Facing renovations, struggling Carnegie Art Center lays off last employee
North Tonawanda’s Carnegie Art Center has laid off Executive Director Mary Simpson because of declining funding, the center announced last week.
The departure of Simpson, the center’s last paid employee, comes almost a year after the center was awarded a $343,000 federal grant to repair and update its 1904 facility, leaving the city with the prospect of a newly repaired facility and no one to run it.
The center is now closed, but there are plans to reopen it with volunteers for its annual members’ art exhibition briefly in December before renovation work begins in January.
“Unfortunately, Mary’s departure is the result of dwindling public funding resources available to the arts and cultural communities,” the center’s board of directors wrote in a statement. “During her tenure, Mary was instrumental in raising the profile of the Carnegie Art Center within the community and in processing the current grant that will provide funding for the upcoming renovation.”
While funding for arts organizations in Erie County has increased slightly in recent years, Niagara County groups have had a much more difficult time raising operating support from private foundations and public sources like the New York State Council on the Arts and others.
Simpson, who has long criticized local, state and national organizations for ignoring or underfunding Niagara County cultural organizations, said the move did not come as a surprise.
“There’s no money for operating expenses in Niagara County,” she said. “The Carnegie cannot generate enough income from events and programs to pay for an executive director. This has been a long-term problem. Last year we existed because I had a reserve fund that I had established, but we have no more reserve fund this year.”
Susan Jenson, who has been the president of the center’s board since 2008, said the supporters of the institution are working to create a strategic plan for the space, which will begin undergoing renovations in January.
“We are going to be strategic planning so that when it does open up after the renovations, there will be a serious plan in place,” Jenson said. “No matter how many volunteers you have, you have to have somebody directing it. Somebody, even if it’s an unpaid person, knowing who, what, where and when.”
It’s unclear exactly what the function of the center will be once those renovations are complete, or whether foundations and government agencies which may have been reluctant to fund an institution with limited programming and serious maintenance issues will pony up once the building is in better physical shape.
North Tonawanda Mayor Robert G. Ortt said though the city owns the building, the city will not be funding an executive director position there. He suggested the building might be turned into a space for catered meetings and other private events, similar to the Burchfield Penney Art Center’s second floor reception space.
Jenson said that the board of the organization, though it doesn’t currently have a solid plan for the building’s future, is hard at work on formulating one. But they have a plan for that plan, once the plan actually exists.
It will be used as fodder, Jenson suggested, to collect the operating funds that have been so difficult to come by at the Carnegie for years.
“It will be the job of the volunteer board to go out there and show them what we want to do, and that we have a plan in place, she said, “and also to come up with other ways to have a source of income on our own.”