arts Council and in delicate negotiations to have other entities take over responsibility for specific projects, adding that “nothing will be settled until the CAC gives permission.”
Taylor credited the “incredible energy and effort” of the people involved with SAC with keeping the organization running for so long.
“And not only do we value our members and our artists tremendously, we are indebted to our volunteers because they donated their time and hearts and talents for the betterment of the organization,” she said.
Past board president Greg Messer said the Siskiyou Arts Council is more than 40 years old, and it “folded” once before being “resurrected.”
“We’ve always had trouble raising money for operational needs. We’ve not been able to find the right formula,” he said.
Marian Murphy-Shaw, another former board president, said as she was leaving the board last summer, a lot of attention was focused on the organization’s financial stability and the board was struggling “in best conscience” to address those issues.
“Maintaining a budget with a consistent, predictable balance based on public grant funding is exceptionally challenging. It takes a well-educated board membership to navigate that fiscal reality. No one board or staff member can do it alone,” she said.
The gallery storefront and personnel were the largest expenses creating an overhead that was “too high,” according to Taylor.
The gallery and cultural center opened about six years ago, Messer reported.
When he joined the SAC board the organization’s annual budget was about $40,000.
“The CAC was our main funder for years. We’d get about $30,000 from them and then fundraise another $10,000,” he reported.
The Messer family became a major donor to the organization and its annual budget grew to “between $160,000 and $180,000,” he confirmed.
Messer said those donations served as stimulus for the organization, generated other donations and community interest, and allowed SAC to open the gallery and cultural center and pay for an executive director.
Murphy-Shaw and Taylor agreed that the Messer family’s support was extremely generous.
“Without his valuable donations I don’t think SAC would have lasted as long as it did,” Taylor commented.
Murphy-Shaw stated that, “had the Messers not been generously underwriting the gallery it would not have been possible for us to have that physical presence in the county.”
But, she added, “without a major donor the gallery was a financial over-extension.”
Bob Swanson, a third former SAC board president, said the Messers gave almost a year’s notice that they would no longer be able to fund the arts council at the same level.
Siskiyou Arts Council executive director Jessah Breault said “When our major donor left, we tried to go to grants to fund the gallery. We intended to build on the educational program there for children.”
She called the gallery a “good thing,” and said she wished only that the organization had been able to fundraise successfully enough to keep it going.
Breault agreed it’s been clear for awhile that there was not enough money to meet the organization’s fixed costs over time.
A State-Local Partnership Program grant from the California Arts Council was three months delayed over the winter, making it difficult to pay the bills, according to Messer.
Taylor said the current financial climate played a part. “People couldn’t completely support the council during these hard economic times.”
As they struggled to stay solvent, Breault observed, “we kept thinking things would change.”
Organization in flux
Some things have in fact changed at the arts council, even through persistent financial difficulties.
Murphy-Shaw said last year the SAC board began questioning the way the gallery and cultural center was being utilized.
“It was a gallery for a relatively small group of artists,” she reported, which put it in competition with local galleries operating as businesses, and she said “public funds cannot be used to compete with businesses.”
“We asked ourselves if it was appropriate that we were a shop selling art in competition with our local galleries rather than being a center for arts and culture,” she recalls.
Breault began looking at the mission and vision of both the Siskiyou Arts Council and the California Arts Council and then worked to bring them into alignment, according to Murphy-Shaw.
“Jessah also worked to educate the board as to the importance of aligning the work of SAC with the CAC mission and vision,” she said.
Exhibits at the gallery began to feature a wider array of artists, many from out of the area, and events began to highlight a variety of ethnic celebrations and historic cultures.
In keeping with SAC’s newly sharpened focus on arts education, Breault brought local school classes into the gallery to learn how to observe and appreciate various mediums of artistic expression.
“We had a five year plan and were in the early stages of reconstruction as an organization,” Breault reported.
Arts council to close
Taylor confirmed that plans are in place to close out the organization as a 501(c)3 and as the county’s arts council.
The continuing state and local partnership between Siskiyou County and the CAC requires the agreement of the board of supervisors.
“SAC gives an annual status report to the supervisors and asks the board formally if it supports the existence of the council. It’s part of the legitimate state process,” Murphy-Shaw explained.
And that process confers on the local arts council the public trust of public funds meant to support the arts for the Siskiyou County public, she said.
“Even though we are new board members we take our responsibilities very seriously. We are looking carefully at the proper steps and legalities, gathering information from legal counsel and the CAC. We will do this by the book,” Taylor said.
Breault said she is concerned about what it will mean to Siskiyou County to lose its state and local partnership with the state arts council.
She closed the gallery for the last time last week, packing up all the Siskiyou Arts Council equipment, locking the door behind her.