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Art Club shelves plan for own clubhouse

STORY BY MICHELLE GENZ, (Week of September 5, 2013)

The Vero Beach Art Club remains a club with no immediate prospect of its own clubhouse, despite plans announced in March to build on land it co-leases with the Vero Beach Museum of Art.

In January, the club’s board voted unanimously to move forward with building a permanent home after studying options presented by its relocation committee. But the club’s president says those building plans are now “moot” because of lack of funds and an inability to “get a mutual agreement from the Museum to build on the land.”

In a letter to membership, Mary Ellen Koser, art club president, doesn’t rule out the resurrection of the clubhouse proposal sometime in the future.

“The decision to build or renovate a Home of Our Own will be left to future presidents and members of the Art Club,” Koser wrote in the club’s June-July newsletter.

The museum had no comment on the club’s decision beyond confirmation of the status quo – the club using space for a fee in the museum.

The museum has been the club’s home base for 28 years, with the art club holding its meetings and events within the museum’s soaring spaces and sunny studios. A natural symbiosis evolved: art club members are on the museum’s art faculty and volunteer as docents for its exhibits. Club events draw tens of thousands to the museum, while the museum’s gravitas burnishes the club’s reputation.

Though the museum, which owns its own building, imposed space use fees on the club for the first time two years ago, a move that sparked a months-long clash, it will continue to house the club for the foreseeable future. At the same time, tensions have eased palpably between the two entities, with leaders expressing a renewed spirit of cooperation and a sunny outlook for the club’s future, as well as the museum’s expansion plans, which include more space for the art club.

“If somebody had come out of the woodwork and said, ‘I love the art club and I want to give you $1.5 million, and put my name on your gallery,’ we would have been delighted,” said Alicia Quinn, last year’s club vice-president and current chairman of the Under the Oaks art festival. “Did I expect it? No. Some people were more hopeful than I was.”

The club failed to find funding in spite of the fact that the 77-year-old club’s 500 members include some of the island’s most prominent supporters of the arts.

Under the Oaks is Vero’s signature art event; with 80,000- to 90,000 attendees, it is by far the Treasure Coast’s largest annual gathering. In addition to organizing the festival single-handedly, the club holds open studios and workshops, raises money for college scholarships and provides art supplies to school teachers and summer camps. It also holds juried art shows and exhibits its members’ artworks in public places.

This isn’t the first time the club had building plans fall apart. In 1982, it gave its clubhouse fund – $47,000 – over to the group raising money to build the $2 million museum. A 1985 agreement still in effect guarantees the art club use of museum space but allows the museum director to set the fees. Though they are currently greatly discounted from the standard rate, they could rise at the director’s discretion.

In March, the club sent a letter of intent to the city and museum officials saying it wanted to build its own gallery, studios and meeting space on an acre of the co-leased land.

But efforts to get the museum to sign off on the land went nowhere; meanwhile, no large donor stepped up. “I don’t find this frustrating in any way,” says Quinn. A former member of the relocation committee, she seems fine with not relocating.

“We have a wonderful network going on here and great cooperation between the cultural groups and I think that’s something we need to foster and encourage,” Quinn says. “I don’t think you’ll find anyone happier than I am. We have a good relationship with the museum and we have a good operation.”

“The museum and the art club are still working very well together,” says Julianne Martensen, who chairs Art by the Sea, January’s juried show. “I think it’s tragic that the relationship was strained and hopefully that can change.”

Ironically, the space use dispute and the clubhouse effort seemed to galvanize the club by encouraging communication between members and leadership. As a result, Martensen believes that the club is enjoying something of a renaissance, raising its standards for the artworks in its shows, recruiting new members with vitality and talent, and even sharing art skills with more encouragement for novices.

“A lot of the awareness – good, bad or indifferent – was heightened over the last few years,” says Martensen. “People became invigorated.”

Still, a faction remains that would like to come out from under the museum’s “landlord” authority. Some feel the issue could arise as soon as new leadership is elected in 2015.

Chris Pierce, a since-resigned club board member, suggests the best route for the club might be to relinquish its leasehold and stay rent-free in the museum, an idea floated by museum attorney Ralph Evans in the 2011 space use negotiations. At the time a letter went out to Evans laying claim to the balance of the leased land, and some club members were valuing their half of the lease at $1 million.

Alicia Quinn disagrees. “The museum cannot buy out our lease or trade out anything. It’s not a commodity that can be sold or traded.”

Besides, she says the club would never be an impediment to museum expansion. “How on earth could the art club ever possibly say ‘We’re not going to let you do that’? Why would we? We’re community-minded people.”

Martensen says the debate over a home has brought about “a slow change in the culture and the attitude” of the club.

“The club’s trying to be a lot more transparent and really work for the membership. I know decisions have to be made and certain protocols put in place. But membership is now becoming more aware of the fact that they can say, ‘Hey wait a minute. Can we have a discussion on this?’“

She says a perfect example was the special meeting called to discuss the potential move of the art club. “They had a great turnout, and got membership involved. Lots of them played devil’s advocate, but there was conversation, there was community.

“Once that opens up, it trickles down into other areas,” says Martensen. ”In art classes and workshops, people aren’t afraid to ask for help or constructive criticism. At one point, people didn’t dare ask for constructive criticism. It used to be, ‘Oh, they’ll make fun of me.’“

New programs are being initiated this year at the high school and college level, aimed at diversifying membership, says Quinn.

“I think we’re attracting people that have different experiences that are a little broader,” says  Martensen. “They bring something innovative to the table.”

The brand of the club “sort of lost its luster,” she says. “New members are adding a little bit deeper dimension to it.”

Ultimately the dollar-a-year lease will expire in 2050 and both the museum and the club will likely face a far less gracious landlord in the city.

“There’s a lot of security in having your own land and building rather than having the city changing things every few years. Future groups are going to deal with these issues. We are very secure for the next 37 years. But sooner or later, you have to be prepared for it. It’s going to cost us more.”
And in the meantime, she says the vast majority of club members are happy at the museum.

“Members who are actually using the club to promote their art are 15 to 20 percent of the club. The others are members supporting the arts. These people are very happy with their office at the museum. They like having our evening meetings at the museum.  It’s a very prestigious place in town. They like being associated with it. Who wouldn’t?”