Brighter days ahead for Cultural Center?

Center to now operate without a director due to money woes

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The Cortez Cultural Center is now closed on Monday and Tuesday for winter hours and will be run by volunteers only in an effort to trim expenses and avoid debt. It will also be shut down for several weeks in late December and early January for annual cleaning and stocking inventory. Enlargephoto

Sam Green/Cortez Journal

The Cortez Cultural Center is now closed on Monday and Tuesday for winter hours and will be run by volunteers only in an effort to trim expenses and avoid debt. It will also be shut down for several weeks in late December and early January for annual cleaning and stocking inventory.

The Cortez Cultural Center, starting in December, will operate without an executive director in an effort to stay fiscally solvent, board members have announced.

According to Shelby Smith, the seven-member board's new president, director Shawn Collins' position will end Dec. 15. At the helm since May 2011, Collins was notified of the decision 30 days in advance, pursuant to her contract.

The Cultural Center, located at 25 N. Market St., is a conspicuous landmark with its deceptively lifelike, two-story rear mural and amphitheater that hosts traditional Native American dances almost nightly between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

The decision was a painful one, Smith said, because the board esteems Collins for her intellect, as well as her skill overseeing daily operations and writing grant proposals. Ultimately, it came down to money.

“If you don't have the cash flow, you don't have it. We have reached the point where we cannot continue to fund her salary,” he said. “(Collins) is a highly trained, Ph.D anthropologist. A good person, a talented person, deserving of a higher salary than she had.”

Collins would like to stay in the area, and hopes the Center continues far beyond her 19-month tenure.

“The board and volunteers have a tough road ahead of them. I sincerely hope they can pull it off, and I hope the community steps up to support them,” she said.

The Cultural Center features a museum, art gallery, gift shop, meeting spaces for classes, and the 122-acre Hawkins Preserve in south Cortez. The 501(c)(3) organization runs largely on the efforts of some 50 volunteers. Collins is presently the only paid staff member. Her salary, in the neighborhood of $40,000 per year, was too costly for the Center's tight budget, treasurer Larry McGee said.

Balance sheets for 2011 finished $5,451 in the red; this year the shortfall grew to $18,484 through the end of September. However, McGee emphasized that total income collected during that same period had diminished almost $45,000, from $135,625 to $91,243.

“We've cut expenses far more than the deficit grew. To me that's a sign we've been fiscally responsible with what we've had,” he said.

This year the Center has derived the most income, about 38 percent, from private foundations and government grants. Fundraising events, gift shop and art gallery sales, and membership dues are the other major sources.

To compensate without a director, Smith intends to delegate oversight of individual events to each of the current seven board members. When asked if the board-which in most organizations traditionally decides broad, conceptual matters-would be up to the task of coordinating the gritty, nuts-and-bolts logistics of making the Center function on a daily basis, Smith was optimistic.

“Fortunately this board has always been hands-on. It doesn't just sit around a table and discuss things. It's a working board, which is important because now we will have to work, and work hard, to keep this place going.”

The easy choice would be to shut the doors and go home. But we value this place. We aren't going home,” he added.

The Cultural Center has endured earlier periods with no director, although Smith conceded the fiscal situation was different now and he wasn't sure how long the new arrangement would last.

One dissenting voice from the new setup is Denis Boon, who served until recently as board president. Boon tendered his resignation Nov. 20 because he disagreed with the decision to terminate Collins' position.

In a strongly worded letter sent to the other board members and to The Cortez Journal, Boon wrote that he believed the Center's gift shop was poorly run and was a drain on the entire organization. He also accused board members of being resistant to any changes that might right the fiscal ship, which started to leak in 2008 because of the nationwide financial crisis.

“I stand by everything I wrote,” Boon said Wednesday. “I realize at some point we'd probably have to release (Collins), but it didn't have to be now. Nobody there has a strategy or long-term plan.”

Smith and McGee rejected this appraisal.

“It was strictly a cash-flow decision,” McGee said. “And we wouldn't see much, or any, savings by closing the gift shop for a while. We'd lose money.”

Smith acknowledged room for improvement. He said the gift shop needed to more consistently freshen up its merchandise. The possibility of farming out oversight of the shop to a third-party, as the Anasazi Heritage Center and other area attractions do, is also being considered. The shop is welcoming artifacts donated on consignment, such as Native American jewelry.

The board is prepared for a difficult battle in the new, cutthroat world of nonprofit funding.

“With a smaller pot, it's more competitive for any money available now. It's harder to secure new grants and renew old ones,” Smith said.

But they're going to give it their best shot.

“I know Cortez won't twist away in the wind (should the Cultural Center close), but we think this institution is incredibly valuable. Not many towns of 8,000 people have something like this.”

McGee posed a question that, while rhetorical, carried stark, real-life implications for the Center's longevity: “Does the Cortez community want to be a place that supports culture and the arts?” he asked. “They'll have to decide.”

Both men were buoyed by news that the city council had awarded $3,000 in grant money to the center for 2013 (See related story).

“It's a generous decision. I'm encouraged. The council can be assured we will handle the money responsibly,” McGee said.

Without a director's salary — the biggest single expense — the Center is immediately on more stable financial footing. No existing programs are on the chopping block at this time. For now, the guest lectures, art exhibitions and dances will continue.

“To the public, the transition should be pretty seamless,” Smith said, adding that he hopes the Center will someday be in a position to hire a manager or director again. As always, the money will dictate.

The Center celebrated its 25th year earlier in 2012.

Dena Guttridge, executive director of the Cortez Area Chamber of Commerce, said the Center is “vitally important to our tourism trade, particularly in the off-season. It keeps people around for an extra day. It's critical for our locals, too. We need things like this to keep people living, working and playing in our community.”