Another Confusing Public/Nonprofit Structure, Another Crisis

From the Facebook page of the Red Brick Center for the Arts.

January 9, 2018; Aspen Times

As reported in the Aspen Times, the city-owned Red Brick Center for the Arts has just been awarded a grant of $30,000 by the Aspen City Council, along with “verbal support,” following a 2017 scandal with an ongoing criminal investigation.

This modest vote of confidence comes as the City Council and the Red Brick Center—which is now being managed by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department—continue to explore options for oversight and management that would hopefully guard against future scandals. However, the prior and current management structures beg many questions from a nonprofit governance perspective.

Until the scandal broke last year, the Red Brick Center for the Arts was managed by the Red Brick Council for the Arts, a 501c3 nonprofit that “had a management contract with the city” to run the center and autonomously oversee its operations—which is an unusual way to describe a nonprofit whose only purpose seems to be oversight of that center. City Councilwoman Ann Mullins is among the board members of the arts council. Last June, the Center’s former executive director, Angela Callen, was fired. Callen has not yet been arrested or charged with a crime, but is “under suspicion for stealing approximately $150,000” from the Center. As reported in an Aspen Times article last September, “Because of the investigation, the city has seized control of the Red Brick’s operating and reserve accounts ‘and will now pay operating costs directly until a new agreement between the two entities can be arranged,’ the city said, adding the agreement was mutual.”

Here’s where the organizational structure gets really confusing: Sarah Roy was named as interim executive director of the Center after Callen was fired (presumably by the Arts Council, while it was still managing the Center). Then the city suspended its contract with the Council—which, again, was the governing body for the Center and its arts programming—although the Council continues to serve “in an advisory role,” whatever that means. Since November, the Center has been managed by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, under the direction of Jeff Woods, although Roy is still interim executive director. The Parks and Recreation Department, clearly a government entity, is one of ten “nonprofit” tenants listed on the Center’s website, and the city’s Red Brick Recreation Center—with a fitness center, climbing wall and other amenities—is located at the same address as the art center. In fact, just over half of the nonprofit tenants identified on the Red Brick Center for the Arts website are arts-related: a community foundation, an organ- and tissue-donation foundation, and a youth mentoring nonprofit are among the others. The Center is home to a gallery, and to 14 local resident artists who rent subsidized studio spaces. An after-school art camp and art classes are available to community members.

It’s not hard to understand why Aspen City Council wants to find a way forward that provides better accountability for how public resources are being stewarded. No elected official wants to be associated with a scandal, especially at a facility for which that official’s branch of government has ultimate responsibility. So, a $30,000 grant instead of the $80,000 requested sends a signal to voters that City Council is keeping a close eye on the situation. But the criminal investigation will take time, and the money that has gone missing undoubtedly has already caused some pain to the art center and its staff. And “demoting” a governing board to an advisory role at such a critical moment instead of doubling down on good board governance practices seems like a less-than-sound approach. In addition, the current organizational structure suggests a muddled approach to managing what is called “an arts center.” It certainly seems that there ought to be an arts-focused governing body to look after the integrity of the arts programming and the dedicated arts spaces, if the city and the community are serious about maintaining an arts center.

Roy and Woods have been in discussion with the Wheeler Opera House, Aspen’s storied performing arts center, about establishing a Cultural Arts Commission—although the role of the proposed commission is described as an advocacy, not management or oversight. Bringing a major cultural institution like the Wheeler into the conversation might help to make the case for further investment in the Red Brick Center for the Arts—hopefully as an entity dedicated to a suite of cultural programs and services for the Aspen community, not as a subset of the city’s parks and recreations department nor as a landlord for a group of non-arts nonprofit organizations.—Eileen Cunniffe