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Museum of Art, Art Club still at odds over future

STORY BY MARY SCHENKEL, (Week of August 18, 2011)

Construction of the $4 million addition and renovation to the Vero Beach Museum of Art began last week even though the museum and Vero Beach Art Club – its co-lessor of the city-owned land under the building  – remain locked in a dispute over the club’s future role in the edifice.

Museum officials and Vero Beach Art Club members are looking to resolve the differences, which involve club space at the museum and other issues.  The two sides seem eager to not inflame matters by talking publicly about the exact nature of the dispute or where a resolution currently stands.

“I’m very confident we will soon reach an agreement,’ said Lucinda Gedeon, the museum’s executive director. She declined more comment, saying she agreed with Art Club President Rita Zeigler not to discuss the matter.

“The issues are between the museum and the art club,” Zeigler said earlier this week. She said the groups agreed not to discuss the situation until the issues are resolved.

Zeigler added she hoped she could talk at the end of the week.

The dispute arose after the museum and the art club both signed off on a revised lease – the fourth revision in the building’s history – on July 19 at a Vero City Council meeting.

Lawyers for both sides told Council members they needed council approval of the lease so it would not delay construction. They couldn’t pull a permit for the project until council members OK’d the contract.

“We’re happy to assist the museum in going ahead with this project,” said Keith McCormack, the art club’s attorney, before adding there were problems between the club and the museum that would require going to mediation; he did not elaborate on those differences.

“It’s just a standard lease,” said City Manager Jim O’Connor. “Issues did not come up during the discussions.”  He said Peggy Lyons, a city lawyer, told him both sides felt comfortable signing the document.

The dispute over club space at the museum and other issues comes during the museum’s 25th anniversary and the club’s 75th.

The joint effort to build a museum on the city-owned land began more than 30 years ago.

When Jean Armstrong-Warren expressed reluctance at moving to Vero Beach in 1975 due to its lack of an art museum, her late husband George Armstrong responded that they would build one. 

So the couple went to work. 

Utilizing his extensive business acumen and her expertise as a volunteer and fund raiser for the Brooklyn Museum, they founded the Alliance for the Arts in 1978 and started raising money. 

When George Armstrong approached the city about a potential museum site, they suggested he work with the Vero Beach Art Club, which had been promised the Riverside Park location. 

The Art Club, founded by Dorothy Poole in 1936, had been raising money to erect a building to house its exhibits. 

“What we were afraid of is that if they built something it would be really, really small,” recalled Jean Armstrong-Warren.  “The people in government agreed; what they wanted was something really grand. I don’t think the art club could ever have raised that kind of money.”

Alma Lee Loy, chairwoman of the Civic Center Arts Advisory Commission at the time, worked to bring the two organizations together, and in 1981 a 50-year lease was secured from the city with both groups being co-lessees. 

They enlisted the support of the community and raised $2.5 million, enabling the then Center for the Arts to open to the public debt free on Jan. 31, 1986.

“My hope is that we work things out,” said Jean Armstrong-Warren. “The museum is going so beautifully. This is something so good for this area and so unusual for a town this size that we have to do everything we can to continue good feelings. It can and should be worked out.” 

Continually expanding and enhancing its status, the museum was accredited by the American Association of Museums in 1997, completed a $5 million expansion in 1999 and was renamed the Vero Beach Museum of Art in 2002. 

Later enhancements included the Wahlstrom Sculpture Garden, the Alice and Jim Beckwith Sculpture Park and the Laura and Bill Buck Atrium.

A long-time member of the Vero Beach Art Club and the Vero Beach Museum of Art, Marlene Putnam is also a celebrated artist and former art teacher, and served as president of the art club in 1983, when the Alliance for the Arts became the Center for the Arts. 

“Artists are not generally as astute business-wise,” said Putnam, recognizing that museums must be run as a business. “We turn to our canvas and the world goes away.”

“The art club has always wanted the museum to succeed,” said Putnam, maintaining that the most important thing for a working artist is to have an exhibition space. 

While the two organizations have always had a symbiotic relationship, the agreement – first signed in 1985 – has been changed four times.

Staff writer Joseph W. Fenton contributed to this story.