LAST WEDNESDAY evening, while looking ahead to their intriguing New Prometheans International Fire Festival in October, the Center on Contemporary Art survived a death-defying walk across hot coals in its boardroom. This isn't news; CoCA, now in its 20th year of operation, has long been on the fiscal critical list. "It's been going from crisis to crisis with no long-term strategic planning," says director Katie Kurtz. "We have ambitious and awesome programming, but it's been this whole snowball effect."
At last Wednesday's board meeting, however, things took a turn for the worse. The Center's two remaining staffers walked in with drafted letters of resignation. The meeting "became a little more heated than usual when our staff, Katie and Jordan [Howland], advised the board that due to insufficient staffing and funding, they were going to have to leave at the end of the month," says board member Kirk Portmann. "There was pleading, groveling, and begging for them to stay."
CoCA is overworked, understaffed, about $30,000 in debt, and owes some back pay to former codirector Steve Tremble, who left in June. And CoCA must vacate its current, rent-free space on December 31 of this year. "A lot of people want to see CoCA survive," Kurtz says. "It's weird to talk about it in those terms, but that's what it's come down to."
But before the doors were locked and the dirges began to play, CoCA showed signs of life. Last Saturday, Portmann announced, "An angel has stepped forward to give us some dough within the last 24 hours. It's enough to find a new place. The first and foremost priority is to hire additional staff."
THE DONATION represents new hope as well, because it may give CoCA the institutional strength to survive. There's now some money to work with, the substantial—the amount was not available at press time—grant, "plus other significant financial pledges from board members," says Portmann. Significantly, the currently anonymous donor will only contribute "provided that CoCA improve its board and business plan," says Portmann. The staff is preparing its own list of conditions for staying, including a raise, health benefits, a managing director, and another support staffer.
"I'm hopeful that with the new funding in place and some additional staff support on the way, they'll agree to stay on," says Portmann. "We are developing a plan to address CoCA's financial stabilization, long-term funding, and location needs, about which you'll be hearing more in the near future."
CoCA has been somewhat eclipsed by the publicity blitz for other institutions, chiefly the new Consolidated Works arts center. But as welcome as Con Works and other nonprofit arts organizations are, none can yet match the illustrious high points of CoCA's visual arts record nor its hard-core, underground style. CoCA's hopes are high for upcoming Painting Marathon (September 15-16), the year's big fund-raiser.
"Finally we're going to take the time to put some long-range structures in place," says Kurtz. "That's what I've been pushing for."