Just one week into her tenure as the Pacific Art League's new executive director, Shannon McDonnell will be attending a special meeting of league members that could result in the removal of nearly half of her board of directors. The meeting, called by three dissenting former board members, is the latest act in a near-operatic and years-long conflict at the 94-year-old Palo Alto nonprofit organization.
But McDonnell -- a marketing professional who has worked for the San Francisco Symphony, TheatreWorks and San Francisco Opera -- said this week that she is nonplussed, despite the instability into which she has stepped.
"As long as we're civil and treat each other with professionalism, I think discussion is healthy," she said. "People are passionate about PAL. It's a place where people care very deeply about what's going on, otherwise, they wouldn't fight."
Once members vote on Friday, the issues "need to be put to bed," she said.
Former board members Ron Andrews, Jo Killen and Diana Diamond are challenging the five-month-old board, having garnered support for a special meeting and a vote to change the bylaws. Both sides will give presentations at the special meeting for members on Friday, Aug. 7, at 8 p.m. at 668 Ramona St. A vote count will take place at 9 p.m.
If affirmed, the changes would set board term limits, and could even set them retroactively if members approve a second ballot item. That would sweep out the five remaining long-term board members, who stayed after Andrews, Killen and Diamond resigned last year.
In a rebuttal to members, the current board said they agreed with term limits, but not retroactively.
The vote could also require the board to develop a long-term plan and a vision for what the league will offer members and the community, but rather than the autonomy to pursue a vision they are charged with, the board would have to submit any plan to a vote for approval by the membership.
The vision of the three former board members seems to be at odds with that of the current board. Andrews, for example, has wanted to carve out a co-op gallery within PAL that would be limited to a few established artists, but the board has said that such a co-op would go against PAL's openness to the entire community and might jeopardize its nonprofit status, board member Sondra Murphy said.
Characterizations of a board in upheaval are no longer true, she said. Of the current 13 board members, five have been on the board for over six years, and six were brought on board this year.
"We are creating a culture of cohesiveness across these 'old and new' board members," Murphy said. "The six new board members have a healthy balance of local experience and connections, and are working professionals with strong local community ties."
The current board is also united in extending and expanding PAL's activities into other communities it has not previously served. "We are holding classes in Redwood City, Menlo Park and East Palo Alto," she said. "We are also in discussion with the Palo Alto Medical Foundation and other local corporations to provide art classes to their staff and clients."
That's a vision in sync with McDonnell, who has a strong background in social justice.
Recently, she took charge of a Santa Clara University social justice initiative, which brought together professional artists, university faculty and underserved children at an elementary school. The project helped address mental health and other community issues through the arts.
"Part of my mission is to engage with communities of color and other socioeconomic backgrounds, and people who are differently abled and marginalized. Art is a tremendous equalizer and a tremendous communicator," she said.
McDonnell envisions a bright future for PAL that would also involve inviting small- to medium-sized performing arts groups and other groups in the arts to expand programming and attract a younger audience.
"We have the luxury of this space. The only limits are our imaginations, really," she said.