Arts Commission Members Object to MSU Takeover of Scene Metrospace

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Wednesday, April 15, 2015, 9:32 am
Alice Dreger

At City Council last night, a tense discussion broke out over City staff’s plan to hand over curatorial and managerial control of the public East Lansing art gallery, Scene Metrospace, to MSU. Three members of East Lansing’s Arts Commission came to the podium to name significant reservations about the proposed plan, leaving City Council—which will make the ultimate decision on this—in the position of potentially having to choose sides between City staff and the East Lansing Arts Commission.

The gallery space is currently located at 110 Charles Street, under the colorful parking structure. It has been under the control of the City of East Lansing and has been used for visual arts, performance arts, arts education, and community gatherings. The proposal put forth by City staff would involve a 5-year lease and operating agreement that would effectively give control of the art space to MSU’s Department of Art, Art History & Design.

Under the plan, the City would provide the space without charging MSU rent, and the City would pay the utility costs of about $4,000 a year. City staff says this would ultimately save the City about $14,500 a year.

Last night, City Manager George Lahanas named this budgetary saving as a reason to pursue the plan. He said the gallery had failed to become economically self-sustaining and expressed his opinion that, in the context of the budget challenges the City faces, the handover is a reasonable decision because the space would continue as a public arts space and would, he said, be better in terms of “product.”

Because City staff has been very actively pursuing a deal with MSU, Scene Metrospace has been steadily losing resources over the last several months. The manager, Tim Lane, has resigned and left for another position and there has been no move to replace him. The audiovisual equipment for the space, which had been provided essentially on permanent loan from a long-term benefactor, has been taken back by that benefactor. And, according to Director of Parks & Rec Tim McCaffrey, no further events have been scheduled beyond April 19.

Two individuals came to Council last night to represent MSU in this matter: Janet Lilly, MSU’s Assistant Vice President for Community Relations, and Chris Corneal, Chair of MSU’s Department of Art, Art History, and Design (AAHD).

Corneal said he was very excited about the opportunity and sees the arrangement as an opportunity to expand community engagement in the arts. In response to a question from Councilmember Susan Woods, he said they would consider continuing to have music at the space, not only visual arts.

Asked by Councilmember Kathy Boyle whether community members would still have the opportunity to exhibit their own work, Corneal said he didn’t want to rule anything out, and that he supported juried events with open calls for those wishing to have their work considered. He said a community member could have a “voice” in the space, but referenced “bylaws” as limiting how much power a non-MSU member would have.

Ordinarily those coming to speak on issues before Council are restricted to speaking at the start of the meeting and are warned about not speaking for more than about three minutes, but in this case, Mayor Nathan Triplett and Council allowed those on the Arts Commission coming to speak on this issue to address Council specifically when the issue came up on the agenda and to speak for as long as they wished. This allowed the Arts Commission members to respond to, and to directly question and challenge, the statements from Corneal and Lillie.

First to speak from the Arts Commission was the chair, Sarah Triplett. (She is Mayor Triplett’s wife.) She said that the Arts Commission had not yet reached an official consensus but will be meeting Thursday (tomorrow) and plans to do so then. She asked for a three-month delay on signing of the lease and operating agreement in order to explore more opportunities through a community-led process.

Sarah Triplett also asked for formalized recognition of community voice in the space, requested that shows remain free and open to the public (Corneal later said they would be), and that the space not be closed during the summer months. She asked that the space be used for many forms of art, including music, and that there be an arts education component.

Sarah Triplett also asked whether the lease might be shortened to two years so that the City could change course if the arrangement did not work out well. Council, staff, and the MSU representatives later went on to discuss adding a termination clause in the agreement that would allow either party, with specified notification time, to back out for any reason.

Matt Borghi-Weil, who also serves on the Arts Commission, also came to the podium to express significant concerns. He coaches children in the East Lansing Public Schools in creative performance and said that Scene Metrospace had been a valuable resource for allowing the children he coaches to have “a real stage with a real audience.” He questioned the City staff’s budgetary accounting on the matter, but did not provide specifics.

Michael Teager, also on the Arts Commission, came to the podium with his newborn son to say that he found the expected $15,000 savings to be inadequate reason to lose control of the public arts space. He said he understood the need to make budgetary cuts but said it was the equivalent of “riding the penny horse a couple less times a year” in terms of the City’s budget.

Teager asked why a visual arts department should be given curatorial control over musical arts events, and asked whether AAHD had the financial commitment, including from other members of the AAHD department, to sustain the gallery. He said “a big concern” to him was lack of a guarantee that the gallery would be kept open twelve months a year.

Lillie and Corneal insisted the gallery would be open all year except for when shows were being changed (leaving the gallery closed for about a week at a time) and for an annual cleaning (about two weeks’ closure). They said they would agree to a no-cause termination clause because, said Lillie, “we are entering into it [the agreement] with trepidation as well.”

From her Council chair, Councilmember Susan Woods, who is director of the East Lansing Film Festival, sought assurances from Lillie and Corneal that her organization could still use the gallery space for its annual party for directors and visitors. Corneal said he was open to any kind of partnership. He also said that AAHD has a full time outreach specialist whose duties would be “shuffled” to give her responsibility for managing the gallery space.

Councilmember Ruth Beier questioned an arrangement wherein no rent was charged to MSU, the City provided the space and paid for the utilities, but the City had no control over what happens in the space. She said it “boggles my mind” that the City would seek to give up “something we’ve invested so much in for so little money” in terms of annual savings. She said MSU was one of the few entities that could afford to pay rent to the City and suggested MSU could at least pay for the utilities.

To this, City Manager Lahanas responded that the $750,000 budget gap means having to cut lots of programs, “big and small.” He said the agreement would also lead to “more robust” arts programming and a “better product.” He suggested he wanted East Lansing out of the curating business.

In response to questions from Beier, Lahanas said the City does charge MSU rent for space related to programs meant to “monetize technologies.” Lillie said MSU would not be interested in Scene Metrospace if it had to pay rent for the space.

Councilmember Kathy Boyle said she would be comfortable with the arrangement if there was a termination clause in the agreement. She said she thought it should move forward and we should see how it works out.

Council decided to revisit the issue at the next work session in two weeks, on April 28. Mayor Pro Tem Diane Goddeeris said she wanted to make sure that the letter from Arts Commission members be attached to the Council’s agenda so that it is in the public record. (Because City staff did not include written material submitted by Arts Commission members in the Council’s agenda packet, I am unable to provide links to the Arts Commission members’ submissions on the matter.)

The Arts Commission is expected to come to some consensus on this matter at their meeting this Thursday. In the meantime, proposed changes to the lease and operating agreement, including the termination clause, will have to be run past the City’s attorney and MSU personnel.

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