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January 16th, 2008 Stephen Marc Beaudoin | News Stories
 

A Messy Picture

Troubles mount for an art center director struggling to hold together the organization he founded.

     
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IMAGE: chrisryanphoto.com

In a June 18, 2007, video about the burgeoning arts scene in Old Town-Chinatown, Gavin Shettler effuses about the vibrancy of the Portland Art Center he founded.

While taking an Oregon Public Broadcasting reporter on a tour of the 10,000-square-foot center in the Goldsmith Building at Northwest 5th Avenue and Couch Street, Shettler shows off a current exhibition and discusses the center’s successes since he founded it in 2004.

Then and now, the center has become an integral part of the Portland visual arts community. But budget shortfalls of more than $40,000 (see “Curtain Call,” WW , Nov. 14, 2007) and wholesale board resignations (see WWire for details of how the entire board resigned last week) have undercut those accomplishments and threaten to damage the popular center’s rep beyond repair.

Several people currently or formerly involved with the center blame Shettler.

“I was asking for information, like financials, and not getting it,” former board member Katherine Ace recalls. “It was a huge amount of work, but it was not going anywhere.”

That unrest leaves Shettler to recruit an entirely new board, raise a lot of money and fix a newly embittered relationship with many of the artists and community leaders who originally supported his vision.

This is a remarkable turnaround for the charismatic 35-year-old director. When Shettler moved back to Portland in 2000 after a short time in Seattle, the art buff jumped into the city’s mushrooming gallery scene, first producing shows at the Everett Station Lofts and then co-founding The Modern Zoo, a gallery that quickly became a darling of critics.

His arts center hit the wall last fall when board members responded to what they call Shettler’s lack of financial transparency—and an imminent eviction notice—by asking self-described arts turnaround specialist Henry Hillman to get involved.

Hillman, who has served on the boards of flagship institutions like Pacific Northwest College of Art, Oregon Ballet Theatre and the Portland Art Museum, says he sensed “a lot more than unrest” when he began meeting with the board. “It was chaos,” he says.

“I asked [Shettler] if he knew how to do a budget,” Hillman adds. “I said, ‘What are you doing?’ And he just smiled with that smile of his and said, ‘You’re right.’”

Shettler—who is paid $36,000 a year, with no medical or retirement benefits—admitted to being green in the nonprofit world. The arts center position was, in fact, his first job in the nonprofit sector. “At first I was like, oh my God, what am I doing?” he says.

Hillman offered a $20,000 matching gift from his own family foundation and a new business plan that would have potentially created a lesser role for Shettler—an idea that was a nonstarter for Shettler.

“In terms of his ability and knowledge and skills, he would get an F from me,” Hillman says. “Gavin runs the organization for Gavin and about Gavin.”

Some of Shettler’s defenders are upset by the board walkout.

“Not only does the board walk away,” says artist Rhoda London, who has agreed to rejoin the PAC board after serving briefly in 2005, “but the fact that the creative community does not come forward to support the center is criminal.”

“I’ve always known that I’m a founder, and at some point it will grow beyond me and will need new leadership,” says Shettler. “Is that point now? Well…it’s not today.”

See OPB’s Oregon Art Beat interview with Shettler:



FACT: In 2004, Shettler (above) nabbed the prestigious Skidmore Prize—which WW sponsors—honoring excellence in nonprofit management.
 
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