Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - November 30, 2012

New space, new director

Pacific Art League leases space next door to hold activities during its renovations

by Rebecca Wallace

The Pacific Art League has found a new temporary location — and a new executive director — to help it through major renovations set to begin in January.

Management consultant Seth Schalet plans to take the reins of the downtown Palo Alto arts organization starting next week. In addition, the art league has just leased the space next door, at 227 Forest Ave., as an interim place to host activities while the league is under construction. It's smaller than the league's current 7,606-square-foot area, but "it certainly gives us the ability to hold classes and exhibits," Schalet said.

Speck Products, which designs cases for iPhones and other high-tech gadgets, has been based at 227 Forest but is now expanding into a larger site, Schalet said.

Ground-breaking for the art league's $4 million renovation and seismic retrofit is planned for late January. After previous executive director Richard Ambrose left in August to head the Richmond Art Center, the art league launched a search for his replacement, and found it just a few cities north in San Mateo, where Schalet lives.

Schalet has experience with both major construction projects and the specifics of working in Palo Alto. He spent most of 2011 as chief operating officer for the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center in south Palo Alto. The JCC opened its new 135,000-square-foot facility in 2009, so construction was completed by the time Schalet joined, but there were plenty of post-construction and deliverables matters for him to handle, he said. "I've worked with the city of Palo Alto on permitting and other issues."

Before entering the nonprofit world, Schalet ran the sales and marketing departments for several high-tech companies, and then moved into operations. He then started serving on the boards of various nonprofits. Last year, he co-founded Operational IMPACT Partners, a San Mateo firm providing management consulting to nonprofits and foundations.

It's a busy time to join the Pacific Art League, which brings challenges that Schalet says he relishes. "These are the kinds of things that don't happen every day ... to take a great brand and work with the board and determine how to move forward," he said.

The 90-year-old art league's historic building has needed revamping for many years, which led to a controversy in 2007 over plans to sell the structure to a developer and have it redone. Several staff and board members resigned.

The current plan has been much more popular, and was unanimously approved by the City Council. It will include increasing the building's size by two-thirds and leasing out the second floor to help retire the bank debt that is funding most of the project. Construction has been estimated to last 10 to 12 months.

Schalet was not around for the controversy, but said there's a "very positive atmosphere" at the art league now. He said he plans to work with the board to attract new members, in part by adding more programs that marry art with new digital technology. These could be classes held offsite at high-tech companies, or new themed exhibitions. Painting, printing and pastels will still be among the core media at the organization, but there's always room for thinking outside the box, he said.

"I want to be as innovative and creative as possible, to keep PAL in a sustainable position," he said. "Beyond that, I've got a lot to learn. I want to take the time to listen and understand what the membership wants."

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