Early this month, the board of directors for the Woodstock Artists Association & Museum (WAAM) – whose membership now stretches up and down the length of the Hudson Valley, and beyond – furloughed half its staff, including the not-for-profit’s executive director of the past four years, Janice La Motta.
According to WAAM board president Danny Rubenstein, the decision was “very tough” and predicated on “keeping our organization’s virtual lights on.”
The arts association, which celebrated its centennial last year by expanding its membership, its donor base and its programming, has faced battles among various factions of its membership throughout its history. Those battles have reflected schisms in the greater art world, and have included a divide between those looking to larger markets outside the Hudson Valley, and those who’ve enjoyed the more localized focus of a membership organization.
WAAM has long taken January off as a time for regrouping, with its main gallery season starting in February and its major gala fundraiser in late April. The non-profit, which added the “and museum” to its name earlier this century, has maintained its budget – and care for its esteemed permanent collection of art created by Woodstock-based artists over the years – through a mixture of dues from artist and non-artist members, governmental and private foundation program-directed grants and private donations.
“Normally, we’d be having our biggest fundraiser at the end of this month,” Rubenstein said. “Most of our other funding has declined or become non-existent while our costs are fixed.” The leadership decided not to shut down the entire organization “since it wouldn’t be good for our artists.” The only way to significantly reduce costs was to furlough staff.
The board decided in late March to furlough La Motta, longstanding archivist and collections manager Emily Jones, and members-and-volunteers liaison Joan Clancy. Remaining were associate director Bryana Devine, gallery manager Diane Dwyer and education curator Beth Humphrey.
“Two of our board members will be interfacing with the staff, one dealing with facilities and other physical plant matters, and the other focusing on Internet and social media activities,” Rubenstein said. He himself will be overseeing the business side of the organization, a role he filled during an interim period between directors that ended with the hiring of La Motta in the autumn of 2015. “We’re keeping the virtual lights on, limping along, trying to do the best we can.”
Prior to La Motta’s taking on the WAAM directorship after an arts management career in Connecticut, the artists’ association went through years of schisms that resulted in several public staff firings and board resignations, then a period of relative stability under director Josephine Bloodgood, followed by several tumultuous years under interim directors including Rubenstein and Dorsky Museum founding director Neil Trager, who tried running the organization from Santa Fe.
Rubenstein said that a personnel committee of the board had gone through job descriptions to identify which employees would “have nothing to do” during the coming months or took up “a lion’s share of our costs.” He added that there had been “extensive discussions” about WAAM budgetary matters and exhibitions in December.
Including La Motta in more recent talks about furloughs “would have been awkward.” “This was a board-driven initiative,” Rubenstein said.
Other Woodstock arts non-profits have faced similar problems in recent years. The Center for Photography at Woodstock went through a number of major personnel and directional shifts starting in the early 2000s that finally stabilized in recent years. The Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild saw its board decide to proceed without an executive director when its leading staff member left for another position last summer.
While the members of arts organization boards have spoken in recent years of funding gaps that make it hard, and possibly unnecessary, to maintain paid professional staff, we’ve spoken with present and former staff members in recent years about boards that lack proper training and tended to maintain “old guard” patterns as if they were “clubhouses” fighting the newer ways in which the art world, and its funding, have been moving.
Meanwhile, the WAAM board is adamant that its furloughing moves were meant to be temporary, allowing those furloughed to apply for unemployment while the organizations seek federal stimulus funding from a new payroll protection program applied for through Rondout Savings Bank earlier this month. They’ve spoken about La Motta’s accomplishments, and their hope that she can return as WAAM executive director.
“It’s extremely frustrating to be in this position and unable to effectively represent the organization,” said La Motta, who’s taking the time to work on her own art. She expressed discomfort with still being listed as the organization’s executive director without any authority or recompense. “It’s a very unfortunate situation.”
The term “furlough” is now used for unpaid layoffs where employees are either expected or, in some cases, actually promised an eventual return to employment. Previously, the word was used mainly for governmental actions rather than actions in the private or non-profit world.
“It’s a very different thing than laid off. It is a promise to re-employ as soon as circumstances improve,” explained board member Maxine Davidowitz, who will be overseeing promotional activities for WAAM during the current interim. In a separate statement from Rubenstein’s she noted that “everyone is getting a quick education in these terms, I’m afraid.” As a member of the WAAM board, she said she wanted to make it clear that the entire board fully supported LaMotta, whose “temporary furlough is entirely a budget decision and should not be construed as a lack of support.”
Rubenstein said the WAAM board had been meeting every other week to stay atop of the situation. “We’ve been planning for the worst and hoping for the best,” he said. “It’s very hard to operate in this climate. We just hope this story doesn’t prove de-motivational.”