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10/14/2010

News

The art of the deal
Devotees of the Maitland Art Center fear a recent merger threatens its future

 

Editor's Note: This story has been edited to correct some inaccuracies. Margot Knight was not personally hired as a consultant to negotiate the merger between the Maitland Art Center and the Maitland Historical Society; rather, United Arts was hired to help facilitate a series of meetings and discussions about possible alliances between the organizations. Also, the lawyers who worked on sorting out the documents and legal paperwork regarding the center donated their time. They were not paid.

For nearly 75 years, a curious village of bungalows that looks like it’s been forgotten by time has stood on the shores of Lake Sybelia in Maitland. The low-slung complex of little buildings, spread across a six-acre wedge of old Florida, is almost hidden from view, secreted behind a cement wall. But through the canopy of moss-strung oak trees whose branches drape over the property, one can see the ornamental relief sculptures of pre-Colombian-style deities that give the buildings the air of Mayan ruins. The bungalow colony, part of the storied Maitland Art Center, is an unassuming oddity among the prominent estate homes and condos in the well-to-do Maitland neighborhood that rings the lake. 

The serenity of the quaint parcel belies the fact that the property recently has been at the center of a controversy that has pitted supporters of the Maitland Art Center against the city of Maitland and the board of directors of a new organization called the Maitland Art and History Association. 

For the past 40 years, the center has operated as a public-charitable trust governed by its own board of directors. It has managed galleries and arts-education programs, hosted artists in residence and offered professional art instruction. In May, however, in a move that some say violates the organization’s bylaws, the board voted to merge the center with another local nonprofit, the Maitland Historical Society. Both now operate under a newly formed nonprofit called the Maitland Art and History Association, which is in the process of combining the operations of the two facilities to make them more efficient. 

Some longtime devotees of the Maitland Art Center, including two men who were instrumental to its founding as a charitable trust in the 1960s – are furious about the transition, which they fear could jeopardize its future.  

•••

Though many are familiar with the center’s art gallery and its programs, few are acquainted with the late architect of the Maitland Art Center campus, artist and World War I veteran Jules André Smith, who owned, designed and oversaw the construction of this Maitland masterpiece in the 1930s. Smith christened the private compound the Research Studio, and he operated it as a winter haven for artists where they could create, unencumbered by distractions from the outside world. The legacy of Smith’s experiment lingers, although at one time its future was uncertain. After its founder’s death in 1959, the Research Studio languished, and its executive board gifted the compound to the Central Florida Museum (which later became the Orlando Science Center). According to a 2005 master’s thesis on the history of the Maitland Art Center by Ginny Seibert, the museum was not able to sustain Smith’s Research Studio, and the property was the target of vandalism and theft. Because it sat on valuable lakefront land, Seibert wrote, “rumors developed indicating the property was about to be sold to developers.” 

Two of the Research Studio’s devoted artists, Bill Orr and Maury Hurt, stepped in to keep that from happening. They brought a lawsuit against the Central Florida Museum in 1965 to keep it from being sold. The suit was successful, and in 1969 the facility was declared a public charitable trust by an Orange County judge. The property would belong to the city of Maitland, which leased it for a nominal fee to the trustees of a nonprofit board that would run the art center and maintain a collection of Smith’s artwork. The mission of the organization, which was dubbed the Maitland Art Association, would be “to promote, develop and augment the study and development of art and culture in the City of Maitland Florida area,” according to nonprofit documents filed with the IRS. The Maitland Art Center has been a focal point for the arts in Central Florida for the last 40 years. 

With a decision in May that surprised and angered some of the center’s members, the executive board of the Maitland Art Association agreed to merge with another cultural institution, the Maitland Historical Society, which operates the Maitland Historical Museum, the Telephone Museum, the Waterhouse Residence Museum and the Carpentry Shop Museum. The merger combines the administrations of the two organizations under the auspices of the Maitland Art and History Association. 

Board members in favor of the merger say the benefits to both organizations can’t be discounted: They can accelerate their respective visions by streamlining and combining staff, membership and resources; the organizations can operate more efficiently, proponents say, so more money can be put toward programming, outreach and fundraising; the merger will help raise the profile of both organizations and hopefully attract more visitors – and dollars – to the facilities. 

But those who oppose it, including Orr (who, along with Hurt, served as a trustee emeritus of the Maitland Art Association board, and has been grandfathered into the new organization’s board as well), Hurt and just a handful of others willing to go on record with their concerns, say the merger is suspect. They say the city, which promised in the 1960s to build a new museum dedicated to exhibiting the works of Smith, has neglected the Maitland Art Center and doesn’t have its best interests in mind. In addition, Orr and Hurt say the city has failed to properly maintain the property and buildings. They also think the city would like to avoid having to make good on the decades-old promise to build the new museum.

Further, they say, the merger violates the organization’s bylaws, which state that any vote of the art center’s governing body must also go before its entire membership (there were 500 members prior to the merger) before it can be approved. Orr, who is now in his 80s, says that even though the merger has been pushed through, the boards consolidated and a new staffing structure put in place, he may make a legal challenge to the merger. 

“Only a legal proceeding before a judge can change the status of the Maitland Art Center from being a public trust,” he says, “not just because some lawyers say so.” 

•••

Two years ago, says Maitland Mayor Doug Kinson, the Maitland Art Center was short on money to maintain its grounds. The center had fallen into disrepair due to the effects of time and a trio of hurricanes that swept through the area in 2004. The city was in an aggressive development mode at the time, but it was also low on funds. 

Because the city subsidizes both the Maitland Art Center and the Maitland Historical Society, and “budgets were tight,” says Kinson, it made sense to think about consolidating the organizations.  

“We were looking at every avenue to create efficiencies in government,” he says. “That’s how the discussion initially came about.” 

According to financial documents filed with the IRS, the Maitland Historical Society had $1,129,451 in the bank at the end of fiscal year 2008 – nearly double the $630,278 it started with that year. The most recent financial documents available for the Maitland Art Association are from fiscal year 2007, and the organization ended the year with $876,803, down slightly from $887,655 at the end of 2006. 

Combining the asset base of the two organizations – estimated to be approximately $3 million in September 2010 by the Maitland Art and History Association’s executive board – as well as staff and membership made both fiscal and organizational sense. 

“It’s a perfect union,” Kinson says. “[So] this spring we made a fast and hard decision to merge and got it done.”

In early 2010, several public meetings were held at which members of both boards and the public could hear what the proposed benefits of the merger would be. According to Andrea Bailey Cox, former executive director of the Maitland Historical Society who was appointed the director and CEO of the Maitland Art and History Association in May, the idea was met with enthusiasm by everyone – save for a “small, vocal group who were concerned that the art center would no longer be taken seriously.” 

In December 2007, the Maitland Historical Society received a grant of $1 million from the Morgan Group, the company that built the Village at Lake Lily, a multiuse development at the corner of U.S. Highway 17/92 and Lake Avenue. The money was earmarked to help the society construct a new museum to enhance its current campus. Although it will likely be eight months before the vision for the museum can be announced, Bailey Cox says, it’s possible that it would be built on a parcel of land on Lake Lily between the Maitland Art Center and the Waterhouse Residence Museum run by the Maitland Historical Society. If the museum were to be built at that location, it would connect the two organizations physically; if it housed a wing dedicated to Smith’s artwork, they’d be connected in mission and vision as well. 

Bailey Cox says the merger could also help the Maitland Art Center make its case that the property, which is already on the National Register of Historic Places, ought to be designated a National Historic Landmark. That would open the doors to additional funding for the center’s programming, she says.

The center’s reputation as a cultural icon would be helped, not hindered by this merger: “It’ll be everything you know and love, and better,” she says.

•••

In many respects, the merger does look like a no-brainer.  

Both the Maitland Art Center and the Maitland Historical Society seek to preserve a piece of old Florida history. Both organizations operate facilities on land owned by the city of Maitland. And according to a list of answers to frequently asked questions about the merger posted on the Maitland Historical Society’s website, the possibility of a “combined campus” would turn the facilities into an “enriched cultural destination” that could draw more visitors (and, of course, more money and public support) to both centers. 

In the spring, when talks about the merger were at their peak, Jerry and Gayle Bell, concerned devotees of the Maitland Art Center, started a blog that raised questions about the motivation behind the merger. They posted a petition asking the organization’s board to reject the notion of merging the organizations.

“The Maitland Art Center is a priceless asset to the community, as well as a public charitable trust for the people of Florida, whose purpose, as ruled by the Florida courts, is strictly for artistic and cultural pursuits,” the preamble to the petition read. “The Center is not only important to the local artistic community, but is a national and international architectural and artistic treasure. We, the undersigned, request that a comprehensive written plan be presented publicly to address all of our concerns that there will be no violations to the Articles of Incorporation or Bylaws, including the right of members to vote on important changes such as this, and that the merger will not negatively impact the stated mission for MAC.”

According to the Bells, the organization’s bylaws make it clear that the membership of the organization should vote on the merger. Instead, the arts center’s executive committee and board approved it without putting it to a membership vote. They say any of the meetings held before the vote took place failed to answer questions they and others had about the merger. Some meetings of the executive committee and board were held behind closed doors and may have been held in violation the state’s Sunshine Laws, the Bells say.  

“We were also told by a board member that the merger is a simple administrative change, yet they had six lawyers working on it, would not tell the membership what they were proposing, wouldn’t allow them to vote on it as required,” says Gayle Bell in an e-mail to Orlando Weekly. “And a well-known figure in the art world was highly paid as a consultant to push the merger through. It seems disingenuous to argue that a ‘simple administration’ change would require so much secrecy and heavy artillery.”

United Arts of Central Florida, which promotes and fundraises for arts-related programs in the region, was hired by Kinson to assist with the process by holding a series of meetings in which to discuss alliances between the two organizations. United Arts was hired for a fee of $10,000, which was donated by the city of Maitland and the Community Foundation of Central Florida. 

“I’ve never seen so much emotion from the community about an issue that amounted to nothing except fear of change,” says Margot Knight, executive director and CEO of United Arts. Knight says that three lawyers donated their time to help piece together wills, documents and legal decisions dating back to when the Maitland Art Center was still known as the Research Studio. In the end, she says, lawyers “determined the center was not a public charitable trust, but owned by the city of Maitland.” Which meant that it did not need to put the vote before membership to make the merger decision and could move forward with its plans to merge with the Historical Society. She says the decision will, in the end, be a win for both organizations. 

But Orr and Hurt fear that the art center’s identity is at stake. They say the city has a pattern of not living up to its obligations to the center, and this is just another example of its lack of interest in its identity. For instance, when longtime executive director James “Gerry” Shepp resigned in January 2009 after 26 and a half years, he wasn’t replaced. 

“A new board came in, in 2008, with new ideas for the art center, and we didn’t exactly mesh,” Shepp says, when asked why he stepped down. “So I decided to move up the date of my retirement.”

Orr says the board said it was conducting a search to fill the position, but that never happened. Instead, both organizations decided to put a freeze on new hires until negotiations for the merger could be completed. It was very frustrating, says Hurt, and no one was forthcoming about what was happening.

Shepp had always advocated for the center and made sure the bills were paid, Hurt says. After he left, annual fundraising events were canceled and what maintenance was done – repairs to crumbling cement structures, for instance – were not done in keeping with historic renovation. Orr says the permanent collection has not been well cared for either, though he declines to give more specifics. 

After the merger, several longtime employees of the Maitland Art Center were fired. The local artist who goes only by the name Kyle, who had lived on the grounds of the center for 17 years and worked as its caretaker, was asked to leave. (His wife, Gloria Capozzi, has maintained her job there as director of program marketing.) Richard Colvin, the center’s curator, quit when his wife, Ann Colvin, lost her position as coordinator of education; later, he decided to return in the same capacity. 

Bailey Cox says it was unfortunate that some staff members had to be let go, but it was “because of the economics” and part of “creating a better service to the community.”

But Hurt and Orr worry that those coming in to run the center aren’t tied to its history or lore and aren’t as invested in its future as those who have put in so much time and effort to care for it. 

“The real jewel is the architecture of the buildings designed by Smith,” Hurt says. “They are a work of genius that need to be taken care of.”

•••

During a recent tour of the Maitland Art Center campus with Bailey Cox, it’s evident that there’s been a lot of activity onsite since the merger. The center’s buildings have been cleaned and their finishes preserved. The gardens are weeded, and the koi pond has been restored to a natural, chemical-free state. Blue carpet that lined the walls and floors of the main gallery has been removed to expose the original pine floors. There are four new artists moving into the studios as part of the newly relaunched Artists-in-Action program, which gives selected artists spaces in which to work and exhibit. Bailey Cox says there’s also an oral-history project underway that will interview locals who remember the center back when it was being run by Smith. The popular nude-model sketch class continues on Thursday nights, like clockwork.

At this point in time, nothing suggests Smith or his legacy are going to be neglected. Right now, the Maitland Art and History Association is conducting a series of strategic-planning sessions that will continue into next year. Until those are complete, it’s not entirely clear what changes are going to be made at the center. 

Shepp says he won’t be surprised if people who’ve stuck with the Maitland Art Center for years, who were concerned about how the merger went down, decide not to make financial contributions until it’s clear what these planning sessions will mean for the center’s future. 

“I think because of the bad feelings by not allowing the membership to vote, a result is that people are going to sit back and not write checks initially,” he says. 

That’s a pretty serious concern, he points out, considering the current economic climate, which has affected the arts across Central Florida and the state. 

“I don’t know what is going on with this merger,” Shepp says, “and I wasn’t privy to the info. But I, like a lot of people, will sit back and see what happens.”

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