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Home / Articles / · Archive / News & Columns /  Anxiety in Artspace
News & Columns

Anxiety in Artspace

Is John Milliken running roughshod over the nonprofit bastion for artists?

By Scott Lewis
Posted // June 11,2007 -

Crouched over on a stool inside his studio, Mike Green repositioned a small jade tile on a white plaster mask. The little tiles covered the entire mask; it was hard to tell exactly what he planned to do with it next. Local TV news reporter Craig Wirth had generously donated his face so artists could make a mold, and Green was donating his time and skills to make Wirth’s face actually look like an artistic creation. Green had worked on the project all morning and was a little anxious to finish it.

He said he had to go to a meeting, but he wouldn’t talk about it. He’d be worried to talk about it, he said. Even though he’s a member of the board of trustees at Artspace, he’s also a tenant and he didn’t want to anger anyone who could take his studio away. And apparently you just don’t talk about what’s going on at Artspace. On Oct. 15, the executive director was fired. The fund-raising officer had left several months earlier. Allegations of roughshod leadership hide in the backdrop of a happy setting. Some say Artspace just isn’t what it used to be.

Green’s studio is only one part of the eclectic collection of galleries, workshops and offices that line Pierpont Ave. Above the elevated sidewalk, four or five large windows give any voyeuristic pedestrian an unguarded opportunity to peer in and scrutinize his work. Like a chef twirling pizza in front of a big window in the middle of a bustling urban neighborhood, if someone stared at him long enough Green would probably invite the curious passerby to come in and watch him.

On Oct. 27, a few days after Green struggled with the tiny tiles, Wirth’s greatly remodeled face found its way to the auction at the Bad Dog Masquerade Ball. It fetched a few hundred dollars for charity and all the proceeds went to support the organization Bad Dog Rediscovers America—a nonprofit group that mentors young kids through art classes and projects.

Bad Dog makes its home across the street from Green’s studio in an open-air loft above the small digital printing company Display. As Green prepared his rendition of Wirth, the squeals of the Bad Dog kids emerged from the loft. The 7- to 9-year olds in class that afternoon were making their own masks in preparation for the ball.

There are 28 live/work studios in the main Artspace structure. Peppered in between are the offices and galleries of organizations like Art Access, the Institute of Art and Imagination, the Utah Arts Festival and a Tibetan Buddhist temple. Each of them relishes the feeling of community and diversity that the area radiates. It’s a feeling that doesn’t just seem unique in Salt Lake City—it is unique.

Bad Dog is no longer a part of Artspace. Michael Moonbird, director of Bad Dog, only recently moved it from his apartment in an Artspace expansion area, the California Tire and Rubber Company Warehouse. Artspace worked its renovation magic on the Rubber Company in 1995. Located across from Pierpont Ave. on 200 South, the old warehouse now houses 53 units of affordable living space. Architects for the project rather cleverly decided to cut some of the concrete floor sections out of the upper stories of the building, leading to a huge skylight. The natural light radiates impressively inside the building and the nooks and nuances of the old warehouse give each apartment a feeling of elegance through simplicity. It is not a stereotypical affordable housing project.

Down the street past the towering Gateway project, Artspace just opened its Bridge Projects in October. Residents are still moving into the last of the open apartments in the boxy four-story complex just west of the homeless shelter The Road Home. A finished Bridge Projects meant the culmination of Artspace’s four-year effort to create even more affordable housing—this time in a new building. With The Gateway emerging next door, Artspace is right in the middle of a spectacular West Side boom.

But not everyone is booming with enthusiasm. Taking a break from the excited kids and their masks, Moonbird went to the quiet gallery in the entrance area of Display. There, in few words, he conveyed the community’s vague perception of Artspace. “Artspace is seen by everyone in the neighborhood to be this very secretive organization,” Moonbird said. “There have been some situations over there that have really—how can I put it?—tweaked everyone the wrong way.”

Rags to Riches
A large picture hangs on the wall of a well-lit room on the bottom floor of the Bridge Projects at 200 S. 500 West. It still has that new-building smell—a surprisingly pleasant combination of drywall dust and paint. The smooth concrete floor and large windows make the place feel open and very simple. The room is still waiting for someone to lease it and mount a store or gathering place that would ideally serve as the “anchor” of the building—much in the same way that Cup of Joe provides residents of the California Rubber building a place where everyone knows their names. At least that is Jessica Norie’s hope. She’s the interim executive director of Artspace who calls the new building her “baby.”

The picture is of the building Artspace currently calls home along Pierpont Ave. in the early 1980s. Barrels and wood boxes sit discarded on the side of the road. The roof, and subsequently the windows and the rest of the structure look like they would cave in the slightest windstorm. Overall, it looks like Beirut, or like the West Side of downtown Salt Lake City circa 1980.

As a sculptor in the early 1980s, Steven Goldsmith had trouble finding anyplace in Salt Lake City to do his work and at the same time enjoy modern amenities like running water and heat. Goldsmith wasn’t the only artist with that problem, so a small group of them got together, and starting with only $50, they slowly but surely renovated each of the spaces in the old building. Soon enough, artists looking for a place to be artists and not starve, freeze or give it all up found homes in Artspace. They could sign leases for a minimum of four years and as long as they kept doing their art, they could count on an affordable living and work area.

Goldsmith and others took the $50 and made it count. Artspace, 17 years after people first started moving in, is now worth more than $20 million. “If one of the aspects of artistic sensibility is caring compassionately about the community in which one resides, then Artspace has certainly achieved one of its goals,” Goldsmith said. “It is a wonderful expression of the human spirit when you have the kind of diversity that expresses important values along with the spirit of creativity all under three roofs. Artspace is one of the best organizations of its type in the country. Its role in protecting the authenticity and diversity of its neighborhood from organizations that would overrun it and corporations that piggyback artists into communities like it is fundamental.”

Goldsmith left Artspace in June of 2000 to take a job as planning director for Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson. He had actually departed the organization months earlier when he went to Cambridge, Mass., to finish a graduate program at Harvard. When he left, the administration of Artspace fell into the hands of John Milliken, who had become chairman of the board of trustees in 1996.

Milliken isn’t just the chairman of the board at Artspace. In the same room where the picture of the broken-down warehouse acts as a quiet testimonial to the success of Artspace also hangs a simple list of generous local philanthropists who have made Artspace’s ambitions financially possible. Milliken’s name is at the top of that list.

When they talk about him, people all over the neighborhood immediately mention how much money he has. In weak, foreboding tones, they explain that he is very wealthy. They mean it as if it were evidence of the man’s ethics and at the same time, as a simple explanation for their reluctance to talk.

Milliken rides his bike to work. When he took over Artspace after Goldsmith left, he combined the nonprofit’s headquarters on Pierpont Ave. with the central offices of his own company, Milcom Inc., an investment firm. It started raining shortly after he gave City Weekly a tour of the Bridge Projects and the rest of Artspace’s accomplishments. The rain brought up the question of what he would do to get home that day. Would a rich man ride his bike home in the rain?

“John Milliken has sustained Artspace and ensured its survival for many years,” Goldsmith said. “He has endured countless hours of heavy stress in order to make sure the Bridge Projects got off the ground. It has all been an act of community-mindedness and love and generosity on his part. Not to mention the impact all of this has on his family, to have given what it takes to keep a large organization like this alive and growing. Even with all of this, I have never once heard a complaint from him.”

Maybe, but grievances about him have soared since Oct. 15 when during an office shouting match he told Artspace’s executive director, Maggie St. Claire, to just leave. St. Claire’s firing came only months after director of development Karen Wildfoerster left the organization in similarly ugly circumstances.

Normally, the firing of a nonprofit’s executive director would come about through a unanimous decision of the organization’s board of trustees—the group charged with holding the administration of a nonprofit group accountable. After Milliken fired St. Claire, the board was merely informed of what he had decided to do. They didn’t vote on anything. If there were any questions of who ran the place and how he did it, they should be put to rest.

Cleaning House
Maggie St. Claire worked for 13 years as an executive television news producer for the largest station in Utah, KSL. She had dealt with nonprofit organizations before but never as a real job, and she had no specific connections to Artspace or the artist community at all. Artspace came to her.

After a little recruiting, she finally accepted the executive director position at Artspace in March. She declined to comment on her October departure from the organization. All she would say is that Artspace had, in fact, recruited her.

“It was a big surprise to me when she was fired,” said Joe Pitti, owner of Cup of Joe and one of Artspace’s prized tenants. Cup of Joe is the “anchor” and community center of the area. “We were all very excited about her. She was in agreement with some of the issues we had. She was starting to address our problems. We finally got this acknowledgement of our complaints from somebody in the administration. But Maggie was starting to question some things over there. She got a sense of what was going on and tried to make some changes and all of a sudden, she’s gone.”

She’s gone, and now others have started to follow. Deborah Kooring, property manager for Artspace, decided she was done as well. It was Kooring who filed through the countless applications for prospective tenants, and she’s the one in charge of collecting rent. She’ll leave at the end of November.

“Maggie was doing a great job,” Kooring said. “When Steven was involved there was more a sense of community-building as opposed to development alone. There doesn’t seem to be as much of a concern for the residents.”

That complaint finds the most sympathetic ears in the neighborhood. What a community is and who seems to care more for it are the questions of the day. Rocky Raymond, owner of Display, said people have gotten so disillusioned with the leadership of Artspace that they now turn to his company for direction on how to help build back the feeling of community everyone talks about and takes so much pride in.

“The artists come here to find out what’s going on and to help organize events to help improve the community. We take that as a compliment,” Raymond said. “Artspace has separated itself and isolated itself from the neighborhood because of its actions and animosity toward the artists and tenants of the area. But that’s fine, we do very well without them.”

Raymond said he was the victim of Milliken’s wrath and bullying attitude just this summer, after they moved out of their Artspace location and into the larger building across the street. Milliken sued them for breaking a lease that a judge finally said never even existed. Nell Raymond, Rocky’s wife and co-owner of Display, said she would never forget that September day in court.

“Milliken thought he could throw his weight around and intimidate people,” Nell Raymond said. “To sue us like that was very poor community relations and the judge threw it out as fast as he saw it. They are not very good at promoting the community wellness. From a gut feeling, things just don’t smell right over there. You question him, though, and it looks like you just get fired.”

Karen Wildfoerster said she started to question things at Artspace and found the answers to her questions very disconcerting. She quit in June. “A nonprofit organization must be accountable to the individuals and the community it serves, as well as those who fund its work,” Wildfoerster said. “When you have one person acting as chairman of the board, executive director, largest donor and even the landlord, where is the accountability? I left Artspace because it was impossible to do the work for which I was hired in a manner that was compatible with the best practices and ethical standards of nonprofit work.”

Wildfoerster is now the development director for the Utah/Idaho Chapter of the Arthritis Foundation.

None of it seems to bother Milliken. As it started to rain a little harder, he leaned against the railing of the elevated sidewalk in front of Artspace’s office and shook his head. “I’m not going to comment on that,” he said about St. Claire’s firing. Karen Wildfoerster’s leaving was “old news,” he said, and it wasn’t appropriate for him to talk about it. As far as the sense of community, “I’ve always stood for art and culture. The work speaks for itself, and it speaks volumes.”

Building Big
In the middle of September people started moving into the new Bridge Projects. The shiny concrete floors and sparse walls make the halls of the place echo. Each of the apartments have an indentation—a private entranceway—designed specifically, Norie said, to make the people feel like they have a little more privacy. Inside the apartments, the rooms are bright and illuminated.

Milliken pointed out that the ducts for the air conditioning and heating are exposed in every one of the apartments. That gives all the tenants higher ceilings and it makes all the rooms seem bigger and friendlier. The windows look down on Artspace’s next project, the City Center development.

Milliken said providing affordable housing for a diversity of people was as important to Artspace’s mission as helping artists. “Poverty is punishment enough for the people who have to live in these places,” he said. “We give them a nice place to live, a clean place to live, so that they can stop worrying about that and focus their time and energy on improving their quality of life and their career opportunities.”

It’s definitely a change from Goldsmith’s original plan to find artists a place to work and still have running water. And the attitude that Artspace is moving far from its beginnings is not limited to the people who have left its umbrella.

Mike Green talked about it a little after he was finished preparing the mask for the Bad Dog Ball. He is the only tenant of Artspace who also sits on the board of trustees. He was reluctant to discuss the tumultuous issues consuming the organization lately, but he did talk about Artspace itself. He said his efforts were fundamental in changing Artspace’s mission statement. In order to accommodate the ambitious development plans Artspace had begun pursuing, the word “art” was pushed toward the end of the mission statement. Before Green worked to change it, the emphasis of the statement honed in on obtaining grants and finding more places to develop, he said. Art was almost nonexistent.

“Artspace lost its direction with all of this development,” Green said. “We wanted to make sure that Artspace was an organization committed to providing affordable working space for artists in the community. It really lost its direction and moved toward becoming only a development corporation.”

Willie Littig, who rents a space from the original Artspace building on Pierpont Ave., said he’s disappointed with the way things are going now. “The sad part is, it is not really the community it once was,” Littig said. “It’s becoming more like a rental property.”

But Goldsmith said he’s been hearing those kinds of complaints since he first started Artspace back in the early ’80s. Now matter how good a deal the artists have, Goldsmith said, they will always complain.

“Even back then there were constant daily complaints from the artists who lived there,” Goldsmith said. “Some of those that were complaining back in 1983 are the same ones who are complaining in 2001. But you see they still live there, they get a great deal, and they love it. But there is a such a long history of us listening to constant, unceasing complaints about a place where these people get terrific, functional space.”

They owe it all to Milliken, Goldsmith said. A conversation with Milliken immediately gives the impression that he is a very matter-of-fact type of man. If he has something to say, he says it, and that’s the way it is. When he says he is done answering a question, he really means it.

Kris Hopfenbeck, a member of Artspace’s board of trustees, said the board members were warned not to talk publicly about what was going on there. Whenever someone said they didn’t want to talk about the situation, they always pointed indirectly to Milliken’s wealth as a reason why. As if his money itself could hurt them. Then again, maybe it could.

“Artspace is a great organization,” said Norie. “Yeah, it has its issues, but so does everyone else. It’s no different.”

Then she offered her boss a ride home if the rain got worse. He shrugged his shoulders and didn’t say a thing.

 
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