More than a year after a town hall meeting at which questions were raised about Vashon Center for the Arts’ commitment to local visual artists, the arts center has announced its accomplishments of 2018 and is now well into an expansive calendar of exhibits for 2019.
In March, a full-color, 14-page report was mailed to VCA members, touting the organization’s success in terms of visual arts exhibitions and other program areas.
In the report, VCA’s executive director, Kevin Hoffberg, described 2018 as a year of “reinvention and re-engagement,” adding that VCA remains deeply committed to “serving our community by providing unique and compelling opportunities to see, learn, do, show, and teach art.”
But in an interview with The Beachcomber, Hoffberg also said that VCA’s response to the visual arts community had come at a cost — expenses for its gallery programs had exceeded income.
According to Hoffberg, sales of artwork, not including the works sold in VCA’s annual auction, totaled approximately $58,500, but direct expenses for those sales exceeded $123,000 — a good portion of which was VCA’s investment in launching Vashon Summer Arts Fest. That event, which included the work of 111 artists in 44 group and individual shows, took place over the course of two months in 2018.
It was all worth the effort and expense, Hoffberg said.
“The cost of putting on Vashon Summer Arts Fest was a bargain considering the goodwill and healing it engendered,” he said.
The “healing” seen as needed by Hoffberg referenced a town hall held at VCA in February of 2018.
The meeting, prompted by a highly critical open letter to VCA from artist and longtime islander Christine Beck, was attended by more than 200 people. At the forum, many participants voiced frustrations about VCA’s diminished exhibition schedule at its new, $20 million building, opened in 2016. Other topics included the closure of The Heron’s Nest, an art consignment outlet the arts organization had long operated in Vashon’s business district; the treatment of artists who donated work to VCA’s art auction, and plans for the Blue Heron building, where VCA was previously housed.
Weeks after the meeting, VCA announced the departure of its executive director, Susan Warner, and the appointment of Hoffberg, a semi-retired business executive, consultant and entrepreneur who resigned from his board position to take the helm at the arts organization.
Hoffberg said he quickly realized, as the organization’s new director, that much of the visual arts calendar for the coming year was empty.
He credited the island printmaking collaborative, Quartermaster Press, which had been booked for a show in March 2018, with showing him the way forward by hanging its exhibit not only in VCA’s Koch Gallery but also throughout other areas of the building that had not previously been used to display artwork.
He also said that soon after arriving, he determined that an investment should be made to restore and enhance VCA’s reputation, and spent unbudgeted money on creating a new website for VCA, upgrading its print publication, “Island Arts,” and creating the Summer Arts Fest. He also began to write an enthusiastic weekly blog, “The Fish Wrap,” which is published on VCA’s website and widely distributed by email.
“While I got some sponsorship money, I completely blew up the budget,” he said. “I felt it was so important, and I felt I had to do it. I think I did the right thing.”
When asked if VCA was now hurting financially because of the expenditures, Hoffberg said, “We’re not hurting to the extent that people think better of us. Major donors invest in the story. They believe in the mission and the story around the mission.”
Hoffberg said that VCA received approximately $1 million from donors in 2018, with an additional $200,000 pledged to arrive by the end of 2020. He also said VCA’s current cash reserves were approximately $1.65 million as of last week.
VCA currently funds budget deficits out of these cash reserves, Hoffberg said, adding that it is his goal to stop using reserves to balance the budget as soon as possible.
The organization’s budget, he said, grew from approximately $1 million to $2 million between 2015 and 2019, with the move to VCA’s new building. So far, he added, increased occupancy costs, labor and other expenses have outpaced earned revenues.
More information about VCA’s finances, he said, will be revealed at a member’s meeting on April 29, at the arts center.
VCA showed work by more than 250 artists in 2018, in exhibits including group shows for local printmakers and landscape artists, the Summer Arts Fest, a show pairing island poets and painters, a miniatures sale and an exhibit about the #metoo movement.
Hoffberg said that when he became VCA’s director, the space VCA offered to visual artists was 1,200 square feet, in the Koch Gallery. Now, he said, that space has extended to more than 4,000 square feet, with additional space for student shows at the Blue Heron.
That expansion, he said, has also stretched VCA’s budget with additional expenses, but he credited one sponsor — Windermere Real Estate — as being of particular help in subsidizing these and other additional costs in 2018.
“At a time when we needed support and a voice of confidence, Windermere stepped up in a really big way,” Hoffberg said. “They were rocks when we needed rocks to anchor against,” he said.
All of VCA’s 2018 art exhibits were overseen by Devin Grimm, the gallery curator of VCA, but in January, he left the organization. According to Hoffberg, Grimm’s full-time position was eliminated. He also confirmed that two other full-time staffers were laid off — these departures, he said, were a cost-saving measure. When asked, he declined to comment if there had been any reduction in hours for other part-time positions. In recent months, VCA has also reduced the number of hours that its galleries are open to the public.
Lynann Politte now serves in a part-time position, working approximately 30 hours a week, as VCA’s gallery business manager. Politte, who has decades-long experience as an event producer, business coach and marketing strategist, first came on board as the producer of VCA’s first Summer Arts Fest, and Hoffberg said she was a great fit for her newly created position.
“What we really needed is what she provides — great organization, a great collaborator, a great merchandiser and a spirit of can-do,” said Hoffberg.
For her part, Politte described her job as “stage-managing one-off curatorial efforts by the community,” and said that she is committed to “running the systems of VCA in a more managerial style while using the curatorial expertise of the island to create the shows.” Among her priorities, she said, is paying artists on time, and having an open dialogue with them.
“I love this art community, so I want to listen — what can we do better?” she said.
VCA’s agreement with artists is a 60/40 split of sales, with artists taking the greater percentage. Under Politte’s supervision, participating artists and volunteers are now in charge of hanging shows in VCA’s expanded gallery space.
These spaces include lobby areas known as the Fong-Wheeler Atrium, as well as VCA’s Joy & Chai Mann Gift Shop — both named to honor major donors. The gift shop — a kiosk space — recently began a rotation of monthly shows of affordable, smaller works by local and regional artists. Two other lobby spaces have been the site of exhibits by students.
Another new art space has been VCA’s long, street-facing breezeway, now filled with a temporary mural by Bruce Morser that celebrates the history of Vashon Island, with much of the mural space depicting a population wave of settlers who began to arrive on Vashon Island in the 1800s. The mural, Hoffberg has said, was a labor of love by the long-time VCA booster, and he hopes that other artists will follow Morser’s lead to create public art there.
Ray Pfortner, a photographer who teaches classes at VCA, said he has been impressed by the reinvigoration of visual arts under Hoffberg’s tenure and is grateful so much of the space has been used for exhibition and sale of student artworks. He also credited Hoffberg with nurturing his young students by making time to take a sincere interest in their work.
“I feel like there is an engaged community there,” he said. “I hope the divisions between VCA and the visual artists have been healed.”
Beck, whose critical letter to VCA sparked the 2018 town hall meeting that led to subsequent changes, said she, too, has seen improvements.
“VCA appears to have made serious efforts to address the problems I perceived 15 months ago,” she said. “More focus has been placed on the visual arts in the gallery, kiosk and main hall, and specific events and exhibits have been offered to draw in the visual artists.”
She also was encouraged, she said, by the decision VCA made to meet regularly with an artist liaison from Vashon Island Visual Artists (VIVA) — an organization she helped establish last year when the Vashon Island Art Studio Tour group broadened its mission and scope and changed its name.
Still, Beck said, she remains concerned about the organization’s future.
“I continue to believe there are financial issues facing the organization that, over time, may become insurmountable,” she said. “This is not the fault of the staff or board members presently working for the benefit of VCA. It simply seems that they have inherited an unsustainable albatross of a building that requires more staffing, maintenance and general overhead than it can possibly generate.”
Hoffberg, for his part, suggested that the building could be sustainable if the community wanted it to be so, based on a collective belief in its promise for the future.
He compared the decision to build the arts center to that of a congregation erecting a new church or a school district adding a new wing, calling VCA’s new campus an expression of Vashon’s “optimism about the role that art and culture have to play in this community.”
“What happens is that you build a building for the future, and what we’re in the process of doing is wrestling and grappling and dreaming to iterate our way towards a business model that lives up to the promise this campus offers this community as a focal point for art, culture, humanism and finding ourselves as a people,” he said. “So if you’re worried about the vitality of the organization, you should also be worried about the vitality of your community.”
He also urged islanders who might disagree with the management of VCA to work to change it by joining the board or by volunteering. The current 17-member board of VCA includes two visual artists, down from three at the time of the 2018 town hall meeting.
In the meantime, the organization’s 2019 art season continues to roll along. The calendar of exhibits, chosen by a panel that included local artists Hans Nelsen, Carole Schwennesen, Kristen Reitz-Green and Terri Fletcher — has already included a number of group shows, including one by a 40-member-strong local fiber art collective.
This month, VCA opened several exhibitions that complement its April presentation of VCA’s first-ever Lit Con. In May, local artist Cyra Jane, Olympia artist Lynette Charters and Portland artist Heather Goodwin, will have a gallery exhibition, while the biannual Vashon High School art exhibit will fill the atrium.
A June show, championed by Hoffberg, will be curated by Seattle’s Studio E Gallery. Hoffberg said the show would reflect themes of the environment and VCA’s 29th annual garden tour. In July and August, the second annual Vashon Summer Arts Fest will once again overtake the arts center, and more local work will be on view in September, in a preview of VCA’s annual art auction.
The auction — which has long been the single biggest annual fundraising event for the arts organization — grossed approximately $271,000 in 2018, with $121,000 of that coming from the sale of 130 pieces of art donated by local artists, according to Hoffberg. The net profit for VCA from the auction was approximately $190,000, Hoffberg said, but he said he did not know and could not find out by press time how much the sale of artwork contributed to that amount.
However, Hoffberg said he had done an analysis of the 2018 sales of art at the auction, as well as gallery sales, and found gallery sales heavily weighted for works with low price points. The average price paid for a work of art sold in the gallery was $186, he said, adding that of 130 pieces of art offered at the 2018 art auction, only about 25 of those sold at or above the value stated by the artist.
“The names of the artists who sold for less than value is a who’s who,” he said.
Hoffberg indicated that the island’s seeming lack of appetite for higher-priced art had left him with questions about the direction of visual arts programs at VCA.
“Where should we be going with all this?” he said. “There’s not going to be an answer that’s going to hold for all time — we just have to continue to try new ideas and explore things and be responsive to what makes sense strategically and what makes sense for our audience.”
Hoffberg also indicated that he and the organization’s board and other members of VCA’s leadership team were considering changes to VCA’s visual arts programs.
“We’re thinking hard‚ how do we use all that space?” he said. “Should we be using it for other purposes? We are very interested in the intersection between art and activism and environmentalism, and we are going to more explicitly explore thematic content. We’re thinking about the possibilities of doing residencies, and inviting artists to paint in there for a month. We are open to how we use these spaces to fulfill our mission.”
VCA will hold a member’s meeting at 7 p.m. Monday, April 29, at the arts center, to look back on the organization’s overall 2018 accomplishments and discuss programs and plans for 2019 and beyond. VCA’s financial needs and resources will also be discussed. Islanders who have specific questions they wish to be addressed are invited to email them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Non-members may also attend the meeting, Hoffberg said.
In the past year, VCA has changed — but so has the broader visual arts community.
Vashon Island Visual Artists (VIVA) now boasts 300 members and has made its presence known in several ways, by hosting classes, workshops and salons for artists. VIVA is gearing up for its largest-ever Spring Studio Art Tour. In June, the organization will hold its second annual members’ exhibit at The Hardware Store Restaurant Gallery.
In September 2018, a newly renovated Open Space for Arts & Community presented “Festival 25: Catch Us While You Can,” a major, month-long exhibition featuring the work of visual artists who have lived on Vashon for 25 years or more. Performances by musicians who have also resided here for 25 years added song and dance to the mix.
The downtown space formerly occupied by the Heron’s Nest is now the home of Gather Vashon, an art space run by the Heron’s Nest former managers, Kathy Raines and Whitney Rose, devoted to selling arts and crafts by 60 local and regional artists.
And another recent effort, by Vashon Events, aims to make the island’s monthly First Friday Gallery Cruise more festive by adding more music and publicity to the mix. Pete Welch and Allison Shirk, founders of Vashon Events, now assist galleries and other downtown venues with booking local musicians to play at First Friday openings. Shirk and Welch publicize those performances as well as all the visual arts exhibits on display on First Friday. Corporate sponsors, led by John L. Scott Real Estate, cover Vashon Events’ costs and ensure that musicians aren’t singing for free, Shirk said.