By Elizabeth Shepherd
In the wake of its temporary closure due to the coronavirus pandemic, Vashon Center for the Arts will lay off nine of its 19 employees, beginning April 1, said the arts center’s executive director, Allison Halstead Reid.
The layoffs will take effect between April 1 and April 15, and affect employees in VCA’s arts education department, including those who work with its Vashon Artists in Schools program as well as those who plan and manage VCA’s Blue Heron Education Center programs. VCA’s front-of-house personnel, including house managers, are included in the cuts.
Halstead Reid said she is currently working out the precise details of the cuts and navigating changes to rules regarding unemployment that are now in the works. She hopes to be able to designate the employees as “on standby,” in order to give reassurance to both the staff and the public she intends to bring them back as soon as possible. More information about this, she added, will be provided in the days to come.
The most public face of the layoffs is Vadne White, the director of Vashon Center for Dance.
White, reached by phone, said she had expected the cuts to come, and credited VCA’s leaders with handling the situation with grace and compassion.
“I feel like I’m in good company right now — there are people in my position in the arts all over the country right now,” she said, adding that she felt VCA had waited as long as it could.
The 10 employees who now remain at VCA — including Halstead Reid, associate executive director Darragh Kennan and an administrative team overseeing fundraising, the organization’s finances and new programs including digital offerings such as a virtual art gallery — will all see a reduction of hours and/or pay cuts, said Halstead Reid.
News of the impending layoffs came on Friday, less than two weeks after VCA closed its campus in response to mandates from Gov. Jay Inslee and King County officials to restrict gatherings of people.
The organization’s education programs, including the dance program and all other classes, follow the Vashon School District lead in terms of closures and have now been shuttered until further notice.
Halstead Reid, in an email to The Beachcomber, said her greatest hope was to bring all the arts center’s employees back to VCA as soon as possible.
“We have every intention to restart our arts education, dance and Vashon Artist in Schools Programs when we re-open,” she said. “If the crisis continues to keep us closed into the summer, then we will pivot to the fall. The staff already has outlines and plans underway for their programming so that we can ramp back up quickly.”
Arts education is the heart of VCA, she added.
“VCA would not be the center it is without the unique offerings its many programs offer,” she said. “We cannot lose them. The education and opportunity they provide to young and old islanders alike is instrumental in developing and reinforcing a love for the arts. It is who we are as a center.”
Dance director White, for her part, said in a phone interview that she couldn’t wait to return to her position as director of dance for VCA.
“I will be here with cat-like readiness, ready to pounce when I can come back,” she said.
More details about the staffing decisions will be shared in a press release issued by the VCA on Tuesday, March 24, Halstead Reid said.
Also affected in the shutdown of arts education programs at VCA are many local artists and teachers who contract with the organization to teach at the Blue Heron Education Center. More than 100 W2 tax forms have issued annually by VCA in recent years, making VCA one of the island’s biggest employers.
According to an impact report published by VCA last year, VCA offered 110 classes, enrolling 900 students in classes and summer arts camps in 2018. The same year, Vashon Artists in Schools alone employed 33 teachers in 22 residencies, reaching 1,100 students.
Hundreds of island visual artists, who have sold work in VCA’s galleries, will also bear the financial brunt of VCA’s closure. VCA’s 2019 impact report said that 250 artists showed work in its galleries, selling 424 works of art.
VCA hopes to mitigate the effect on visual artists by opening its online art gallery soon. Gallery director Lynann Politte, who is still employed by the arts center, is overseeing that effort.
The arts center is also fortunate, said Halstead Reid, to have some cash reserves — an amount she said is currently about $1 million dollars.
“Other arts organizations may have nothing to fall back on right now,” she said. “The question is, how long can we sustain it?”
VCA passed a 2020 budget of almost $2.4 million in January, but the organization’s board is now working to revise the budget based on current events.
“We know that the budget we passed is not the budget we are living with now,” Halstead Reid said.
The COVID-19 crisis came at a time of broad expansion of VCA’s programs.
Earlier this month, the organization sent out a full-color mailer to Vashon households, listings dozens of performances, gallery shows, lectures and other events, including the organization’s annual garden tour, to take place at the arts center through May.
‘Resilience Fund’ is launched
In related news, Vashon’s arts center has launched a “resilience fund,” asking supporters, if they are able, to help sustain the organization as it faces an uncertain future.
The appeal was announced on March 19, in an email sent to VCA supporters from Halstead Reid. The letter is also prominently now linked to the home page of the organization’s website, vashoncenterforthearts.org.
In the appeal, Halstead Reid describes how the organization’s recent ambitious push to expand its programming was stopped in its tracks by the coronavirus crisis.
Now, she noted, there is a real possibility that VCA might remain closed through June and that the organization’s survival is in jeopardy.
“Daily changes in the news have caused VCA to pivot at a rapid rate,” she wrote. “What we thought would be a two-week shutdown period turned to six weeks and now we are hearing that it could be several months.”
Still, Reid offered cause for optimism, saying that staff members planned to continue to serve the community as the organization pivoted to more online activities during its closure. The arts center has also launched “Vashon Center for the Arts TV” — an extensive, free video archive of past performances offered at the arts center that islanders can access online during the time of social distancing.
Options for supporting the arts center’s bottom line include outright donations, as well as the opportunity to pre-purchase ticket packs for future performances, and/or donating refunds for canceled performances back to the arts center.
Halstead Reid’s appeal contained an impassioned plea for support of the arts on Vashon, and the place that VCA has long held in the community.
“I believe we can and will make our way through this new landscape,” she wrote. “We know that art endures. Our beautiful center for the arts will survive because of our commitment to the arts and to you. It has to. We all need art in our lives to be truly healthy human beings.”
Reached by phone, Halstead Reid said she was grateful for the outpouring of support VCA had already received. In the first days after launching the resilience fund, more than $10,000 donations had come in, as well as other promised pledges of support.