Date: Tues, April 3, 2012 at 12:08 PM
Subject: Hope for the CAC
I am the former Visual Arts Coordinator who resigned along with Amy Mackie two weeks ago. The fact that there are no creative programmers to work for at the CAC made my decision to leave obvious. Who would I work for? Development? Accounting? Had there been an Education Director, I could have entertained an opportunity in a different department, but there has yet to be a search for one since Marie Lamb left in November, and we lost the remaining education supervisor, Libby Vieira da Cunha this past month to Young Audiences. I also choose to leave my position, because I do not trust the work environment to be healthy, professional, safe, and productive without a boss, such as Amy, who has a professional practice within those standards. Almost more significantly though, there is no one who I feel that I can or would want to learn from or be inspired by remaining on staff. The morale at the CAC is low. It is awkward and disempowering working in an office with no leadership. I’ve seen both Johnny King (former Exhibitions Manager) and Libby Vieira da Cunha (Marie’s former assistant who stayed on until last week as Teen Board Coordinator) work alone in their offices. My experience working with Amy was so energizing, inspiring, positive, and productive that I would rather take that energy somewhere else that can sustain it, rather than letting the energy dissipate at the CAC.
It was an incredible honor to have had the opportunity to work alongside Amy Mackie this past year. Amy is not only extremely talented, but is 100% engaged, committed, present, and active in making her projects happen. Most of the projects I worked on under Amy, were either resisted or flat out negated, but our team was told to go forward regardless of the resistance she encountered. The fact that Amy gave up means the circumstances were impossible to work with. I’ve never known Amy not to succeed or work through an obstacle, but she honestly did not believe that things would change given the supporting structures lack of effective leadership, management, and accountability.
More importantly, why did you go to the trouble of initiating a national search for an established and respected curator, if you are supporting an environment that makes successful execution of their job so impossible or damaging that they would need to leave within a year? Amy’s frustrations were made known to all of the parties that have control over the circumstance at the CAC changing and she met support behind closed doors, but isolation in public. Everyone is powerless! No one can do anything! Having spent four months in Berlin studying the psychology of Totalitarian communities, I do not sympathize with this feeling of being “powerless” against the democratic structures of the CAC. In fact, I am outraged, that those who have say, have been silent and that those inactions not only resulted in the departure of Amy Mackie and William Downs from New Orleans, but divisiveness amongst the art community. The only action Amy had not tried was resigning – and this should have come as no surprise to anyone on staff or on the board. The Board is the last line of defense, and it is the ineffectiveness of the Board that has enabled the CAC’s disconnection with the mission to deepen and dissipate more and more over time.
Your responsibility is stated clearly in the Board of Directors position description:
“Approve CAC’s philosophy, as expressed in its vision and mission statements and review management’s performance in achieving it. Annually assess the environment in which CAC operates and review CAC’s strategic plan in relation to it (rumor is that a strategic plan has not been made since 2007). Annually review, approve, and accept responsibility for CAC’s plans for funding its strategic plan. Review and approve CAC’s longer-term financial goals (event rentals?). Annually review and approve CAC’s budget. Hire, monitor, appraise, stimulate, reward, and if necessary, fire the Executive Director. Be assured that management succession is properly being provided. Approve appropriate compensation and benefit policies and practices. Annually approve the performance review of the Executive Director and establish his or her compensation based upon recommendations of the Executive Committee. Determine eligibly for and appoint Board committees in response to recommendations of the Board Development Committee. Review and accept CAC’s audited financial statements.”
Your individual responsibilities are stated as follows:
“Be an informed advocate for the CAC in the community (How many of you all were surprised by Amy’s departure? Or out of 40, attended the last round of openings?). Speak out on CAC’s behalf, emphasizing its artistic, cultural, economic and educational importance to the City (There is a huge problem here. Out of almost 100 comments on the NOLA.com articles about the recent circumstances, there is not one positive comment about the center. Are you not speaking up because you are this dis-engaged or because you can’t back the center right now with a good conscious?).”
Figuring out the steps the CAC need to take to move forward from its current history is not rocket science!! The issues are clear – lack of leadership, mis-management, and as Jay Weigel was recently quoted in the recent Times-Picayune article Artists protest Contemporary Arts Center policy, withdraw art, the recent “downturns in donations from corporations and grant-making agencies” making fund-raising “a battle.” This is clearly an issue with development. In the staff meeting following last year’s Whitney White Linen night it was bragged that the event had made us “two weeks payroll.” That sentiment seemed very odd coming from the Associate Director of the museum and really a rather depressing one. It would have been much more inspiring to hear “We’ve raised enough money to successfully fund the new performance series…!” Amy Mackie also proposed contacting Saks Fifth Avenue to Merit Shalott for the sponsorship of a new mural on the Andrew Higgins St. exterior of the building, a suggestion that fell on deaf ears. NOMA is now being sponsored by Saks. There were multiple instances of the Visual Arts Department not being informed about visitors to the CAC who we could have made a professional connection or deeper relationship with, such as the Creative Alliance for New Orleans’s February event recently held at the CAC. You can not succeed in developing the center without connecting the appropriate professionals with the appropriate staff members. Amy was leaving the building for a lunch meeting that day when she was stopped by Gene Nathan and asked to give a tour, which she had to awkwardly pass up.
The CAC’s obstacles are not impossible to overcome, and even more so, when comparing our necessary steps with other institutions nationally, we are in fine shape. Our building space is not a problem. Our rent is not an issue. It seems absurd to me that it’s been four years and the CAC has not made steps to climate control the third floor. It is so close to being able to exist as actual exhibition space, but the executive staff actually mentioned renting it out in one of the last staff meetings I attended. As many of the St. Claude collectives have echoed, they run successful galleries with no staff and no money.
It is a given that the search to replace your previous all star curators will become more and more challenging as the reputation of the center diminishes with each employee that resigns. The CAC has received embarrassingly negative feedback online from the local community – imagine a perspective curator or education director googling their new potential employer and coming upon the recent nola.com articles? If there is not significant action at this moment in the institutions history than there is no hope for the CAC. I imagine there should be necessary repercussions outlined for internal action in the bylaws of the institution, but am not optimistic that the appropriate actions will be implemented. Imagine looking back and seeing a dramatic shift in it’s 35th year, that still seems probable, but digging yourselves out of this mess at 50 years? That is a lot less probable. Look at your legacy, look at the history of the New Orleans arts community and your contribution to it, please ACT.
My intention as an employee of the CAC has always been to be apart of a community like the one Amy has fostered and to work tirelessly supporting the mission of providing quality art programming to the community. It is a problem that this community can not exist without someone like Amy Mackie directing Visual Arts and honestly, how can you feel justified putting another person in the same position. Amy related the feeling of her experience at the CAC as a bird whose wings were ripped off the moment she arrived and then expected to bring the center to new heights regardless.
This has been an extremely upsetting reality to face and I am not alone in being so discouraged and effected by this abrupt change in circumstances at the center. However, I whole-heartedly support Amy’s resignation. In Marie Lamb’s absence, supervising the remaining education staff and programming fell on Amy. I spent a week compiling a list of art publications and magazines (a 13 page document) to give to the Marketing and Communications department, because a list with the contemporary contacts did not already exist at the center. Amy’s ties to Art Forum and Art Papers are the reason the Spaces show is going to be reviewed by these respected art journals. Amy spent countless energy trying to market and raise money for her programs, introducing grants and foundations to development to consider, despite how much her co-workers were unwelcoming to these efforts. Most directly, she faced tremendous disrespect, hostility, and vindictiveness from the Development Department heads, Christina Carr and Merit Shalott. There was no way to sustain the pace facing such resistance and lack of support. One of the artists we were working with for our fall exhibition, Shinique Smith, is represented by Yvon Lambert, a top international gallery, and the potential risk of the CAC facing a law suit due to breaches in contract, such as what is now happening with the current exhibitions, was a serious concern.
My first significant experience with art came at a young age. The weekend after I got my first pair of glasses (age two) my parents took me on a train to Washington, DC to visit the National Gallery of Art. My first clear sight of the world was the humbling experience of looking at art and my parents like to describe me as wide eyed and speechless. The success of a culture has historically been reflected by the quality of its art. Having had to intercept a vomiting patron in the middle of the first floor gallery during White Linen Night as well as two patrons greeting eachother while sloshing beer down a four million dollar canvas, I’d say there is a ways to go before the CAC contributes to such greatness. The good or bad news is that it’s possible and it’s up to you.
(Former Visual Arts Coordinator, also previously acting Gallery Guard, Receptionist, Barista, Bartender, House Manager, Visual Arts Instructor, Art Handler, and Visual Arts Assistant for the Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans (CAC) from 2008 – 2012)