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Sunday 02.22.09

« Design Media | Main | fallacy performance »

New PNCA and MoCC integration details and analysis

Here's a follow up on the PNCA/MoCC merger. In the past week I've spoken with both Tom Manley, president of the Pacific Northwest College of Art and Kathy Abraham Chairman of the Museum of Contemporary Craft's Board... so PORT has some important details for you now. I apologize for this having taken me so long but I've got some major projects of my own at the moment.

tom_manley_01.jpg
PNCA President, optimist and soon to be craft/design Museum President Tom Manley

Despite all I've heard, I'm still just as cautious as before... though I feel PNCA is less in danger of jumping the shark and damaging itself. The school also develops an opportunity to launch its curatorial studies program much faster. That's important since I consider PNCA's fate to be nearly analogous to Portland's goals as a serious art city.

Frankly, my concerns on PORT about endowments, public perception, institutional capabilities and autonomy are pretty much common sense issues …and I suspect anyone who thinks otherwise has never sat on a non profit board at a major institution, and or doesn't have enough contact and shared confidences amongst Portland's art community professionals to know that these issues are exactly what people are discussing.

Also, Manley made the great point that not long ago PNCA was in a very similar situation to MoCC... having moved over a decade ago with no endowment and an expanded mission. Still, that cuts both ways, is this a good risk? If the new curatorial studies MFA is successful it makes a lot of sense (PNCA keeps its momentum while waiting for the 511 building to be completed). Right now all curatorial issues are under the Provost Greg Ware's purview (in an oversight not hands on kinda way) and without a distinct curatorial program for the college, the somewhat patchwork results (both excellent and otherwise at the Feldman) are the school's most inconsistent element. The museum does bring a lot more exhibition program rigor to the school. Will the addition of the museum rectify that entire situation, no... but it will help. Manley indicated that once the 511 building is rennovated a director of exhibitions coordinating the museum and the 5-7 other "academic" galleries might be in order... (disclosure: I had a solo show at PNCA in 2008)

Now let's get to specifics about the merger:

Endowment:

As we were first to point out, the issue of an adequate and intelligently allocated endowment is still the key question here. Both Manley and Abraham see it as a cornerstone as well. And, yes PNCA will be implementing a fundraising campaign for the museum, consisting of both pressing general fund and endowment dollar needs (endowment funds are tougher to raise). It's a question of short term needs and long excellence. I'll also get back to how this situation developed and why MoCC ultimately lacked a way to pull itself out of financial quicksand, later.

The success of this new fundraising campaign and the ratio of immediately needed general fund dollars to endowment will have a lot to do with the success of this project. If the museum has less than a 3-5 million dollar endowment by 2014 this might not work. Manley cautions that merely looking at endowment #'s isn't the only measure of success... I agree but those #'s if allocated properly will indicate how much leverage and autonomy the museum will have within the College.

Ultimately, it's a question of whether they will be a strong museum or a weak one. Manley and Abraham are both at this point committed to a strong museum model but time will tell and this fundraising campaign is a very difficult thing to pull off at the moment. Everyone seems to know it too. Furthermore, PNCA will alter its current capital campaign goals to reflect the needs of this merger. The actual #'s and the results of those efforts when finalized will speak volumes.

Legal status and governance:

Another key to this merger is the Museum of Contemporary Craft will be required to retain it's separate 501.c3 status at least through 2014 because of the complicated "new market tax credits" used to purchase the museum's building. It might seem like a minor point but the legal separation has several major consequences, which make this integration more likely to work through paradoxically leaving an escape route if things dont work out. Despite this fact both PNCA and the museum are working in good faith to make this succeed. (I have no idea why this part of the plan was not reported earlier).

Let's face it this is a somewhat forced situation and rather unlike the typical organic way most university museums develop (where a wealthy patron gives cash and often a collection ala UC Berkeley, The Hammer [which lost its benefactor shortly after opening so had a governance vacuum], etc.). Instead, we have a very cash strapped aspiring museum needing to merge because it can't pull itself out of a financial catch 22.

The separate 501.c3 is a major factor because this means the Museum will be required to have a separate board of directors from the school's governing board. Yes, there can be overlap between the two boards and Tom Manley will sit on both (pretty standard for university museums) but I believe this body dedicated to due diligence for the museum will keep their vision and agendas more autonomous... as a course of action even Manley will put his museum board member hat on and think what is best for the museum. All arts professionals compartmentalize their lives and this is just another case in point. Tom also indicated that the museum will also have an acquisitions board (if they don't already have one)… so yes as expected they are following "best practices" so flattery of PNCA donors doesn't override the integrity of the collection, which is ultimately MoCC curator Namita Wiggers and the acquisition committee's job. With a committee, Wiggers will have a supporting body within the college structure too (keeping her from being isolated politically).

By having legal separation (though wholly owned by PNCA) it gives this new governance arrangement two distinct voices and some checks and balances. This is a good thing because the school's agenda (teaching first) and the museum's (collection first) merely intersect and this structure explores and formalizes that intersection… technically this isn't a museum of PNCA history it will be a craft and design museum with increasing emphasis on design than before the merger.

The museum's sporadic but potentially rich intersection with the college's chief aims is both a strength and a weakness and like any good relationship it's the working balance that matters. It's a wait and see situation. Manley and Abraham are upbeat, many PNCA staff are bemused and resigned (i.e. bureaucratically watchful that the museum enhances their activities not drain them of funds).

Overall, the school and museum ultimately have somewhat different goals, balancing student needs and the demands a collection places on an institution. They can mutually exist with those different agendas but it will take a lot of care and some institutional fences. It allows the museum and school to grow together or apart depending how responsive PNCA is to its new division and vice versa.

For a more extreme benchmark comparison, the Rose Museum at Brandeis does not have a separate legal status from the University like MoCC will have. Happily, so far the plan is that MoCC will retain its members as constituents as well (i.e. if you give money to the museum or get a membership that money supports the museum not student scholarships etc.) This will help out PNCA actually... as MoCC will be expected to fix some of its own problems through increased membership and targeted fundraising. Right now they can't do that with their lack of cash, lack of key fundraising staff etc…. that's where PNCA helps them get out of the catch 22, it takes money and a director of development to raise large amounts of money). We will see how the final deal works out. This is a somewhat forced situation and forced situations rarely go as planned. It might have miraculous results coordinating design, education art and rigorous craft or it might simply end up like two dancing partners who get in each other's way.

Interpreting the mistakes of the past:

Endowments again:

The museum got into their lack of endowment mess because their capital campaign (2006) was foreshortened by the tantalizing opportunity of moving into the Desoto building in the Pearl District (not that they lost connection with their donor base as some have surmised). The time frame for that move left only a year for fund raising, which was really too short to raise the 5 million dollars (or so) they really needed as an endowment. Hence, they made the move without any endowment and used the funds raised purely for capital costs. Again, then director David Cohen (and the then board that approved it) are going to take the brunt of the blame for that decision but it made sense at the time.

Now 74 years old the museum really hasn't been a true museum its entire life. Most of that time it was a club with a collection and a sales a gallery... hence the reason a 74 year old institution did not have an endowment. In my mind a museum must have an endowment to be considered a true museum.

Last ditch campaign?

To answer one key question, why wasn't there a more ardent campaign to fix the museum before seeking a merger? Basically, MoCC had a leadership/funding vacuum so severe in 2008 that it could not effectively undertake such a necessary endeavor. By comparison sake MoCC was in infinitely worse shape than MOCA was at the same time. MOCA was living off its endowment, which is very bad… but MoCC had no endowment and was living off a loan made against its building as an asset, which is incredibly bad. In Portland's case an Eli Broad style angel failed to present themselves to save MoCC as MOCA benefitted from.

Also by July 2007, when the museum opened in its new location in the Pearl then MoCC Director David Cohen was pretty much exhausted from the move out of the Corbett Ave building. What's more he lost his fundraising director in Feb 2008. Then that person's replacement in July 2008.

With two strikes already by mid 2008, finding a replacement director of development had proven difficult (Cohen will have to take the blame for this but it is understandable and his decision to make the move was good… just too short a timetable in hindsight). Also, it takes funds (getting short by September 2008) to raise significant dollars like the 2-5 million the museum needed. To put it simply, without a war chest and a great development person the museum of Contemporary Craft was already at nearly the point of no return when its new board convened in September 2008 (the new board took over in July 2008 but it is very typical that non profit boards are dormant over the summer). To put it simply, new board chairman Kathy Abraham inherited a huge mess (thankfully the O discovered the board chairperson had changed… noticeably, a few days after we pointed it out) .

Then to put the nail in the last ditch fundraising attempt David Cohen resigned after the stock markets crashed in October and the museum stopped having the option of extending the line of credit it was living on. They were in institutional quicksand and needed outside help.

Framing the current merger challenges:

The chief challenge can be characterized as a crisis of endowment and a question of integration of core values.

Since day 1 PORT has taken the lead pointing out THE primary issue, endowments, and the lack there of.

Besides the endowment issue this MoCC/PNCA merger presents a difficult integration of very different core values with some intersections and its there where my reservations are most present. The Museum of Contemporary Craft is ultimately devoted to its collection, its curatorial and facilities' priorities are all focused around that evolving collection and there is only so much of that which can be adjusted without compromising integrity. Dissimilarly, PNCA is devoted to maximizing the way resources and opportunities are marshaled for their student body with very wide interests (including some craft, art, design and rigorous curation… which are in short supply at PNCA because it hasn't been endowed fully.. these things do take time). PNCA's student body's needs are insatiable and wide ranging (or should be) so the school's faculty and staff constantly work beyond the call of duty to provide broad based art education. Furthermore, the craft museum's collection is very idiomatic, you can't overnight add some design to its focus and make it work with a 74 year old collection. Manley assures me he is committed to the integrity and growth of that collection, but will acquisitions be a high enough institutional priority when push comes to shove? To that Manley openly stated he would welcome any donor that felt strongly enough to endow an acquisitions fund for the museum. This would be a great step forward, but it's a difficult thing to expect. Still you never know unless you ask.

What's more, the PNCA merger with MoCC does allow the museum to really develop its educational outreach and PNCA its curatorial studies program which were basically on hold until the 511 building is completed.. I estimate 5-8 years. It gives PNCA a project to work on and continue its momentum as one of the fastest growing art schools in the country. I'm thrilled because Portland currently lacks a curatorial studies program. Manley also rightly points out that, "8 or 9 curatorial graduate students is a huge resource for Namita Wiggers," the museum's curator. At the same time her efforts should still be mostly centered on the museum and too much teaching is definitely an achilles heel of this plan to be watched. The museum has 3 main assets; the collection, the building and Namita Wiggers… (maybe not in that order).

Wiggers will likely be the chief intellectual architect of this merger and the additional focus on design. Design is very outward in effect, craft has an inherently inward or hermetic focus on integrity of creation (see PORT's Glenn Adamson interview for craft definitions). There are important intersections between design, craft, art and this merger might allow both PNCA and MoCC take a lead in defining those important areas, the success of which will be wholly determined by the excellence of the students PNCA graduates and the programming the museum puts out. How much of Wiggers time will be spent on the frequently time intensive PNCA staff meetings, committees and occasional classes? The right mix here may be the hidden factor in determining this merger's success.

Lastly, the risk of integration is the drain on each's respective strengths; the museum's rigor, well defined mission and sharp curatorial staff and for the art school its cash and recent momentum. Many people have started to talk of PNCA like it's a big fish, making disturbing comparisons that Tom Manley is the new John Buchanan?... but technically PNCA is still an underdog (important distinctions: Tom and I have run into each other in the cereal isle of Fred Meyer, Buchanan and I casually would run into each other outside of Paley's… big difference there folks).

Once PNCA completes the 511 building and have at least a 30 million dollar endowment that gives at least some "funded" support to most of its missions we can reconsider them, but until then they aren't there. Besides to give due respect John Buchanan is still the most successful fundraiser Portland has ever seen (140 million+ raised for his successful master plan for the Portland Art Museum).

Conclusion:

Right now this merger is pretty much a done deal and I've voiced my concerns and hopes. From a PR standpoint PNCA needs to look like its riding to the museum's rescue (because it is, but skeptiscim is natural). Also, a full timeline will help people sort out this compicated situation so Portland can learn from this drama.

I hope PNCA is strengthened by a strong curatorial studies program and its students get a taste of museum rigor from this merger. I hope the museum can integrate design without losing its integrity while getting an injection of PNCA's momentum in Portland's design community. I hope hope that the museum and existing college staff find the synergies predicted. But most importantly, I hope both the museum and PNCA find this path they've chosen together as one of excellence, with that as a pole star this might just work.

It might seem like a dull truism but the thing about excellence, one can never predict the difficulties that one must face in its pursuit.

Posted by Jeff Jahn on February 22, 2009 at 21:39 | Comments (0)


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