The director of the Pacific Art League, Seth Schalet, has announced his resignation, and has accepted a position as CEO of Prevent Blindness, a national nonprofit based in San Francisco. Schalet's departure is the latest and also arguably the most significant exodus from the 94-year-old nonprofit in the past six months. Two board presidents quit in the last three months and eight board directors in the last six, according to an email from Schalet.
In his letter to Pacific Art League members and friends, Schalet didn't name the organization he will be joining, but described it as being "in the public health sector with programs for preschool, low income and elderly populations, through screenings and medical services."
Past president Jo Killen, who was among those to leave last summer, described the upheaval as having to do with internal disagreements about the direction and future of the League, referring to a rift between those who "want to run it the way it's already run," and those, including Schalet, who had a different vision.
"Losing Seth is a great loss to the organization," Killen said. "He hired the best staff we've ever had, increased our marketing significantly and helped us achieve a broader reach." Schalet, who had previously served as C.O.O. of the JCC and before that worked in sales and marketing for high-tech companies, joined the Pacific Art League in December 2012, serving just over two years. During that time, he expanded the League's membership and educational programs and held one of the first digital art conferences in the country, according to Killen, who described his mission as having to do with "broadening PAL's appeal to make it a real cultural center for Palo Alto."
During his relatively brief tenure, the League undertook a $4 million renovation and seismic retrofit of its space at 668 Ramona St. in downtown Palo Alto.
The organization had experienced controversy prior to Schalet's arrival, when in 2007 the majority of staff and board members resigned, and membership dropped significantly.
In an interview, Schalet emphasized his excitement at the opportunity of his new position with the nation's oldest eye health organization, which provides free screenings to under-served youth and adults. Schalet also spoke in hopeful terms about PAL's future. He described the current disagreements at PAL as resulting from a conflict between two competing visions: should PAL be "a small club for a select few," or "a broad organization, a real community resource that attracts diverse groups.
"I hope that the organization can eventually make that transition," he said. "PAL is a wonderful organization; they just have to sort out internal issues. I enjoyed my time here. I think PAL has accomplished a lot, and I wish them a bright future. "
Longtime board member Joy Chase also weighed in on Schalet's departure, noting, "I think the staff is going to miss him. He has a sort of laissez-faire management style, and he recruited most of the current staff who seem to work well under that style of management."
Chase described the current board as "very positive," saying, "We have senior people with very good experience and a lot of people who really care about PAL to the depths of their hearts." She added that the move to the renovated space had been a long time in the planning, and that with the new building secured and renters helping cover the mortgage, it was time to move PAL's programs forward. "Now we feel OK; we don't have anything else holding us back," she said.
Killen described her vision of PAL's future slightly differently.
"That downtown location is a gem and opportunity to expand and become a real center not just for visual arts but for all the related arts, and that requires a certain vision," she said. "Fundamentally, I think the organization is at a reflection point where it really could become a spectacular place and it could also continue to chug along the way it has for 92 years."
Killen, who served as PAL's executive secretary for two years before becoming board president, had a less rosy view of the organization's financial status.
"We have a mortgage on the new building that has to be paid," she noted. "The financials do not look good. So that's another thing driving the need for change. It's very important that we begin to attract a younger demographic."
The PAL board will be electing new members in the coming months.