Conflict continues at Pacific Art League

Current, past board members paint different pictures

Founded in 1921, Palo Alto's historic Pacific Art League (PAL) has spent much of the last decade mired in controversy. The seemingly intractable conflict amongst current and past board members and staffers seems to center on fundamental disagreements over what sort of organization the league should be and what its future should look like.

In the latest development in the ongoing struggle for leadership of the league, three past board members are appealing to PAL's members to call a special member meeting.

Sunday evening, June 14, former PAL board members Ron Andrews, Diana Diamond and Jo Killen sent out a letter to League supporters. In an email titled, "The Case for Change at the Pacific Art League," the three allege that the current board is not meeting its fiduciary responsibilities to build a reserve fund or a multi-year financial plan. They also charge that the current board has become "dysfunctional" in its governance responsibilities, citing the resignation in 2014 of 13 board members followed by Executive Director Seth Schalet's departure earlier this year. Finally, the trio ask League members to sign a petition calling for a special member meeting to address the issues. According to the organization's bylaws, a special member meeting must be scheduled if as many as 5 percent of members request it. According to current leadership, PAL has more than 650 members.

"A special meeting with discussion from all sides will make for a fresh and healthy environment and organization," the email, signed by past presidents Ron Andrews and Jo Killen and past acting president Diana Diamond, states. "PAL can only benefit. The majority of members can then decide on any changes in direction and bylaws."

Yet current board members dispute the need for such a meeting, insisting that the organization is moving in the right direction and that the email to members serves as a distraction.

"I believe we are on the right track," said current board President Theo Keet. "We are turning it around, but you can't do this overnight."

A brief history of unrest at the League: In late 2007, after conflict over the proposed sale of the League's historic 1929 building, nearly the entire staff of the nonprofit resigned. One month later, 10 of 14 board members stepped down. Eventually, the decision was made to take out a mortgage in order to update the building, and, once renovations were completed, to take on tenants to help cover the mortgage and strengthen the organization's reserves. Last year, following the completion of a $4 million renovation and seismic retrofit, the League moved back in to the ground floor of 668 Ramona St., leasing the second and third floors.

Yet internal turmoil continued. There was another mass exodus from the board in 2014, and in February of this year, Schalet announced his resignation.

Though current and past board members share a commitment to the organization and belief in PAL's value to its members and to the larger community, they paint a very different picture of its future, the current state of its finances and the roles and responsibilities of the board.

Andrews, who wrote Sunday's email to members, summarized his frustration from his time as board president. In a phone interview with the Weekly, he said, "I could not get them to take on what I consider board responsibilities, which is to ... ensure policies and strategies are in place to help the organization grow and be vibrant into the future.

"Instead, the board spent the vast majority of its time on operational issues, doing what an executive director should be responsible for," he said.

A retired vice president at Lockheed, Andrews noted of his professional background: "I understand finances. I understand what it means to turn a profit."

According to Andrews, the League has operated at a deficit for all but one year of the past decade, only once breaking even financially.

"The data I saw compiled recently said that over the last 12 years, the League has lost about $1 million," he said, explaining that the current board has been using a bequest to underwrite operations, a fact confirmed by current board members.

Andrews' suggestions for moving forward include introducing term limits for board members and asking League members to vote on a strategic plan to pay off debt and move toward occupying the entire building once again.

"I think we need to reinvigorate the board," he explained, adding, "This is not personal. We just want the League to thrive and to take advantage of what we feel is a great opportunity to occupy the whole building and to provide great programs."

Former board member and former project manager at Hewlett-Packard Co. Jo Killen suggested that staff roles needed to be "clearly defined and agreed upon, and board members need to get out of managing operations."

Despite her distress over the conflicts at PAL, Killen said she saw the organization's growing pains as "a natural maturity process. I think most boards start out as small groups of volunteers who have good intentions about some effort or other, and then as they grow and expand there's a need to transition to a different kind of a board.

"I think PAL is at that point, particularly with the financial obligations we now have," she said.

Current board president Keet is a retired CFO who has worked with both large organizations and start-ups. Speaking about the letter to members, he said: "It's very unfortunate. Jo Killen and Ron Andrews were board presidents last year, each for a fairly short time." Following their successive presidencies and resignations, Keet said, the PAL board "went into limbo."

"Nothing happened in 2014 in terms of fundraising," he said. "Now, we've got a new board together and new energy going, and I think we are turning the corner. However, in terms of fundraising, that takes several months to happen."

Keet spoke of his hope that by the time PAL's tenants' leases are up, seven years from now, the arts organization will be in a position to take back the entire building for its own use, and he defended the current board's management of the organization's finances.

"We have to build up a lot of additional business and activities and ramp up fundraising," he acknowledged, "but we have seven years to take care of that and have put in a number programs to make it happen.

In terms of other organizational priorities, including education and membership, Keet said numbers are on the rise, and the League is working closely with the cities of both Palo Alto and Menlo Park to develop new programs and initiatives.

Current board secretary Joy Chase, a visual artist who also works as a college librarian, has served on the PAL board since 2009 and said the past board presidents' worry about the mortgage is a non-issue.

"We got a mortgage that's larger than we had hoped, but it's something that's we're paying easily with our tenants," she said. In terms of instituting board term limits, Chase said she was not in favor.

"It's really not a good idea because what you really need is people who understand the organization and know its history," she said. "It seems unnecessary to call a special meeting. I don't think what they're doing is helping PAL. It's just creating a distraction.

"What people really need to know is that there are really dedicated people (on the board) trying to make this organization move into the future. We plan to launch a capital campaign in a couple of years and get enough money to pay off the mortgage. We can't promise to get enough money, but we can certainly make that effort."

Related stories:

Pacific Art League Director Seth Schalet resigns

Pacific Art League loses board chair

Big board, staff exodus from Pacific Art League

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8 people like this
Posted by sunshine
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 17, 2015 at 8:55 am

I think that many of the problems started many years ago when a small group of members decided that they wanted a more "professional" group of people as club members and involved in running what was then the Palo Alto Art Club. First they changed the name to a more professional sounding Pacific Art League. Then new members were placed on the board. What followed next was a paid director, first handed to a selected favorite of certain people, later bringing in someone who may have had experience running a business, but had no experience in art or in dealing with artists. Gradually those who had been supporting the club for many years were pushed out both as teachers and participants.
Large areas of the building were leased out at nominal rents to a few favorites of the ladies who ran the place. Sculpture was moved off site because it created "too much dust and dirt". Gradually other classes were moved off site. The new sites chosen were often no where near downtown and were no good spots for evening classes.
Yes, the building needed to be upgraded to new earthquake standards.
Many longtime members and instructors quit.
At one time I was very active with the Art Club--taught classes, exhibited work, served on the board. However, the new Art League is no longer to my liking. There is no longer a friendly feel about the place. When you enter the gallery there is a coldness regardless of the actual ambient temperature.

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Posted by ahleyarts
a resident of another community
on Jun 17, 2015 at 2:38 pm

I do not reside within the neighborhood of Palo Alto. I live in San Jose. I have concerns for what may be happening at PAL, and yet I may not be respected as a legitimate voice.

I wish Palo Alto as a City would support the Palo Alto Art League just as the city of Hayward does for the Sun Gallery.

For instance, the Sun Gallery has plenty of space as the gallery has about 2,000 square feet. Also there are people who have taken notice of their shows well beyond Hayward's borders. A film crew from Sweden even did a tv documentary about California's drought using the artwork shown in the Trouble Waters exhibit and interviewing the staff supporting it. Some art is even from outside the U.S. One local artist sold to the CA state legislature This is just an example of how helpful cities who support and respect the art can be.

Hope this gets resolved. Wishing you all the best

2 people like this
Posted by Leslie Garland
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jun 18, 2015 at 10:02 am

It's obvious that I am totally oblivious to the internal struggles and dysfunctional decision makers at PAL.
I have found the staff at the front office very nice, welcoming, professional and helpful. They also work very hard. There is no "flake factor." There is always someone who can help a member.

With respect to the quality of the instructors, I think they are excellent and knowledgable. They are always available to help their students. In other words, they are involved and give individual attention to every student. This is not the case at the Palo Alto Art Center where I no longer take classes. Without question one of the reasons the quality of instruction is excellent is the small classes. At Foothill, we had 22 students enrolled in painting and drawing classes making it impossible for instructors to teach in ideal circumstances. The PAL does not have this problem. I think some students are clueless about how excellent the programs are at PAL. Some complain about the tuition costs which indicates to me that they have no basis for comparison in the Art community.

To summarize, my experience with the Art League has been wonderful.

3 people like this
Posted by Theo Keet
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 18, 2015 at 3:23 pm

There has been much talk over the past few days regarding the future of Pacific Art League. Although I’m confident that we’re in a very good place and that the vision we share will get us where we want to be, I feel the need to address some of these concerns and share more information with you.

The landscape of art organizations like PAL is changing fast and so are the many challenges facing us. We're steadfast in keeping our great tradition such as having only the most qualified instructors on our faculty and focusing on serving the mid-Peninsula communities. We also realize the need to update and upgrade our model of operation - everything from marketing and online presence to community engagement and income generation - so that we're not left behind like many other art organizations have been in the past decade.

We know we're moving in the right direction, and we have many exciting developments to back it up:
• Proceeds from art classes and workshops, our core activities, and membership have gone up and are 30% ahead of last year.
• We have a fundraising plan that is ready for execution. It’ll certainly take time, but the key is to get it started.
• Several programs are in development to expand our local activities and community engagement, including collaborations with organizations in Palo Alto and Menlo Park.
• Our social media presence is up, and so is the positive media coverage on PAL’s activities.
• Our special events such as the Art & Wine Friday have been successful, and we’re on pace to unveil a new web site in three months along with major update of our internal data systems that will streamline our workflow.

We have also heard concerns regarding our financial responsibilities, many of which have already been addressed in the past few months. While we’re building up additional business and activities to strengthen the fundraising effort, our tenants' rent provides a generous buffer between the rent income and the mortgage payments. We have seven years to generate expanded activities that will permit us to occupy the full building as well as generate resources to pay off the mortgage.

There are many hardworking people behind the scene at PAL. We certainly value the expertise and contribution from our board members - past and present. And we respect the opinions from all those who want to see PAL thrive. Our professional team is here to make it happen. As for the board taking up what some might see as the job of the executive director, it is a transition all organizations must go through. All I can say is that we are extremely fortunate to have a working board who is fully committed to executing the plans that we have. Many of them are long-term board members who bring tremendous experience and knowledge with them at this crucial juncture of the organization. They will certainly be all too pleased to take on a different role to continue their support to PAL after our current plans are well-established and implemented.

As I have emphasized time and again, this is not an overnight endeavor. It is only through careful planning and execution will we see a long-term, sustainable result for this great organization. And with your support, it will happen.

Theo Keet
Board President, Pacific Art League

3 people like this
Posted by Kay Culpepper
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 19, 2015 at 1:11 pm

I have seen this post about conflict from Ron Andrews on three different sites for three days. There is no shortage of exposure.

However, as a member and instructor who is on the premises of the Pacific Art league at least once or twice a week and recently every day, when I was subbing for another instructor, I can say that I have not seen any evidence of conflict at the league. I was really surprised to read such an article from the Weekly as it seems to be ancient history:
As recently as 2001 the Pacific Art League had one paid employee—the director—a retired school teacher. It had an oldish building without debt, needed a retro fit like the police station still does, there was a generous bequest somewhere along the way and no one thought of spending it as we had a balanced budget, but then they began to think of spending and continued to do so until much was lost with nothing to show for it. The reason one board walked out was because they were prevented from selling the building by the membership. Recently, Ron and Jo walked out. An intensive and long study of feasibility was done regarding their proposed artist coop and it was found to be not viable financially with our limited space. There may have been other issues of which I am unaware.
I have been there to witness first hand the history of the last 20 years. Where we are now is a good place to grow and thrive.

We do have some special characterizations and an all inclusive method of operating. What seems to work best is a structure that encourages recommendations from committees, (made up of members experienced in the existing programs) to be approved by the board and carried out by the staff.
We are a non profit, not a commercial enterprise. We are currently limited in space while we have excellent tenants in the upper floors of our new building. Our classes are our greatest resource and we are utilizing our space to the optimum in these beautiful new spaces. Our students, members, exhibitors and their needs come first.

The current show is all about Printmaking and there are amazing submissions! In the Corridor Gallery are photos by children who are suffering from cancer. You should have seen them on First Friday with their families, even more beautiful than their photos. Recently, some board members attended the Teen Congressional Art Awards at City Hall sponsored by Anna Eshoo. I just finished my beginning watercolor class for adults and will soon begin teaching in the Kids' Camps that began this week. All of this is the real news at the Pacific Art League. (some of it posted on Worth a Look last week)

Still, I wondered if I was missing something?
So, on Weds. night I attended a board meeting. I enjoyed being an onlooker and I must say the board looks good! It seems well balanced between older and newer members, young and older people and all seem to have an area of expertise from which they contributed. There are plans on the agenda for fund raising, grants have been written and money has been saved by reducing costs, membership has increased and class enrollment is up.

I think there are areas that can produce increased income--exhibition with broader entry areas geographically and more super shows. More classes for slightly younger children would be nice. There is always tweaking to be done. I think a commentator on another site said it best by using plants as an analogy--rather than uprooting, this is the time for nourishing, tweaking, increasing and improving on what is working now.

The Pacific Art League will celebrate its 94th Anniversary in September. Every community is welcome here and it is always a good idea to see for yourselves.

2 people like this
Posted by donnassue jacobi
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 23, 2015 at 9:14 pm

once again Ron Andrews is launching complaints so that he can reintroduce his "vanity gallery" concept where he benefits and PAL loses. He tried something similar back in 2008-9 and I can see history is repeating itself. As a former Secetary of the Board, the idea of transparency has been lost, too bad. Can anyone else read between the lines? When Ron was president he didn't want term limits, now he does. Anyone else find something really wrong with his dribble?

4 people like this
Posted by AlexDeLarge
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 23, 2015 at 10:50 pm

[Post removed.]

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Posted by stacy connaway
a resident of another community
on Jun 24, 2015 at 1:17 pm

I was part of the group that saved the Pal building from being sold. Now I see the need once again concerning a sell-out plan that would jeopardize Pal's non-profit with a co-op plan, by Ron Andrew and his small group. Notice in 2014, there was a small fundraiser that was an all galleries show that was NOT supported by Ron Andrew's group. There are many very passionate members who care about Pal and don't want to see Pal taken over by a vanity gallery, which is what the co-op would be, with just a few artists benefiting. I see Pal as a teaching organization, starting with classes and going through to showing art in the gallery. all of this takes money and fundraising which we plan months in advance with support from many members and hard working board members. Please don't vote away this fun and informative league of talented artists.

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Posted by Joy Chase
a resident of another community
on Jun 28, 2015 at 9:46 pm

We kept our vision to get a seismically safe building and we accomplished it. I was President of the Pacific Art League (PAL) for FOUR YEARS-2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013. We did not have a conflicted board. We are now on a path of recovering from the moves during construction and restructuring our outlook for the future of PAL. We are focused immediately on recruiting an experienced and transformational Executive Director to carry out our vision.

PAL has struggled to break even in the past but currently, our tenant rental income is so solid that we have no problem paying our mortgage and also having some overage to keep a 3-6 month reserve fund to cover operational and maintenance emergencies. The Board voted to start an independent audit this year and those plans will go forward.

We currently have MBAs, CPAs, CFOs and PhDs on the Board of Directors who can help us bring in a profit but we are a nonprofit. Ron Andrews’ plan that we open a co-op for a few artists would not be in line with our Mission or Vision for PAL and would be out of compliance with State laws for nonprofits like ours. We also have artists, art instructors and other professionals on the Board of Directors at present, which gives it a balanced view.

Last year, 2014 was chaotic so it was not surprising that many uncommitted Board directors resigned. Jo Killen and Ron Andrews have not been in the workplace for over ten years and don’t seem to be aware of the new collaborative ways of working today. Jo shut down the Exhibition Committee making Ron the sole member and he purchased the Corridor Gallery for three months per year for three years at 2013 rates before the availability of the Corridor was announced or posted. This is just an example of their unilateral decision making.

PAL has a long range vision to pay off our mortgage, with the help of members and friends. This is articulated in our Ten year Vision Plan: August 1, 2012 – July 31, 2022 (including Centennial Year January-December 2021.) VI. Strategic Goals and Objectives. A. Building. Develop plans for reacquiring second and/or third floor to meet programmatic growth. In the fall of 2015, we will renew our Vision and Strategic Plan for the next three to seven years and it will include a capital campaign to pay off our mortgage debt and occupy our whole building.

PAL, with the concurrence of Ron Andrews who was VP, hired Netzel Grigsby Assoc. (development consultants) to advise us on starting a capital campaign. Netzel Grisby suggested we start smaller and we ran the Arts Essentials campaign for the past two years to finance new equipment. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) of 2002 makes it clear that Boards cannot neglect their oversight of the corporation. Nearby nonprofits have run into trouble, such as the Children’s Theatre in 2008 and the Peninsula Symphony in 2014. These examples make our Board emphasize their responsibility to closely follow the management of our 501(3)c nonprofit.

The Board upholds its fiduciary duty and its commitment to our Members and to the Community. We are doing our best and we need your support. Writing petitions and creating bad publicity for PAL is not the way to help us move forward and create programmatic growth. It inhibits the ability of staff and Board to follow our mission “To provide an engaging environment for advancing the expression, appreciation, and enjoyment of the arts.”

Joy Chase, Past President and Executive Secretary, Pacific Art League of Palo Alto.

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Posted by Lynn A
a resident of another community
on Jul 29, 2015 at 8:05 pm

Coming late to this discussion, but I have only recently been back to the Art League since the remodel. While I understand there are financial realities, I think the decision to limit all art activities to the first floor has severely limited the scope of what the Art League will be able to do. I was a member for years because of the excellent print studio upstairs and was very, very sad to see the tiny cramped version that claims to be a print studio now. I don't think more than 3 adults could work on prints in that space. The office space, however, is quite large. I don't even remember there being an office in the old building. The gallery space that is left is school like and uninviting to outsiders.

My impression is that in its current form, the Art League is really targeted at kids, their parents and recreational adults for basic drawing and painting sessions. Sad to see these changes.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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