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Cuesta College Art Gallery gets a last-minute reprieve

click to enlarge BLASTS FROM THE PAST :  Cuesta College’s Art Gallery has had a long and vibrant life, which was almost put on hold at a recent Cuesta College Board of Trustees meeting. - PHOTO COURTESY OF CUESTA COLLEGE ART GALLERY
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF CUESTA COLLEGE ART GALLERY
  • BLASTS FROM THE PAST : Cuesta College’s Art Gallery has had a long and vibrant life, which was almost put on hold at a recent Cuesta College Board of Trustees meeting.
The atmosphere at Cuesta College’s most recent Board of Trustees meeting—Wednesday, Sept. 2—was tense, and understandably so. Nine jobs were at stake outright, and another three dozen staff members stood to take substantial losses in pay. People were losing their homes, insisted Allison Merzon, president of the Cuesta College Federation of Teachers.

 

In an eleventh-hour save that mirrored the culminating scene from a really bad movie, the board announced that it had discovered the funds to save seven of the nine jobs. By tapping into a $308,000 Joint Powers Agreement account, which the college had accumulated by maintaining lower than average workers’ compensation claims, the board was able to amend the resolution for classified lay-offs to protect seven jobs. Tim Anderson’s position as director of the college’s art gallery was among them.

 

It seems pertinent to review what the community would have lost had Anderson’s position been eliminated, and the gallery program along with it, if only because he will likely find himself on the chopping block for the next round of budget cuts. If there’s one thing everyone seems to agree on—besides the fact that the loss of jobs is lamentable—it’s that the college’s budget will be even harder hit during the 2010/2011 fiscal year.

 

Anderson was notified that his position was among those slated for elimination just one week before the board of trustees was scheduled to make their deciding vote. The announcement wasn’t a surprise; most Cuesta employees spent the summer contemplating the possibility that, come fall, they’d be out of a job. But Anderson didn’t expect the decision to come so soon. His position on campus is an unusual one in that his position as gallery director is a staff position, but as a teacher he is considered faculty. As of yet, none of the proposed lay-offs have applied to faculty. But by eliminating the gallery, the budget cuts would affect Anderson’s class as well. Specifically, his Art Gallery class would be useless without the benefit of an actual gallery. And those affiliated with the gallery are quick to emphasize that it isn’t a typical space.

 

“It’s the best contemporary gallery space in the community,” insisted Anderson. “For it to sit empty is just criminal.”

 

Marta Peluso, Executive Director of ARTS Obispo, was quick to say the same, pointing out that in addition to being the county’s best gallery, it is also one of the few venues that was actually constructed with the intent that it would be a gallery. Most other spaces become galleries after someone decides to convert them.

 

“That gallery has been part of Cuesta College since the very beginning,” pointed out Peluso, who served as the director of the gallery program between 1986 and 2002. She oversaw the current space’s opening exhibit in September 2001. Finding funding for the position has never been easy, and the gallery’s history has been punctuated by vacancy.

 

Before there was even an official gallery space, arts faculty members made a point of creating an exhibition space in the campus library. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the college didn’t have the necessary budget to fund a position to run the gallery. So, Linnaea Phillips, who was a librarian at Cuesta College at the time, along with two faculty members, hosted an aviation ball as a fundraiser. It became an annual event and funded the position for a time.

 

When Peluso came on board in 1986 she didn’t even have a phone in her office. But it was still a step in the right direction.

 

- LIVE LONG AND PROSPER:  The Cuesta College Art Gallery is currently hosting “Carried Across: New Work by Linda Carreiro” through Sept. 16. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. -
  • LIVE LONG AND PROSPER: The Cuesta College Art Gallery is currently hosting “Carried Across: New Work by Linda Carreiro” through Sept. 16. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.
“That was the first time they actually had money designated by the school to help pay someone,” she said. “Before that it was always by fundraiser.” Ten years into her tenure there, the position was upgraded from hourly to classified. But, according to Anderson, the position of gallery director at other colleges is generally classified as faculty.

 

During his opportunity to speak before the board of trustees, Anderson refrained from making a personal plea, as many of his colleagues had done.

 

“I’ll be fine,” he said. “We can make our house payments.”

 

But his concern for the gallery’s future was another story altogether. 

 

“We spent four years without a gallery director,” pointed out David Prochaska, a Fine Arts teacher at Cuesta. “It could take us another four or five years to get that position back.” Once the college becomes more financially stable, there will be a long list of departments hoping to recover some of the positions they lost during what Merzon referred to as “the worst fiscal crisis our college has ever seen.” Re-hiring a gallery director for the Cuesta Art Gallery likely would not be at the top of that list.

 

The proposed elimination of Anderson’s position was not a case of the arts being thrown beneath the bus—as they often are when times get tough—Prochaska insists.

 

“It doesn’t look good campus-wide,” he admitted. “And it doesn’t look good state-wide. They lost the girls’ tennis team. We can’t sit here and say we shouldn’t have to take any hits. We have to be a little more humanistic.”

 

Had the board of trustees voted to cut Anderson’s position, as everyone anticipated, the gallery’s future would have been bleak, according to Prochaska. In the past, faculty members had the option of coordinating a show in the absence of a gallery director. But few had the necessary time and energy. And the shows that they hosted were good, but often so poorly publicized that the community wasn’t even aware that they were happening. And students would lose the opportunity to be exposed to ideas and works altogether new.

 

Also at the board meeting was an assembly of arts students, some of them wearing spattered smocks, in a show of support for the college’s art program, and for Anderson specifically.

 

“Fine art changes lives and expands minds,” said one student, a member of the college’s Art Club. “By losing the gallery we will lose the ideas it represents. It represents expression … one of the few universal languages that exists in the world.”

 

What happens next may be largely determined by student and community input. While Anderson was still expecting the worst he discussed the possibility of one day increasing the gallery’s community visibility. Right now, the space is open Monday through Friday during business hours. In light of the fact that the space has been granted a new, and unexpected, lease on life and lauded as one of the best art spaces in the county, forward motion might be the best course of action.

 

Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach dodges bullets and bees. Send tales of narrow escapes to aschwellenbach@newtimesslo.com.

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