One week after issuing a report on the economic contribution of the arts in August, the Piedmont Council for the Arts, which commissioned the study, closed its doors after 38 years. Only months earlier it had renovated space in York Place and hired a new executive director, the latest in a string of leaders over the past two years.
What went wrong?
According to the chairman of its board, William Taylor, the organization had outlived its purpose as a communications center for the arts community. Others suggest the problem might have been with the board. And the city, in denying funding for PCA earlier this year, questioned its fiscal viability and “operational stability” because it had not had an executive director for a year.
When the organization was founded there was no World Wide Web. Live Arts didn’t exist yet and the McGuffey Art Center was only seven years old. A lot has changed since then.
“PCA’s primary role 38 years ago was providing information about the arts and about art events to the public, and that was before modern technology and the internet,” Taylor says. “People don’t need PCA to distribute information that way anymore because it’s available. C-VILLE Weekly has a pretty comprehensive list. I think PCA was absolutely a critical piece of the puzzle in building today’s arts and cultural scene.”
In recent years, PCA appeared to struggle to find a mission since the disintegration of a major effort to lead the implementation of a cultural plan for Charlottesville that was intended to boost arts-related tourism, create new opportunities for children and provide affordable housing and studio space to local artists. Initial money was raised, a study was conducted, and an all-star committee put their names behind it.
But nothing ever happened.
Amid a broad turnover of leadership within local arts organizations, including PCA, Live Arts, The Bridge PAI and others, PCA’s big plan fizzled, and city government never got behind it. Aside from the popular ArtInPlace program, PCA became functionally invisible to most local artists and art-lovers.
“The cultural plan identified many opportunities for leveraging [PCA’s] work, but deepened investment from public and private sources, as well as continued active engagement from individuals and organizations were required for PCA to succeed,” says Maggie Guggenheimer, a former consultant to PCA who now works for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. “In lieu of those, I think folding the organization was a judicious and responsible decision.”
Danielle Bricker worked at PCA from 2014 through 2016, and handled everything from accounting to event planning. She recalls working for an organization that always seemed to be in turmoil with a difficult board of directors and no clear direction.
PCA went through three executive directors during Bricker’s tenure. At times, Bricker was the organization’s only employee.
“I think the world of every executive director I worked under,” Bricker says. “The failure of the organization is not on them. It’s on the board of directors.”
Once the cultural plan came out, “Nobody really talked about how this would be funded,” Bricker says. “Nobody really talked about how we would develop the organizational capacity to really make this happen. At the same time we realized that that document was set up to fail, and we as an organization did not know what we needed to do next.”
According to Taylor, the decision to pull the plug was not made hastily.
“The entire time I’ve been chair of the board, I, along with the board, had been evaluating all aspects of the organization,” says Taylor, “and stability from an operational and financial standpoint was one of them. We spent a few months carefully evaluating the finances and decided it wasn’t a sustainable position and voted unanimously to wind down the organization.”
Taylor still believes that public arts coordination is essential and hopes that a successor organization will emerge to give the arts community a seat at the table in dealing with government.
“We certainly want to hand over any proceeds from the wind-down to the organization that would handle that,” Taylor says.
PCA’s executive director, Deborah McLeod, who owns Chroma Projects art laboratory, declined to be interviewed.
“She came to the organization at a very rocky time; she came with a lot of great ideas,” says Taylor. “I’m sad for this entire turn of events, but I’m particularly sad because I think that if Deborah had had just a little bit more runway she would have been able to do a lot of really great things at PCA.”
Bricker hopes to see a successor organization emerge, but ideally with a different group of people serving on its board.
“There are definitely people on the board who, I think, want to care about art and want to be that kind of person but it’s not their background,” Bricker says. “It’s not where they come from. It’s kind of this forced passion almost. Trying to tick off the boxes of what a good citizen looks like…definitely a kind of Rotary Club type is on the board.”