By JASON EVERETT
As the former executive director for Vashon Allied Arts (VAA), I read Liz Shepherd’s June 20 article about the Vashon Center for the Arts with interest and found it to be fair, well researched and well written.
However, I realized that there is some important history that was not included that might help islanders with context. I would like to share some of that history here.
My first week on the job, I introduced myself to the Rotary Club, and immediately following the meeting, Doc Eastly asked me if I was going to be the one to finally build this community a new performance space with a stage large enough for his Shire draft horses to make an appearance in “Oklahoma.”
That early conversation was foreshadowing, and the need for a new performance space was a mantra from the community that my board and I heard nearly weekly.
I began researching the issue, starting with a community-wide study commissioned by VAA several years earlier by the Collin’s Group, which became known as “The Collin’s Report.” The finding of this report was that our most sustainable option was to add a black box theater to the Vashon High School theater.
A few months later, I attended the community users group meeting (known as “Space Wars”) at the Vashon Park District, where the various performing organizations jockeyed for time in the VHS theater and realized that the need for a new performance space was indeed profound.
My mantra back to the community for those eight years was that raising the money to build a new facility was possible, but generating the revenue to keep the doors open was the real challenge. During my tenure, VAA’s budget grew, but our net profit did not, and every year we struggled to make payroll during lean months, and our year-end balance was usually barely in the black.
During my tenure, the board of directors and I responded to the community’s desire for a new performance space by commissioning three community-wide studies to explore the feasibility of a new theater. We looked at existing buildings and building sites for renovation. We explored the possibility of a new building. We studied the community’s needs, ticket prices, entertainment habits and the degree of community support for such a project.
Our last study included a business planner who specialized in community arts funding. According to her analysis, any of the scenarios were feasible, but only if there was a dedicated funding source to subsidize operations. Earned income (e.g. ticket sales) would not be enough and the donor base, which could continue to grow, would not be able to grow enough to sustain a new building. An endowment or similar financial instrument would need to be created and funded prior to building a new facility.
To that end, we created the Vashon Endowment for the Arts, which included a campaign video and materials. I had just begun meeting with donors discussing the endowment and was working to secure some large donations when I was offered a job with the fire department and moved on with my career. The process was (I assume) put on hold while a new executive director was found.
I don’t know what happened with the increased cost of construction, but I know it is an amazing building with outstanding acoustics. It is a centerpiece for our community, a community that values the arts at an extraordinary level. It is truly an exceptional building that will continue to foster love of art and beauty for the future.
I know the VCA board may have been faced with hard financial decisions, including regarding Kay White’s trust, and perhaps, in the face of those difficult decisions, mistakes were made about how and when decisions were communicated to supporters and the community at large.
My advice to the VCA leadership is to be totally transparent and acknowledge that promises were made to the community, among them ticket prices that are affordable to all residents and an endowment or similar financial instrument to ensure the long-term sustainability of the new building. Then build support among community members to fund that endowment.
My advice to the community is to embrace this amazing building and this organization that touches the lives of so many community members. Support local arts by buying tickets to shows, giving locally made art as gifts and, of course, become a member.
The Vashon Center for the Arts was a dream held by many and is now a reality. It is time to make sure that it stays the vibrant and financially stable venue that was part of that dream.
— Jason Everett is a professional performer, composer and producer and was the executive director of Vashon Allied Arts from January 1998 to September 2005.