A recent article and editorial The Beachcomber questions choices made by Vashon Center for the Arts board and staff in mid- to late 2014 related to building our building. In these past months, I have had the opportunity to speak extensively with all the people involved (other than Ms. White but including her attorney) as well as Debra Twersky at 4Culture and Sen. Sharon Nelson. I have read all the documents. Based on all of that, I would like to share some of the thinking that guided those choices.
To back up for a moment, it feels important to recall the energy and work that went into this project. It was truly a massive commitment of time and energy by a succession of board members, community volunteers and a small group of staff that stretched from 2008 to 2016. These people are our island friends and neighbors, and the grit, determination and love they brought to the project over eight years is really remarkable. Many communities and organizations have started projects like this and not completed them. It is a credit to our community that we pulled this off.
One of those friends and neighbors was Katherine L. White, a wonderful woman who dedicated a lot of money to help make this project happen. If you knew her, you knew Kay to be a modest, intelligent person who valued her privacy. She allowed her name to become more visible when her 2008 trust began to play a big role in public discussions.
By the summer of 2014, a growing list of concerns pushed the board and staff to find a way to begin the building. Construction costs were rising rapidly (and continue to rise to this day). The staff and board did not believe VCA could be sure state money would continue to be available. Perhaps most importantly, we did not know how much longer Kay would be with us.
Kay had committed the majority of her wealth to this project. She wanted to hear music in the building she had been visualizing for many years, even before the 2008 trust was created. It was a reasonable desire for a 93-year-old woman who ultimately donated nearly $12 million to see her dream become a reality.
It was Kay’s decision to restructure her 2008 trust. In doing so, she was able to provide the cash VCA needed to start the project and to assure her personal financial needs would be met for the rest of her life, the two objectives of her 2008 trust. It was also her clear desire not to make her choice public.
People have asked why VCA did not discuss this decision openly. Two reasons. The first is it was Kay’s money and that was her direction. The second is the board and staff were confident there would be significant financial resources available once construction was complete to help sustain the building and the organization. This proved to be a solid assumption.
With the benefit of hindsight, we know there are things we might have done differently. VCA is a big part of Vashon, and it is clear we need to create constructive dialog around our important decisions.
There are some specific things I also want to make note of:
■ After Kay’s death, the VCA board made the decision to apply proceeds from her estate to pay down our building loan. This is the reason our financial resources are a bit less than $4 million vs. $6 million. But for an astonishing last-minute increase in building costs, we likely would have that and more today.
■ People have expressed concerns about ticket prices. In 2017, we sold 11,833 tickets for 79 shows. The average ticket price for 90 percent of our shows was $20. Member prices are typically lower than that. For many events, prices have remained unchanged for years. Volunteers get in free. Many events are free.
■ The shows that cost more? In some cases, those are fundraisers like kd lang. In others, they are national acts like Judy Collins, David Grisman, Matisyahu, Indigo Girls, Leo Kottke and others, nearly all of which typically sell out within days, sometimes hours. It seems we have an audience for these kinds of shows.
■ Last year we offered 96 arts classes, in all the arts apart from dance, with 790 students enrolled and 45 local artists/instructors employed. A large percent of our students are on scholarship.
■ Vashon Artists in the Schools offered 23 residencies to 1,199 Vashon students, employed 22 artists and conducted 12 exhibits of student work. Our biggest and best year yet.
■ In 2017, we showed in our gallery 564 pieces by more than 100 Vashon artists.
■ Through our Vashon Center for Dance, we offered 30 weekly dance classes and six dance camps to 153 enrolled students. About half of those students receive a scholarship for their dance classes.
This last point is an important one. Through the great generosity of our donors, we are able to offer financial assistance to 100 percent of the people who want to take a class, any class we offer, but don’t have the money to do so.
Vashon Center for the Arts is the largest nonprofit on Vashon Island. We touch a lot of lives. We don’t always get things right, but we’re listening and learning so we can do better.
From the beginning of this process, through to this day, the people involved with the project, our friends and neighbors, acted with integrity, good faith, thoughtfulness and positive intent.
The building was built. Capital was preserved. We are delivering against our mission. We are working every day to make what goes on at VCA inviting, vital, relevant and accessible to as big a portion of our community as we can.
— Kevin Hoffberg is the executive director of Vashon Center for the Arts.