Artists uneasy at lack of clarity in Torpedo Factory’s future

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Artists uneasy at lack of clarity in Torpedo Factory’s future
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By Chris Teale (File photo)

Artists at the Torpedo Factory Art Center are concerned at the lack of a clear direction for the future and a loss of representation after a recent report by a management consultant on the center’s future structure.

The Times reported last month on disagreements between members of the TFAC board on the findings of outside consultants The Cultural Planning Group and how they should be implemented.

The controversial plan calls for creating a new, independent and self-appointing board of directors for the celebrated art center, which is headquartered in a city-owned building. The existing board is made up of 15 members who represent the Torpedo Factory Artists Association, the Art League, and a number of city commissions, departments and residents.

The proposal also would do away with TFAA, wrapping it into a single overarching entity with a view to streamlining operations. Since the report was released, executives from all three organizations have met regularly to discuss next steps and a path forward.

TFAA president Don Viehman said one of the primary concerns held by the artists is the lack of a clear roadmap and vision for how the new structure will be put in place, given that it would be a drastic change from the current model.

Multiple artists at the Torpedo Factory approached for comment either did not respond or referred all questions about the current situation to Viehman, who has been TFAA president since 2015 and sits on the TFAC board.

“Even if people agree with the goal that’s outlined — some people do, some people don’t — it’s a situation of a difference of opinion very strongly held by different people, and how do you navigate that to come to an agreement?” he asked. “If you can’t do that, then it gets you the goal but you don’t have the whole idea of pulling everybody together and going in the same direction again.”

Viehman argued that before any changes can be made, that roadmap first must be put in place and bought into by as many stakeholders as possible. An organization must know its purpose before it can determine where it is going, he said, and that making it into one overarching nonprofit 501(c)3 is not necessarily the answer.

“[The report] pointed out that one of the issues was that the three organizations [TFAC, TFAA and the Art League] don’t have a common vision of what the Torpedo Factory should do and where it should go,” Viehman said. “Strong organizations need a strong vision. That’s important, and I think that’s a dual thing we can solve. That’s where you need to start.”

Torpedo Factory CEO Eric Wallner said since the process for restructuring is still at an early stage, any vision for the center’s future will likely evolve as discussions go on.

“It’s a chicken or the egg kind of question,” Wallner said. “I don’t think there’s a right or a wrong way to do it. I think that structure allows for ideas to take shape, and I think that we need a lot of input. We’re in a mode of collecting ideas and thinking into the future in a brave and new direction. That’s not a straightforward and linear process.”

The consultant’s report said one of the reasons for a new streamlined organizational structure is to improve the efficiency of decision making by the board and its constituent members. But Viehman said such efficiency and the folding all members into one body could mean some voices are louder than others, and the artists are at particular risk of under-representation in an entirely nonprofit structure.

“I think the artists feel, in this process of reorganizing management, they want to find a structure they can all buy into voluntarily,” Viehman said. “If you don’t do that, then you essentially create the same situation. The new organization is going to have to deal with all the same upset and emotional feeling that may be here already.

“Why not find something everybody can buy into and identify stakeholders and try to find something that accommodates as many of the stakeholder population as you can get?”

Wallner noted that throughout the process, artists have been given the opportunity to have their say, and that they will continue to be represented as the discussion unfolds and a new structure takes shape.

“I think it’s an iterative process, and we’re figuring it out as we go and trying to move at a pace that moves us forward and yet takes into account lots of perspectives and different voices,” he said. “We’re always trying to increase communication between all our different stakeholders. Anything we can do to increase dialogue is positive.”

The Art League executive director Suzanne Bethel agreed in an interview with Wallner and Viehman’s assertions that meetings between the three bodies have been positive. All said that the consultant’s findings at least serve as a strong starting point, while Viehman added that while there may disagreements between the various bodies, there is plenty of common ground.

“What I don’t want to say is that there’s more contention than is real,” he said. “There’s no doubt there is some. There are people who are working to try and resolve it, and make it better, and lots of people are trying to work in the same direction but don’t always see eye to eye about how you get there. It’s more about that than trying to destroy each other.”

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