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Arts, Government: Strange Bedfellows?

Latest memorandum from cultural arts committee proposes greater Town role in proposed center.

In a draft March 19 memorandum, the Community Cultural Arts Center Citizens' Advisory Committee's governance subcommittee outlined its vision for the management of the proposed Herndon Cultural Arts Center.

Governance responsibility, according to the memo, would be "divided between the Town and a Foundation formed for the express purpose of supporting the Arts Center."

In the subcommittee's latest findings, it gives the town, which will own the building, the responsibility to hire an executive director, based on recommendations from a search committee which includes members of the foundation and town staff.

"This has changed from the original proposal," said committee member Richard Downer. "The original one did not have the Town very involved and my position was if the Town is going to put up probably about $10 million with the land and the improvements, then the citizens can expect the town to have a say."

<b>THE MEMO</b> is by no means final, stressed Melody Fetske, the subcommittee chair as she distributed copies of the report to the full committee last month. "Nothing is written in stone at this time," she said. "It is not yet ready for public consumption."

Ellen Kaminsky, the committee chairman, said she expects to have the issue of "governance nailed down" by the committee's April 23 meeting. "It's important because we can't make any progress on operations or fundraising without it," Kaminsky said.

The executive director, according to the memo, would be responsible for a host of operational and management tasks including, executing arts programming, developing budgets, managing schedules, marketing, renting the facility to groups, coordinating purchase of capital improvements and identifying new programming.

In addition, the Town would provide security, utilities and building and grounds maintenance.

In earlier incarnations and drafts, the cultural arts committee had suggested that the foundation be in charge of hiring and overseeing, through a memorandum of understanding, the executive director. With this draft, that has changed, though the underlying rationale remains the same. "It has long been the committee's recommendation that the 'official' Town be insulated from artistic decisions, which may or may not meet with the views of every citizen," the memo states. "Art is both personal and subjective and not everyone shares our view that our society is based on individual freedoms of expression, especially when tax dollars are involved."

Kaminsky said the question of governance is very "challenging," and praised the work of the subcommittee for its work to find that "delicate balance."

<b>THE MARCH 19</b> draft has not been circulated to council members, though Mayor Richard Thoesen, who chaired the original arts committee, has seen a copy of it. "From what I have read, I think it is right on target," Thoesen said, recently. "I like the fact that the executive director answers to the Town Manager and I appreciate the fact that the Town maintains full control of the operations."

Other than that, the mayor declined to comment on the draft, preferring to let the committee operate without input from him or the council.

Vice mayor Carol Bruce had not seen the draft and she reserved judgment until she was given a copy. "I don't know why the mayor has seen it, but I'm not too worried," Bruce said, "Ellen [Kaminsky] gets it."

Councilman Harlon Reece, a strong supporter of the arts, said he hoped the "lines of communication" were clearly laid out. Reece, who has not seen the memo, said he agreed with the committee's assertion that the building should be a town-managed facility.

Kaminsky said there will be ample opportunity for input from the council, adding that it was not the intent of the committee "to present a document full of surprises."

When a final draft is made available to the council, Councilman Dennis Husch will be looking to see "the choices made on governance and what the cost is going to be because what I am most interested in is the bottom line."

Husch said that the operation of the facility depends, in large part, on how much it costs to operate the facility.

The chairman acknowledged that it was impossible to settle on a document that completely satisfies all issues and concerns of each individual councilman. "We want a creature that is embraceable," Kaminsky said. "Our goal is to have a majority of the council satisfied. Ultimately, this has to be workable solution because eventually they will have to turn around and sell it to their constituents."

<b>THE COMMITTEE NOTED</b> that the functions of art may in fact collide with the function of government. "The function of art can be to arouse, anger and promote public debate, not exactly the position we want to put elected officials in."

Reece acknowledged politics and art don't always make mix. Since the Elden Street Players controversial performance of "Love! Valour! Compassion!" opened up late last month, Reece says he has heard some complaints about the graphic nature of the gay-themed play. "I do believe that if and when we have a downtown facility where that potential may exist more than it does now," he said.

"It's a slippery slope," Husch, who has also heard complaints about the nudity-laden play, said. "On the one hand, you don't want a government to get into artistic freedom issues, so a government has to be careful with what they say about a subject matter. On the other hand, if it was the intent of the Elden Street Players and the Council for the Arts to garner public support for the creation of the arts center then this was the wrong way of going about doing it."

<b>"IT WILL BE IMPORTANT </b>in both hiring staff and maintaining our program to make certain that the executive director has a great deal of freedom to base decisions on the art and not the politics," the committee said. "However, isolating the executive director from the rest of the senior staff of the Town and tying his/her contract to a MOU with a non-profit does not offer stability either."

In its memo, the committee argued that it is important for the arts center "to be part of official Town operations, responsible to the citizens of Herndon, as opposed to a stand alone operation."

The foundation, which committee members say would operate much like a Board of Trustees, would help develop arts programming, identify new programming, provide design recommendations and donate capital improvements.

The draft recommendations state that the committee said the "single most important factor for success in running an arts center is the vision and competence of the executive director."

The subcommittee also recommends that the executive director, hired by the Town, would report directly to Town Manager, while "serving at the pleasure of the Town Council."

"The Town Manager is an administrator, not directly tied to the day-to-day political pressures, as are members of the Town Council," the committee wrote. "In this way the staff of the arts center can be fully integrated into the benefits of 'belonging' to the Town and yet experience the greatest degree of separation from political pressures."

The role of the nonprofit foundation is an important one, the committee said. A foundation should be utilized as a guide to "artistic excellence." If this proposal is accepted, the foundation would be run by a board of directors who would be representative of the "main groups" of artists within the new downtown facility.

"In addition to providing policy guidelines for center administration, the foundation would facilitate a partnership between the arts center and the user groups of the facility."