Yet to be decided

The walkout at BMoCA raises questions about how the city supports the arts

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Boulder's Museum of Contemporary Art (BMoCA) made national headlines recently when a number of staff members resigned at once.
Caitlin Rockett | Boulder Weekly

On the morning of Tuesday, June 13, the offices at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art (BMoCA) were nearly empty. According to Ron McMahan, vice president of the museum’s Board of Directors, the scene was dire: artwork was missing, files sabotaged and a pile of vomit lay in the hallway floor. Later that morning, five full-time staff members, two part-time visitor-services workers and seven contract support staff and educators resigned from their positions in a coordinated exit they called a “walkout.”

Covered by the New York Times, the politics of their resignation quickly embroiled the situation as both sides, heavily guarded by lawyers, jostled for position in a battle of he said/she said. The leadership of BMoCA contests they did all they could to support under-performing employees whose departure they attribute to their disgruntled states of mind.

The former employees beg to differ, alleging they had no choice but to vacate their positions, accusing Executive Director David Dadone of fostering a toxic work environment that impinged upon the nonprofit’s ability to carry out its mission. The Board, they allege, essentially turned a blind eye.

Some aspects of the walkout will forever be relegated to institutional drama. Some questions will remain unanswered. But the mass resignation draws attention to a larger question in Boulder’s art scene at a time when the City is making historically large investments in the arts: Who should get the money?

On July 25, Boulder City Council will decide whether to include BMoCA on the ballot initiative for an extension of the Capital Improvements Tax, a 0.3-percent sales and use tax first approved by voters in 2014. If it makes it to the ballot and voters approve it in November, the tax would create the single largest public donation to a cultural institution in the city’s history, with $6 million poised to go to BMoCA. On top of that, those funds would be matched by the nonprofit’s own fundraising efforts in a public-private partnership.

Ron McMahan, vice president of the BMoCA Board, says the money would help the museum to more than double both its square footage and annual number of visitors.

“Build it and they will come,” he says.

More to the point though, he talks about the tax revenue as an opportunity not just for the museum to expand its gallery space, educational programs, artist studio space and event areas, but for the City to make a meaningful investment in establishing a cultural hub for the visual arts in Boulder at the so-called East Bookend of the civic corridor, the space from 13th to 14th streets between Canyon Boulevard and Arapahoe Avenue. The area is currently undergoing a comprehensive redesign and imminent rebuild.

“Boulder is at the point where it doesn’t just need an arts museum, but an arts complex where lots of things can happen,” McMahan says. “It just makes sense that as the area is developed we expand too, rather than contract.”

Not so long ago the capital improvements tax seemed all but in the bag — BMoCA didn’t just have the reputation, but the benefit of being in the right place at the right time. However, the mass resignation challenges the assumption that BMoCA’s good circumstances are enough to justify the expenditure.

According to Councilman Andrew Shoemaker, the City is not likely to be overly concerned with the allegations against the museum. As a Council-appointed Board member of BMoCA, Shoemaker plans to reassure Council about the good-faith effort taken by the Board to investigate the claims of the former employees, saying, “It would be a shame if a good organization lost out on this opportunity based on some allegations that were ultimately found to be unfounded in the museum’s internal investigations.”

But what may give Council pause are the deeper implications raised by the walkout. Speaking as representatives for the resigned BMoCA employees, former curator Mardee Goff and former director of education Nicole Dial-Kay point out the calculated risk they took in their resignations.

“We had a lot on the line — our careers, our income, our personal and professional stability — but ultimately we decided that it was the museum and those it is intended to serve that mattered more than our individual stakes,” Goff says. “BMoCA deserves to be led with integrity, with a vision guided first by the arts and arts education rather than ambitions of power and growth. We hoped the Board would look at all of the evidence and heed our call for the resignation of David Dadone, but failing that, we hope our action is loud enough to draw attention to a broader conversation about the role of museums and their relevance in our culture.”

In a statement to the press they take it further, writing: “[We hope to draw into consideration] whether or not the interests of the organization are aligned with the commitments made to the communities it is intended to serve.”

The city has several relationships with BMoCA: a $1-per-year lease agreement for the nonprofit’s use of the space at 1750 13th Street and several grants, including the potential funding from the capital tax.

“In both of those relationships basically what we are asking BMoCA to do is to keep the doors open and to present work for the community,” says Matt Chasansky, manager of the Boulder Office of Arts and Culture. “After the walkout what we are trying to keep an eye on is if BMoCA can continue to do that. We are not going to interfere with the administration of the organization or throw our weight around in how they make a decision; we have to rely on their Board process to do that. As long as they can continue to deliver their programs to the community and as long as they do, then we think that they are doing what the city needs them to do.”

Ultimately though, this isn’t up to the Office of Arts and Culture — it’s a decision for Council to make and then for voters to decide on the November ballot. And, while Chasansky has confidence in the Cultural Plan set forth by his office and of BMoCA’s place within it, there are alternative approaches by which to pursue a thriving and sustainable arts culture that could also be considered.

On one hand is the approach taken by the museum’s leadership, which is closely aligned with the City’s current methodology as laid out in the Community Cultural Plan, proposing things like sizable public-private investments in larger cultural institutions. Like trickle down economics, the strategy hopes that by supporting established institutions, the cultural economy will be stimulated across the board.

“In the recent Arts and Economic Prosperity IV survey (AFTA), BMoCA was identified as one of the most important cultural destinations by arts patrons in Boulder,” Chasansky says. “We think it is important to recognize that and to make sure that it stays that way for the long-term.

“We made a similar investment in the Dairy Center for the Arts with the first capital expenditure tax in 2014 that, at $4 million, is to-date the largest cultural investment in Boulder’s history. Now that their renovation and expansion is complete, we look at it as a success story and are interested in pursuing similar projects like that at BMoCA.”

His high degree of confidence stems from another set of insights offered by AFTA which indicates that, on average, each Boulder resident visits cultural institutions 10 times a year. And in addition to that, 300,000 tourists visit art spaces as well, each one generating $45 in economic activity for the city.

But the rosy picture painted by these numbers doesn’t match the experience of all of the 160 arts organizations in Boulder, nor of the nearly 10,000 creative professionals in Boulder, says Adrienne Kelly, co-owner of Boulder Creative Collective (BCC), a for-profit arts space in East Boulder.

“Smaller organizations like us are routinely overlooked by the City and the Office of Arts and Culture,” she says. “Actually, we recently staged a demonstration or protest of sorts at the last cultural meeting, wearing colorful costumes and carrying signs to try to draw attention to those of us who, because of our size, are unlikely to get money from the City, at least not anytime soon.

“We are the ones working directly with the artists. Trying to provide affordable space for them to create so that they continue to live in the city they work as the costs of living rise. We are the ones trying to develop a market for them, to connect them with patrons. We are the ones actively creating a market for art while places like BMoCA stand by seemingly content to show a few artists a year with little or no concern for their own culture, let alone the artists’ community.”

Which brings us to another approach for building up Boulder’s arts community, one the BCC and former BMoCA employees all advocate for. It can be likened to raising the minimum wage. As artists struggle to make ends meet amid rapidly increasing costs of living in the city and what feels like shrinking sales outlets (at least three arts organizations have closed in Boulder since the beginning of the year), many wonder how the arts market will continue to survive in Boulder. From this perspective, what the art market needs is not bigger, newer and centrally located cultural institutions, but direct support of the artists themselves who congregate around the peripheries of town.

Chasansky recognizes this dilemma, saying he is familiar with concerns like those offered by Kelly, but doesn’t “know for sure why or where they come from.”

“What I do know is that we have never tracked this data well before,” he says. “[AFTA] is the first time we have gotten a picture of the community-wide experience and it just doesn’t appear to be the case [that our arts markets aren’t supporting our artists]. I am not dismissing the fact that individual organizations feel that way. My suspicion is that the marketplace ballooned in an interesting way in the past few years, that we got a lot of new organizations and a lot of new interest in investing and spending in Boulder arts and culture and that while visitor numbers are growing, the market still has some catching up to do.”

Ron McMahan explains a similar phenomenon. “Before we had this problem with staff, we were looking to increase our capacity in terms of curatorial quality and educational efficacy,” he says. “I have built several multi-million dollar companies in Boulder and I have noticed something called a tier effect, where you build something as an institution, then experience a change that turns you into a different kind of organization. We at BMoCA are experiencing that kind of a change and as the level of expertise needed to be increased, the tensions between staff seemed to grow, hand-in-hand.”

McMahan has been a trustee of the museum for 30 years and was recruited to the BMoCA Board three and a half years ago primarily to work on the civic center feasibility study and museum expansion. He says it has been a primary focus of the board since 2014 when the first cultural tax was approved.

“We saw it as an opportunity that could not be missed,” he says.

McMahan says the organization has never been more ready to undertake such a monumental project. In the eight years that David Dadone has served as executive director at BMoCA, the museum has grown in revenue from $250,000 to about $1.25 million last year and all that in addition to growing its educational programs and increasing the caliber of its shows.

Ultimately the citizen committee appointed to make recommendations about the terms and recipients of the capital tax expansion agreed with McMahan, voting unanimously to include BMoCA on the ballot initiative, but the recommendation was delivered to Council with a strong footnote of concern.

Several committee members questioned whether the project was ready to move forward in light of the on-going discussions regarding the East Bookend Civic Area Planning, the need to displace other facilities in order to rebuild the museum, and concerns about the benefit BMoCA provides to the whole of Boulder’s art community.

Although the committee was unavailable for additional comment, Jean Gatza, co-manager of the proposed tax renewal project who worked closely with the committee, says several of its members have said they would likely not have included BMoCA in the proposal had they known about the internal problems, but she was unable to provide further explanation other than to say, “I think they would have liked to delay BMoCA until the next round, but realized a five-to-seven-year delay isn’t a feasible option.”

Shoemaker worries the controversy could jeopardize the museum’s growth at a crucial time. When asked what the City would do with the East Bookend if the museum weren’t included on the tax extension, Shoemaker shrugs his shoulders and says, “I have no idea. I guess then we all sit around and wonder what to do with the East Bookend.”

McMahan is busy making sure the funding comes through and assures he is doing everything possible to make sure they learn from the walkout.

“Even if we found nothing in our internal investigations, the board figured there must be something going on and we ought to figure out how to make it so this won’t happen again.”

He suggests things like adding an advisory arts committee to make sure the museum doesn’t lose contact with the artists it claims to support, hiring staff with additional expertise so they are well suited to take the museum into a time of rapid expansion, and introducing a deputy director to assist Dadone in the museum’s leadership.

Nonetheless, McMahan also worries its eligibility for the funding has been jeopardized: “When people are out there leveling all these claims, it’s hard to prove you didn’t do what they are saying, but you go ahead and disprove, disprove, disprove. It’s like somebody asking, ‘When did you stop beating your wife?’ and then it seems that you once were beating your wife. How do you disprove negatives? There’s nothing you can say to get rid of that kind of accusation, unfounded as it might be.”

With 40 years of history as Boulder’s prominent destination for visual arts, the once humble, artist-run organization is quickly growing up to become the city’s frontrunner for cultural anchor.

Now poised to become the single biggest recipient of civic investment in the arts in Boulder’s history, BMoCA bears the burden of proving it is a worthy recipient, not just because of its history or circumstance, but because it can demonstrate it’s the best way to provide what Boulder arts deserves and requires.

“We have a call to increase the prosperity of artists in this city,” Chasansky says. “To support their ability to make a home here and to build a successful business. Wrapped up in that are quality institutions that are a net positive to our creative identity and our cultural economy and the cultural cohesion that comes from having visual artists in our community.

“To have a substantial visual arts museum adds to our portfolio of such assets in an important way. If we are going to continue to be a place where artists come to live and work, there needs to be places for them to show.”

Whether or not that is the current iteration of the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art is yet to be decided.