Redefining the Arts Center
Local institution faces down challenging times

The Durango Arts Center, seen here this week, is once again searchign for new direction after Executive Director McCarson Jones resigned after less than a year on the job and the center faces tough budgetary decisions./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Jules Masterjohn

Some think that the Durango Arts Center had the Obama-factor working for it when the organization hired Carson Jones as its executive director last May. Jones inherited a well-established arts organization that had become recently beleaguered by the loss of a longtime executive director, the purchase of the homeless Diamond Circle Melodrama, as well as diminished enthusiasm by the arts community for its gallery exhibits. The 30-something Jones signed up for a nearly monolithic task.

During her eight months at the helm, she has engendered hope within the DAC staff, board and the community. Like Obama, she has inspired younger community members to get involved and has pulled in energetic people to support the cause. Heather Leavitt was hired as the exhibits director in August, and a number of volunteers have rallied to assist in the organization’s mission. Equipped with a master’s degree in organizational conflict resolution, her insights led to some difficult programmatic changes for the DAC. A shrinking economy forced more hard choices on Jones and the organization. Feeling a lack of support to implement additional changes, last week she announced her resignation. This news has shaken many who are close to the organization.

The same week, the organization announced that, at least for this upcoming season, it would forgo hosting the Diamond Circle Melodrama. Rich Fletcher, spokesman and secretary for the DAC’s Board of Directors explained, “The Melodrama proved to be more of a financial burden than we anticipated. Looking ahead in the current economy, and taking into consideration lessons learned from last year, putting on a melodrama with the staff and actors we had last year will not be affordable, so we’re looking at alternatives.”

Fletcher, a senior board member, cited a number of contributing factors in the decision to shelf the Melodrama. “One can postulate that this is a combination of many things: fewer travelers to Durango due to soaring gas prices; our location was not as good as that of the Strater Theatre on Main; the Strater decided to run its own theatre in competition with the Melodrama, creating confusion in the minds of tourists looking for evening theatre; and the cost of rebuilding our own theatre to house the Melodrama all had an impact.”

For Jones, exiting the DAC is a cause for sadness. “I want the Arts Center to be identified as a place for children, adults and families to come to work, to learn, to observe, and be fascinated by what they feel, what they see and what they experience,” she said. “I don’t feel that we are this right now and many changes need to occur. One person cannot do it. The Arts Center has to be a cohesive group – staff and board included.”

In Jones’ estimation, the organization “needs innovation, it needs appeal and it needs a heart.” Contemplating its future, she offered, “I want so many things for this arts center, and I think we have become too many things to too many people. I feel there has been a loss of focus and a loss of our original beginnings. We have to bring it back home and be serious about how we all move forward.”

Linda Bunk served as the DAC executive director from 1989-92 as well doing a stint as a board member in the early 2000s. The organizational impulse to offer more things to more people is not new. “I can say we

always were asking the question, ‘What can or should be taken off our plate?’” she said. “Bigger is not always better.” During her tenure, the question of organizational focus was a topic of discussion at each annual board retreat.

A recently retired board member, JM Jones, believes that the organization’s focus needs to be placed on the visual arts, which provided the beginnings for the organization in 1966. “It seems as though the lack of support and commitment to the visual arts is causing a very real lack of confidence within the visual arts community. There is little emphasis on supporting emerging artists, cutting-edge art or classroom instruction – all key ingredients to the long-term health of a visual arts organization,” she said.

As a nonprofit organization, the community’s interests are represented at the DAC by its volunteer board of directors, a group of individuals who are recruited for two-year terms of service. In Colorado, a board is financially responsible for its organization, and the DAC board is charged, in its bylaws, with both fiscal and programmatic oversight. The executive director is responsible to the board of directors.

Board member Fletcher is candid about the DAC’s current direction. “Our largest failing is that our love of serving the arts has seen us going in so many directions that our hearts were larger than our ability to support everything we believe in. Thus, we are constrained today, more than ever, by the realities of funding, liquidity, cash flow and other harder aspects of operating a service organization. This means that our challenge today is to concentrate on making our mission philanthropically meaningful through financially sustainable offerings. This has required difficult choices and new ways of looking at our programs and services.”

Fletcher said he is very interested in hearing about how the DAC can best fulfill its mission of “advancing the visual and cultural arts for the enrichment of the individual, the community of Durango and Southwest Colorado.”

He continued, “We have offered many meaningful programs and shows that rarely brought in sufficient funds. Most nonprofit arts organizations understand this. That’s where grants and donations play a big role, because not everything artistic is financially supportable. In fact, much of life’s art does not exist to be ‘commercialized.’ Yet, without art, the human experience is less than it could be. Art is essential, and essentially human. The DAC will continue to illuminate and communicate that understanding.” •

For a historical overview of the DAC, go to Check the Archives for Volume 7, No. 23, June 5, 2008, “Arting Around: The Evolution of the Arts.”