YU, new art and the transparency issue

UPDATE: Jeff Jahn, who has followed the fortunes of YU from its beginnings, has kicked in with his own take at PORT. He argues that YU has “a general art world sophistication several tiers above” some earlier attempts at a nationally linked contemporary arts center, but also that it is severely harmed by its lack of a community board — its three-member board is also its three-member staff. Row made the same point in his Oregonian story, and it’s worth stressing: an independent, unpaid board is essential. ALSO: Some excellent points from Barry Johnson of Arts Dispatch in the comments below this post. Be sure to give ’em a look. Of note: Is YU hamstrung by its main donor’s restrictions?

By Bob Hicks

The Oregonian’s D.K. Row set off a micro-explosion with his front-page story in this morning’s paper about the cloudy picture at YU Contemporary Art Center, the fledgling nonprofit in the inner east side’s old Yale Union Laundry Building. Central to the issues that Row called into question: the center’s three principal figures (four if you count the building’s owner, who is divorced from one of the founders) have repeatedly sidestepped questions about the organization’s finances and structure.

D.K. is taking a bit of a beating in the online version’s comments thread, with people accusing him of making something out of nothing or, worse, engaging in some sort of hatchet job in an effort to kill off a good idea. Yet there’s very little in the story that I haven’t heard a lot of arts people saying privately for months. Few people think there’s anything nefarious going on. A lot of people wonder whether the founders aren’t in over their heads, and question both how much money this project is going to cost (the building will be very expensive to operate) and where the money’s coming from. I’ve also heard more than a few people ask the exact question that is central to Row’s story: Why won’t the people at YU just say what the financial situation is? D.K. didn’t invent these questions. He simply had the impertinence to ask them in public.

Anyone who’s ever been within a mile of the nonprofit world knows how tenuous nonprofit existence is, whether you’re the Metropolitan Museum of Art or a small-town homeless shelter. Nonprofits are nonprofits for one very good reason: by their nature, they can’t survive in an open marketplace. They cost more to operate than they can make back in income. That’s why so many conservatives and libertarians question their right to exist: in social-Darwinist terms, they’re nature’s losers.

Most people, fortunately, don’t feel that way. They believe that certain types of activities have a positive social worth that overrides their weakness in the marketplace. We all (or most of us, as study after study has made clear) make some direct donations to nonprofit causes in which we believe. But everybody — at least, everybody who pays taxes — also makes involuntary donations, in the form of governmental tax breaks to nonprofit groups that are financed by all of us. The nonprofit world, and the art world in particular, spend a lot of time complaining about poor public support, and that’s understandable. But in fact, when you consider the tax advantages that nonprofits hold, the public investment is not inconsiderable.

It also means that once you go the nonprofit route, you are partly owned by the public. And that means that the public has a right to know what your finances and structure are, and you have a responsibility — legally and ethically — to be open about them. In a word, transparency.

No group wants to appear weak in public, because in public relations terms, weakness begets weakness. Everybody wants to be considered in the best possible light. But when a nonprofit chooses to duck central issues or hide the details, it isn’t just engaging in ordinary spin-doctoring. It’s avoiding its responsibility. By being vague, it’s also likely turning off the very investors it needs to carry out its vision. The business, foundation, government and individual donors who can make the biggest impacts are also the ones that are generally the most insistent about knowing what’s going to happen to their money when they give it away. They want reliable reassurances, and that means they have to trust that the groups seeking their money have solid foundations. A great idea is one thing. Demonstrating that you have a practical plan to carry it out is something else again. And if all you can offer is vague promises, well — you’ve turned off the spigot before it’s started to flow.

I happen to wish YU well — the city could use a sharp, inventive contemporary arts hub. In this review for The Oregonian of YU’s first public exhibition, Selections from the PCVA Archives, I hinted at a few of these questions: “How will YU make its own mark distinct from PICA, White Bird, the vastly expanded commercial gallery scene, the Portland Art Museum and other players who either weren’t here or weren’t paying much attention to contemporary art 30 years ago? How much will YU cost, and where will the money come from?”

My dealings with the staff were congenial, except in the way that Row stresses: When I asked (via emails) about financial details, I simply wasn’t answered, or was put off. Because I was doing a simple exhibit review rather than an institutional piece, I didn’t push the point except to say that I’d like to sit down in future and hear about financial and structural strategies. I had the feeling that I wasn’t being answered because YU didn’t have clear answers to give, although I have no proof of that.

And that’s the problem: When you’re vague or evasive, people often assume the worst. If you seem to be hiding something, people will believe you have something to hide. In D.K.’s story, Brian Ferriso, director of the Portland Art Museum, had it right. “The whole concept is that you don’t pay taxes and are being underwritten by the people — the donors,” he told Row. “So there should be accountability for what you are doing.”

In my review, I also suggested that YU might have jumped the gun: “Is this exhibition premature? Maybe. It’s certainly low-key and provisional, hardly the sort of bang you want to announce something big.” Then I gave the center the benefit of the doubt: “But if the purpose is to gather interest and curiosity in the enterprise so you can build the financial and organizational support to get things off the ground, it’s a good move. Gather interest. Make contacts. Create good will. Present the possibilities. Make a pitch for the checkbook. And keep on keeping on. Because if you don’t start somewhere, you’ll never get anywhere at all.”

I happen to think that’s decent advice. But the point is, there shouldn’t have been any doubt about strategies in the first place. If YU is undercapitalized and in a slow rollup to full operations, it should just say so. It should simply say: “We have $500,000 (or whatever the figure is) and we need to raise $6.5 million (or whatever the figure is) to make this thing work. Here’s our plan to get there. In the meantime, we’re going to do a little guerrilla programming, get some things going, give you just a taste of what’s to come. We want to get you excited, because we need your money and your help.”

People would understand that. They wouldn’t think anyone was trying to put something over on them. They might say, “No thanks, not interested.” They might say, “Sign me up — I’m on board.” Either way, they’d know where they — and YU — stood.

It’s still early in the game. YU could still open up, be transparent, and take an honest, level-headed run at this thing. I hope it does. I hope it succeeds wildly. In the meantime, unfortunately, we’re going to have to just wait and see.