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Turmoil at the Contemporary Arts Center

Charles Maldonado reports on the CAC: high-profile departures, membership woes and New Orleans artists in open revolt

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  Admissions for fundraising events in 2011 were $108,000, down from earlier years. Perhaps most troubling for the long-term viability of the museum, membership dues had fallen to $142,000, down more than $50,000 from the year 2000. Shalett, who works in the development department, says current CAC membership is about 1,400.

  While other revenues declined, rental and hospitality revenue rose to $641,000 in 2011. During tough economic times, many institutions have had to shift their focus to make ends meet. But, Mackie says, rentals have become distractions for curators at the CAC.

  "I was asked what it was like [when I was] at the New Museum," Mackie says. "It does tons of rentals and raises far more money than CAC could ever imagine." At the New Museum, she says, she never had contacts with the rentals department, but "at the CAC, there were conversations every day about rentals."

  In the current fiscal year — 2011-2012 — Shalett reports $185,000 in "net film-related revenue." Of that, $82,000 came from renting out the fourth floor and $103,000 came from film shoots.

  "Of the 11 film companies that filmed in the CAC in [fiscal year 2012], the building was closed to the public on 2 occasions, in January and April respectively," Shalett writes in an email. "Four of those films used just warehouses and didn't affect CAC operations. No filming took place in Lupin Gallery on the 2nd floor."

  Then there are the groups listed as the theater's partners. CAC's website identifies only one "resident artist": The New Orleans Ballet Theatre (NOBT). However, NOBT pays rent to the CAC — more than $10,000 in 2009-2010, and more than $25,000 the year before that.

  "They're a tenant. Their rent is subsidized to some extent," Shalett says. She adds that NOBT presents programming and offers classes at the CAC. The ballet company's online calendar for the past year year showed only three performance series — none of them at the CAC.

  Southern Rep theater company, which recently ending a monthlong production of Shirley Valentine, has rented the CAC's theater for plays since its lease at the Shops at Canal Place ended earlier this year. "The CAC and its staff have been tremendously supportive of our work there and have been extremely positive to work with," Aimee Hayes, director of Southern Rep, wrote in an email to Gambit.

  And the New Orleans Film Society (NOFS), which holds screenings there, splits costs and ticket sales with the museum, says NOFS executive director Jolene Pinder. Like the ballet company, NOFS rents office space from the CAC at a subsidized rate, Shalett says. NOFS has a mutually beneficial relationship with the museum. Pinder says she tries to pick films that correspond to what's going on at the museum, and CAC helps promote NOFS events. Regarding film studio and party rentals, Pinder says, "They are renting out that space to make their budget."

  CAC's financial difficulties and its increasing dependence on third-party rentals may stem, in part, from the fact that its development department is understaffed. Tax filings from 2010 claim an almost $1 million personnel budget for 80 employees.

  Cameron disputes that number. "The figures you're mentioning have to be pre-Katrina," he says. "The full-time staff when I was there ... was well under 30 people."

  Shalett says she can't confirm that number, but adds, "We have a high number of part-time employees who work on installations of exhibitions, who work on performances, who work on specific programs."

  Though the CAC has no dedicated grant writer, development director Christina Carr devotes much of her time to writing grants, Shalett says. (Gambit learned late last week that Carr has since resigned.)

  Mackie says having a development director in charge of writing grants is not enough. "There's a whole slew of organizations that would like to fund things in New Orleans," she says. "I know you have to fight for funding. Before you could write five applications. Now you have to write 25. But there wasn't any hustle [at the CAC]."

  Weigel disputes that the staff was lax on seeking grants. "While it has been a reality since Katrina that most of the staff at the CAC has had to multitask in their job," he writes, "we most certainly have been consistently writing grant requests to local and national foundations; local, statewide and national government sources; and corporate sources."

The CAC has taken steps to remedy some of these problems. According to one member, who asked not to be named, the board of directors is taking a more active interest in pushing for improvements. Some of the museum's managing staff, including Shalett, attended an April 25 panel discussion at the Joan Mitchell Center to receive feedback from local artists on the museum's direction.

  Shalett says the CAC has been actively reaching out to local artists and including them in developing the new strategic plan, which has been ongoing since last fall. Since April, architect and former CAC board member Allen Eskew has been conducting focus groups with community leaders, funders and artists. Eskew was unable to grant an interview without permission from the CAC, which, despite repeated requests, was not given by press time.

"We've involved the artists, visual and performance artists, in this strategic planning process, so we can deepen that conversation with a broader understanding of the use of the building and our financial reality," Shalett says. (Bravo, for one, says he and his group were never contacted.)

  "As to what other institutions are doing that I'd like to see the CAC expand on in its own programming is the community outreach and engagement component," Weigel writes.

  The presentation of the CAC's 2012 Strategic Plan will take place June 11 at 6 p.m. at the museum. The public is invited to the presentation.

— Will Coviello contributed to this report.

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