Picturing agreement

ART

Fight over gallery could be near end

December 16, 2003|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

After weeks of a surprisingly bitter dispute between the city and the Friends of School 33 Art Center over $200,000 earmarked for the city-owned gallery, the outlines of a compromise may be in sight.

However, making any deal stick will still require more patience - and trust - than either side has shown so far.

The problems between the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts and the Friends of School 33, the gallery's board, first surfaced in August, when the city agency hired Jan Angevine to replace Peter Dubeau as gallery director. (Dubeau resigned in July to become a dean at the Maryland Institute College of Art.)

Although Angevine was an experienced administrator who had worked for several prominent Maryland officeholders, several board members complained that she had little arts experience and that the Office of Promotion had hired her without their knowledge or input.

It also came out that School 33 had been embroiled in a long-running argument with the city agency over management and financial issues. The Office of Promotion charged that School 33 had refused to produce financial records, submit to audits or accept a city representative on its board.

Things deteriorated further last month, when the Friends of School 33 met to consider reconstituting itself under a different name to retain control of about $200,000 that members had raised for School 33's exhibition and education programs.

The Office of Promotion responded by filing a lawsuit demanding that the money be turned over to the city immediately.

Now the threat of a drawn-out lawsuit hangs over both parties if they cannot reach some sort of settlement. Because of the impending litigation, neither side was eager to be quoted in this column, but conversations with both sides make it clear that a compromise is probably within reach.

It seems a shame that at a time when local arts institutions are struggling to make ends meet, the city and School 33's board are at loggerheads. Both sides believe they are acting reasonably and responsibly. But the longer they keep up this fight, the more uncertain the future of School 33 becomes.

The Office of Promotion insists it wants to use the money the board has raised to fund School 33's exhibition and education programs. Board members agree that the money should go to exhibits and education - but say they fear the city agency will spend School 33's funds on unrelated projects.

It's not clear exactly why the board believes the city won't honor its obligations to School 33. But given that the parties have been butting heads for more than a year, a level of distrust has built up on both sides that is poisoning the atmosphere for any amicable resolution.

Surely there is a way out of this mess that gives both sides the incentives they need to come together and put this dispute behind them. And the shape of a likely compromise that would work for both sides isn't that hard to imagine.

If I were in the role of King Solomon and had to judge this dispute, here's what a reasonable compromise might look like. First, it would require the Office of Promotion to give School 33's board an ironclad assurance that whatever funds the board raised for School 33 would be used solely for that purpose.

Perhaps it would help if the Office of Promotion clarified its financial control and accounting practices to allay any fears that the money might vanish down some bureaucratic sinkhole.

Second, the Office of Promotion and the board should agree to a reasonable schedule under which the board would turn over to the city all the money it had raised. The payment schedule could be stretched out over a period of, say, several years.

Paying the money back in installments, rather than all at once, would be a confidence-building measure for both sides.

The city would see that the board was cooperating in maintaining the gallery, and the board could assure itself that the city was spending the money for its intended purpose.

Third, the board should approve a formal resolution committing itself to continued support of the gallery and affirming its indispensable role in advising the new director.

The board and Angevine admittedly got off to a bad start, mostly because of circumstances beyond either's control. But somehow they've got to find a way to move forward together now, and a vote of confidence in Angevine by the board would certainly get them started.

Of course, reaching an actual settlement of this dispute will require both parties to give up something - the city may have to scrap its demand for immediate access to the cash, while the board will have to compromise on the extent of its control.

But surely that's a better alternative than a bitter, drawn-out legal battle that probably neither side could win but which could wreak havoc on School 33's programs and staff morale.

It would indeed be a pity to see School 33 fall victim to the very people who are struggling to save it.

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