Art association

After guiding the Salem Art Association through a difficult year, Executive Director Sandra Burnett retires

The Salem Art Association has struggled financially this year as the pandemic forced the cancellation of a major event and resulted in staff cuts. A review of their records by Salem Reporter shows it is now on a more solid financial footing, although the reopening of the Bush Barn Art Center remains uncertain.

The Bush Barn Art Center on Thursday, October 22. (Amanda Loman / Salem Reporter)

After more than a decade as the head of one of Salem’s oldest arts organizations, Sandra Burnett is retiring at the end of the year.

Burnett, 70, leaves behind a Salem Art Association that has so far survived the pandemic with a mix of staff cuts and new grants, according to a Salem Reporter review of recent monthly financials.

“We have been wise in our spending, our finances are good. We have not touched the endowment, ”said Laura Tesler, the new chair of the board of directors. “We are better off than a lot of other 501 c3s right now,” referring to nonprofits.

But with the pandemic still raging, uncertainty hangs over the association’s main programs, including the Bush Barn Art Center, which has remained closed since March even as other local galleries have opened over the course of the year. was to close again last week.

The walk was not always smooth.

Staff turnover has added to the challenges, and the association has been without a gallery director since David Wilson resigned in July. He told Salem Reporter he left due to a dispute with Burnett over the organization’s vision and said he objected to the lack of a clear plan for the reopening of the gallery.

The association has been working on virtual programs since the spring and plans to set up an online marketplace to sell works of art that would have previously been available in the gallery store. It’s been in the works since September, and Burnett said she expects it to launch over Thanksgiving weekend.

Burnett has announced his intention to retire from the association’s executive committee mid-year, promising to guide the organization through the pandemic and leave it in good shape for its successor.

She’s been operating from her home in western Washington since Oregon’s work-at-home order went into effect in March and plans to stay there and focus on her own artwork.

“It’s time. I’m not a spring chicken anymore and there are other things I want to do,” Burnett said.

Alicia Bay, Sandra Burnett and Nathan Bay attend the Clay Ball on Saturday February 22 in Salem to support the Salem Art Association. (Mary Louise VanNatta / Special to Salem Reporter)

The Salem Art Association was formed in 1919 as the Salem Arts League and moved to Bush’s Pasture Park in 1953, originally operating in the historic Bush House. In 1965, the association moved into the old stable behind the house, which became the Bush Barn Art Center.

Since arriving in 2009, Burnett has overseen a substantial expansion of the association, including the opening of the annex, an addition to the Bush Barn Art Center in 2016, and the spin-off of the Bush House Museum into an organization at separate non-profit.

The members of the council attribute to him the merit of having constituted the financial reserves of the association while adding programs.

“Under his leadership, the Salem Art Association flourished, moving from a financially fragile organization to a more stable and forward-looking platform for the future of the arts in Salem,” the board wrote in a press release announcing Burnett’s retirement.

Chris Neider, who oversees the city of Salem’s transit occupancy tax, which funds local arts organizations including the Salem Art Association, said Burnett has a strong fundraising track record and that under Under its leadership, the association has become one of the most financially stable non-profit arts organizations. in the city.

“It will be interesting and a new dynamic. She definitely has big shoes to fill, one that will fill her place, ”said Neider.

The coronavirus pandemic has taken its toll on many nonprofits that have seen major fundraising events canceled, donor contributions dry up and program revenues evaporate.

The arts association was better placed than many to weather the storm. The city owns the Bush Barn Art Center and rents it to the association free of charge while paying for 80% of utilities.

Art covers the walls as the Salem Art Association prepares for the opening of its annual Young Artist Showcase on March 7, 2020 (Rachel Alexander / Salem Reporter)

Yet board reports and financial records show the year started off in a rough spot, as the association drew $ 35,000 from its reserves to make payroll that month for the first time. since Burnett took over.

Burnett said this was necessary to cover income that did not come in as quickly as expected.

The end of the year is usually the leanest time for the association, she said, and she expected to put the money back on reserve by March.

This did not happen because the pandemic struck, the Bush Barn Center had to close and Burnett decided to cancel the annual art fair and festival, a major July event that attracts artists from the North. west in Salem and brings in about $ 100,000 to the association. Instead, the event took place virtually, generating much less revenue.

Burnett has temporarily laid off all employees. At the end of March, financial records show the association had only $ 7,377 in cash and owed the artists more than $ 16,000 in reimbursement for art fair registrations.

Burnett submitted a revised “emergency” budget to the board to cover April through December, which planned to cut payroll costs in half through layoffs and reduced hours, and did not spend than $ 341,000 instead of an expected annual budget of just over $ 1 million.

In April, she said the association had returned many employees to their regular hours, expecting federal relief to come soon.

A subsequent conflict between the employees led several members of the staff to leave. The events director left in May. Burnett said his departure was an “HR issue” unrelated to financial challenges, but declined to provide details. Wilson left in July.

Wilson said he was reprimanded for questioning the gallery’s lack of plans to reopen and for pushing the association to do more virtual programming early in the year once the expanse of the closure would become clear. He said he did not understand why the art center remained closed to the public, forgoing income from his shop which also directly supports local artists, while other local galleries reopened over the summer.

Burnett declined to discuss staffing issues, but said that in general, the financial pressures the association has faced this year have compounded existing differences among staff over how the association should go from the before.

“Sometimes there are conflicts within a group of staff that management needs to act on,” Burnett said. “You have to defend the organization before all of these other things.”

She said she didn’t think reopening the gallery over the summer was prudent, although other arts organizations like the Hallie Ford Museum of Art have reopened, due to the gallery’s small size. , the fact that many Gallery Guide volunteers are elderly and at high risk, and the possibility of an increase in Covid cases that would force another closure.

She said she chose not to hire a new gallery director to save money and leave the choice to the new executive director.

“It’s a financial consideration – how do you fundraise to keep the gallery open when hardly anyone is coming?” Burnett said, speaking in early November before another statewide shutdown forced art galleries and museums to close again.

The association received $ 102,000 in cash from the federal paycheck protection program in mid-May, which covered personnel costs until the virtual art fair ended in July. He also received nearly $ 20,000 from the Oregon Cultural Trust.

As a result, most of the 11 employees are back, working on digital events and exhibits and planning next year’s art fair, Burnett said. She rehired the association’s director of events, Stephanie Patterson, in October.

“The staff we have now are absolutely fabulous. They work as a team, they support each other, ”she said.

A poem by Joy L. McDowell in the window of the Bush Barn Art Center on Thursday, October 22. (Amanda Loman / Salem Reporter)

The association’s YouTube channel has posted dozens of videos since the start of the pandemic, some demonstrating techniques like the use of a pottery wheel, while others guide children through art activities they they can do it at home using materials from the association.

An exhibition titled “The Collaborative Body” is currently underway in the annex, with 15 artists working, one at a time, to paint the walls in anticipation of a possible reopening. The exhibit is modeled after the board game where one player draws a head for a body on a sheet of paper, then folds the paper back, leaving the next player to draw a torso to match a head they haven’t seen. .

Participating artists will paint bodies on the walls in the same way, working on one piece without seeing the whole.

“It’s one way to interact with each other, but one at a time,” Burnett said.

Tesler and board member Matthew Boulay are on a search committee for a new association director and said they hope to hire someone within the next six months.

Boulay said he had received around 100 requests.

“We’re excited for the opportunity to move forward, but we’ll definitely miss Sandra,” said Boulay. “We have nothing but good things to say about her and are collectively sad that she is leaving.”

Tesler said the association optimistically plans to host the Art Fair in person next summer and hopes to reopen the Bush Barn Art Center earlier in 2021. With so much uncertainty about the pandemic, there is no of fixed date.

“Through this, we have found ways to serve the artistic community. We hope to continue this, ”said Boulay. “None of us are happy to keep our doors closed. “

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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