Lately, it's been a wild ride at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. Rumors of change and scuttlebutt swirled in October; then, in early November, president and CEO Sam Gappmayer announced he'd leave within the month for the Peoria Riverfront Museum in Illinois.
FAC board chairman Dr. Jim Raughton quickly worked with Gappmayer to plan for transition. Finally, a new buzz kicked up when the FAC's publicity stunt for its Wizard of Oz production saw a tethered hot-air balloon tear on a tree and deflate in front of children and media. One employee broke an arm in the chaos.
But to hear it from Raughton and Gappmayer, things are going fine. Or as fine as they can be during a time of transition. Speaking on his last day, Gappmayer said the FAC had just received its newest financial information and is slightly ahead of budget. Membership, he added, is "robust."
Raughton says that donations, meanwhile, are at a historic high. He, along honorary trustees Kathy Loo (also his wife) and Margot Lane, launched a $50,000 challenge grant just last week.
"There are some new donors coming in, so I'm very encouraged by that," he says. "I've talked to people in the community and they're very interested in the future of the Fine Arts Center and they know we're going through this transitional period and they want to help ...
"I may be overly optimistic, but I can tell you, people are handing me checks."
Gappmayer's announcement prompted the 23-person board (which includes Indy CEO Fran Zankowski) to find an interim CEO — to be announced Dec. 16 — and then to work on a permanent replacement.
For now, Raughton, who has served 2½ years on the board (and chair for only weeks), is acting as an interim interim; he may end up being the choice to run things until a permanent head is chosen in about six months. The board has formed task forces focused on a variety of aspects, such as interviewing interim candidates and working with departments like public relations, the museum and the theater.
"That's the positive part of a transition like this," Raughton says, "that we're actually opening ourselves up. How can we do a better job of what we do so well?"
For one thing, Raughton wants more community interactivity: "We don't want major art events to occur without our support."
Former employee Nicole Anthony says she'd hope the FAC would gamble a little and put more money into certain areas, like the PR office. That's where Anthony worked before leaving in September for the Colorado Springs Philharmonic. She dealt with a small budget and choices like an eight percent pay cut or an employee layoff.
"For [Gappmayer], the main message, the main mission I heard from him, was like, 'Try and be financially responsible. Don't spend too much money, don't go over budget, be ready to cut something if you have to. But still don't compromise. Do the same amount of work for less money.'"
The CEO before Gappmayer, Michael De Marsche, managed the museum's $28.4 million renovation and expansion, set up blockbusters like the Dale Chihuly show, and was known to spend money freely. When he departed to take a job in Armenia, the FAC was left with a hefty bill, followed shortly by the recession.
Gappmayer's fiscal responsibility floated the museum through admirably, IRS forms show. He started in 2008, and 2009 through 2011 show only modest changes in nearly all figures, from contributions and grants to total expenses.
Anthony points out that a place like the FAC constantly fights an uphill battle with expenses. That beautiful glass corridor? It adds to a steep utility bill. Gifts of art that expand its permanent collection? They raise insurance costs. Last year, the roof started to leak in an old part of the building, and repairs ran $750,000.
Unlike other businesses, a nonprofit like the FAC can't just pick up the slack by, say, renting itself out for more weddings, or closing its doors an extra day of the week. That could compromise the true mission, which is to offer art and culture and to make itself accessible.
"I don't envy people in the higher management levels," Anthony says, "because it's a tricky game to negotiate."
Needing to keep up
In November, the Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece by critic Terry Teachout titled, "Some art institutions deserve to fail." Teachout argued that some organizations outlive their usefulness, with output that's stale and administration knotted in bureaucracy. Teachout's point is that museums, orchestras and the like need to determine how they can really serve the public; as he puts it, "No arts organization is too big, too old or too famous to fail."
The FAC seems to be angling for a younger, more eclectic crowd. Its Halloween Gods & Monsters costume party featured circus performances and burlesque. Gappmayer says there were 700 guests; Anthony attended and says it was a blast. Its multimedia Pamela Joseph: Sideshow of the Absurd feels hipper than past shows. In addition, the FAC has lined up comedians, an unusual turn, like Paula Poundstone (who sold out) and Colin Quinn.
It's certainly a start. But the biggest hurdles are yet to come.
In his article, Teachout quoted "management guru" Peter Drucker on the topic, writing, "... hiring an effective successor to a departing CEO is 'the ultimate test of any top management and the ultimate test of any institution.'"