Pacific Art League building sale dropped

Fundraising, healing in store for 600-member nonprofit

A rift developing within the Pacific Art League split wide open last week, forcing the group's Board of Directors to completely drop plans to sell its historic Ramona Street building.

The nonprofit's 600 members were scheduled to vote Thursday on an expected deal with local developer Jim Baer to sell and rehabilitate the nearly 80-year-old structure, which is made of hollow clay bricks, for $3.4 million.

But at a Wednesday informational meeting, opponents of the deal turned out in force, chanting and calling for an immediate vote, said member Donnasue Jacobi, a leader of the opposition.

The board convened after the Wednesday session and decided to ask Baer to rescind his offer, which he did, Board President Carol Nast said.

"What became apparent was that people were genuinely having trouble sorting through the information and misinformation," she said.

In October, the board had signed a tentative agreement that would have sold the top two floors to Baer as commercial condominiums. In addition, Baer would acquire about half of the first floor, with the other half owned by the league for an expanded gallery and classroom.

Many members had thought the league was going to retain the entire first floor, because the total number of square feet was unclear, Jacobi said. The deal would have left the 85-year-old organization with only a small downtown Palo Alto location, she added.

She and several other members of the informal "Vote No" group mobilized a campaign to contact nearly all of the organization's 600 members.

"We just had our team working around the clock," Jacobi said.

In addition, opponents disliked that the proposed sale and other aspects of the organizations' operations are conducted secretly, Jacobi said.

"We should be allowed to see everything and question everything," Jacobi said.

Nast admitted that "it looked like information was being withheld" -- but, the board was required to keep some information about the proposed transaction private, she said.

Now, the deal with Baer "is no longer available," Nast said.

"My goal right now is to move forward and to figure out what the next steps ought to be," Nast said.

Although Nast has only been a member of the board for three years, the organization has been struggling to rehabilitate its building since at least 1989, she said.

The building isn't accessible for disabled members, and it may be vulnerable during an earthquake, Nast said.

Fundraising efforts weren't successful, she said. So two years ago, the board began researching ways to fix-up the building without a lot of cash. Board members arrived at the agreement with Baer and Premier Properties Management and the Sand Hill Property Company in October.

But those plans outraged some of the art organization's already-concerned members. Before long, the board and Jacobi's "Vote No" group were battling.

The trouble also stretched the nonprofit's staff; two employees resigned recently and the organization's executive director, Stephanie Demos, is out on sick leave, according to a letter Nast addressed to members.

Nast attributed the rift to a "rampant misunderstanding."

"There are people opposed to this that I have extremely high regard for, but we're just not able to communicate effectively," Nast said. "We just don't understand one another and there's a level of mistrust."

Jacobi traces the discord to a lack of transparency within the organization.

"It has to be transparent now. No more secret stuff," Jacobi said.

Jacobi said she believes the art league can raise money to revamp the building without selling it, perhaps using as an example the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles, which purchased and restored a historic structure.

"We're energized; we're hoping to get members back involved to do fundraising," Jacobi said.

Nast also acknowledged the membership's momentum to raise money to save the building.

"There's a lot of zeal and energy," Nast said. "That's a fabulous outcome."

Nast said she and other board members hope to reach out to members of the opposition to rebuild the organization.

"The thrust is to begin to engage in a more compelling way with the opposition and hopefully get a program going that upgrades the building," Nast said.

An election for new board members that had also been scheduled Thursday has been deferred until Jan. 9, Nast said.

Jacobi, Walter Smith and other building-sale opponents plan to run, Jacobi said.

But no one knows the number of seats available on the 15-member board.

"I don't know how many openings we're going to have," Nast said. She said eventually the organization hopes to elect five new members each year for a three-year term.

Although they stood on opposite sides of the building debate, Nast and Jacobi share a commitment to the art league.

Jacobi attributes it with saving her husband's life.

"It's not just a school; it's a community," Jacobi said. "I don't believe in quitting when you have a hope of saving something."

And Nast credits the art league with changing her own life.

"I think the organization has a tremendous potential to have a significant impact on the lives of people. I'm a great believer in the doing of art or the viewing of art being transformative."

"It's been such a gift to me. I'd like other people to have that," Nast said. "I think it's very, very important."


Posted by Fine Arts Lover, a resident of another community
on Feb 14, 2008 at 10:03 am

Healing? Apparently you've missed the latest board and staff defections. The new board president, Mary Ann Baker, left after only a month. The heir presumptive? Vice Chair Walter Smith who toppled two previous executive directors. His cohort? Donnasue Jacobi who is on record as describing a $2 million dollar unrequested bequest as "a curse" and of cursing out former staff members. Now all the shows are "members only" and guess whose work is guaranteed to go up? Photographs by Donnasue and her husband Fred Roessler. Hmmm. Apparently it's very good to be queen, but it's risky business to cross those who drove out the former board and staff. Do the more than 500 members of Pacific Art League realize that their organization has been hijacked by the self-proclaimed "Committee to Vote NO"?

Posted by ART, a resident of another community
on Feb 15, 2008 at 5:36 pm

As a public non-profit, isn't the Board obligated to disclose major changes in leadership to their members, donors and public? If the Board Chair has left, who's in charge? How many directors are still there?

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