Big board, staff exodus from Pacific Art League

Building may expand and group will become more members-oriented, new leadership says

In a massive leadership change, 10 of 14 board members resigned this week at the conflict-torn Pacific Art League in downtown Palo Alto -- following resignations in December of all but one staff member.

The wave of resignations followed months of division about the proposed sale of the league's historic, nearly 80 year old downtown Palo Alto building.

Eight new board members were elected at a Wednesday night meeting to replace 10 who resigned, according Executive Director Stephanie Demos, the sole remaining staff member.

The old board has four members staying on, but all staff members except for herself resigned in December, Demos said.

The roughly 600-member non-profit arts organization was bitterly split last fall by the old board's plan to sell the group's 688 Ramona St. property to Palo Alto developer Jim Baer.

The board argued in favor of selling the hollow-brick structure to Baer for $3.4 million.

The plan called for Baer to seismically retrofit the building, make it wheelchair accessible and turn the top two floors into condominiums. The art group would have bought back about half of the first floor for gallery and teaching space, but many of its activities would have to be relocated out of the downtown area.

Many league members, including incoming board member Donnasue Jacobi, protested the proposal vehemently with a "Vote No" campaign.

The board was forced to drop the plans at its Nov. 29 meeting, but feelings remained high.

Many board members recognized a fundamental disagreement with the membership about what sort of organization the league should be and decided to resign, former Board Chair Carol Nast said.

Despite past rancor, Demos said she is excited to move forward with alternate plans for expanding and rehabilitating the Downtown building.

Jacobi's "Vote No" group is brainstorming ways to fund modernization and upgrading of the old structure.

The first floor was littered with buckets collecting rainwater during recent storms, Demos said.

A main task for the new board is figuring out fundraising for such a massive project, incoming board member Walter Smith said.

The non-profit owns the right to build into an alleyway behind the building, which could lead to an expansion of up to 5,000 square feet, Demos said.

The group currently rents a garage from a family for a secondary exhibition space on Alma Street, a less than ideal set-up, she said.

Smith said ill will within the group should dissipate.

The new board will have a "closer dialog" with members than the last and re-institute the former policy of sending a periodic letter out to members, he said.

Nast said one big difference is that the old board engaged in "very aggressive outreach" to the Palo Alto community, such as in arranging a cooperative exhibit with Gamble Garden but the new board believes in a members-first approach to exhibits.

League members had difficulty relating to the earlier outreach approach and in the future the gallery will feature mainly art by members, Smith agreed.

He noted that the new board had yet to meet and set official policies.

The league's board meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 16 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the league's building at Ramona Street and Forest Avenue.


Posted by Howard, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 11, 2008 at 9:26 pm

What a bunch of clowns.

Posted by Peter, a resident of another community
on Jan 12, 2008 at 8:54 am

Sounds as if the members want a cloistered atmosphere, with no competiton from "outsiders." A sure way to become insular and lose appeal to the art-buying public, and a way to reduce sales from the gallery and the gift shop. Outreach helps give the wider art-buying public greater exposure to the member-artists' work and familiarized the general public with the work of the league. It also helps broaden the base of potential donors for a fund-raising effort.

Sounds like a recipe for nice cozy "our club" feelings and commercial and fund-raising disaster. The league will need all the luck they can get.

I am not a member of the league, nor have I taken classes there.

Posted by Kate, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 12, 2008 at 1:19 pm

Why is this 'event' listed under Town Square's "Crime and Incidents"? It may be a civic 'crime' to some, a domestic dispute to others, but it's pure Palo Alto 'theater'.

Posted by art critic, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 12, 2008 at 2:04 pm

> but it's pure Palo Alto 'theater'

Link this article to the thread on "Dog Park Snobs", and you have some excellent theater at the best possible price.

It's no reason so many people are saying that this is not a good place to live anymore.

Posted by full disclosure, a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 12, 2008 at 4:04 pm

When the Weekly writes about Jim Baer, it should disclose to the reader that the Weekly is partners with Baer in developing a three-story building at 450 Cambridge Avenue. Failure to disclose this fact is a major breach of journalism ethics.

Posted by Art League Lover, a resident of Menlo Park
on Jan 16, 2008 at 8:32 pm

Actually the fact is that Donnasue Jacobi, Walter Smith and the rest of their ilk so continually harassed the staff that all but 1 quit.

Wow! What a way to care about your art league and get off on the right foot.

Fact 2, the final vote actually went FOR the upgrade of the building. But the board decided to put it on hold and also left because they attacked by liable statements.

Fact 3, around 8 people were able to bring down a 600 member organization and stop their vote.

Good luck, because the art league is going down fast.

Posted by Art Afficianado, a resident of Portola Valley
on Jan 18, 2008 at 3:52 pm

And then there were none. Turns out the last holdout from the staff, Executive Director Stephanie Demos, is out on medical leave once again from overwhelming stress of this group. She's no wimp and has been around the block professionally, so it's hard to imagine the level of harassment that has been heaped upon her to send her to the hospital twice in less than two months. Personally, I think it was a brave and noble, but clearly misguided decision for her to return at all. What a bunch of clowns, indeed. Unfortunately under the greasepaint there appears to be quite a hunger for making mischief and bringing down the leadership. Isn't she the second ED toppled by Walter Smith and compnay?

Posted by Bob, a resident of another community
on Jan 25, 2008 at 11:19 am

If the old board was doing such a magnificent job, why were the members so easily swayed to vote them out. It apperars they do not know how to "OUTREACH" to their own members.

Posted by ART, a resident of Green Acres
on Feb 14, 2008 at 9:49 am

Dear Bob,

No one voted out the old board. The ballots were never tallied because of the outcry of the same small group that loudly protested every move they made. Just because they made the most noise and spread the most disinformation does not mean these few dissidents were right. The former board, and most of the staff, determined that they could not accomplish any of their goals under the constant beligerence of a group that had much to criticize but little to contribute. Don't forget that board members are volunteers. Perhaps the old board did not successfully outreach to their own members, but don't forget they were under siege by a group of swift boaters.

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