Associated Artists of Pittsburgh delays annual exhibition

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The Associated Artists of Pittsburgh has postponed its annual exhibition, which was slated to open June 22.

Juliana Morris, executive director of the 480-member nonprofit, said the show was postponed because the organization's board decided not to upgrade a cavernous space in the Village of Eastside in East Liberty that was to be its new home.

The AAP had planned to lease the 5,000-square-foot space, for $1.50 per square foot, from Jack McGinley, a former AAP board member who is one of nine board members to resign since the start of the year. He could not be reached for comment.

The AAP, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2010, is one of the oldest continuously exhibiting arts organizations in the nation and typically holds its annual exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art. The decision to postpone the exhibition until fall and disagreements over the nonprofit's direction and use of the East Liberty building have created a rift on the board and among its members.

"If we don't have an annual this year, it makes me sick," said former president Kathleen Zimbicki. She said upgrading the East Liberty space required erecting walls and installing toilets and lighting. But Ms. Morris said the space required far more work and that the only entrance was a garage door.

"They had to break through a brick wall to install an entrance door," Ms. Morris said. "We had to revamp the [heating, ventilation and air-conditioning] system, build a kitchen area, update the entrances, and there's no restroom.

"We had to cover all the walls with plaster. It's basically just cement block, " Ms. Morris said.

Some board members resigned over the board's failure to follow through on the new gallery. AAP now has a 10-member board plus an advisory board.

Syl Damianos, an architect and a sculptor, said he had returned to AAP's board for one purpose -- to open the new gallery. He resigned when the plan fell apart.

"There wasn't enough confidence and support for that to succeed. I think we had the support to open it and not enough financial backup to keep it going," he said.

Mr. Damianos said he had hoped to open the gallery in phases. He estimated that getting the building ready for the exhibit would have cost about $100,000, and that the total cost would have been around $270,000.

"Now, we're like nomads. We don't have a home. I think that's what the members were looking for," he said.

The AAP currently has a third-floor office at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts in Shadyside, but there is not adequate gallery space there for its needs.

The AAP has already approached local foundations for support. But obtaining grants may not be easy. Program officers still recall that the group, in a bid to have its own Downtown space, spent $450,000 in 1988 to buy a three-story building at 937 Liberty Ave. In 2001, when the AAP was short on cash, the organization used money earmarked for renovation of that building to instead pay for daily operating expenses. That put it in the position of being unable to pay for renovations, and the AAP appealed to local foundations to bail it out.

In 2003, the AAP sold the property for $575,000 to the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. Sale proceeds were used to establish an endowment for the AAP, said Anna Marie Sninsky, a former executive director.

Changes at the AAP have been in the offing since last year. In the fall of 2011, the AAP benefited from a $120,000 Kresge Foundation grant to the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council. The grant was used to evaluate the AAP and two other arts groups.

The findings by peers from out-of-town arts groups were that the AAP needed a business plan and had become too insular. The AAP has since restructured its board and exhibitions committee and has appointed new leadership. Ms. Morris, who became executive director in February, said the board hired Dewey & Kaye to prepare a business plan.

The organization's fiscal year ends June 30. Typically, the AAP's budget ranges from $200,000 to $300,000, fluctuating based on the number of dues-paying members. Its endowment is around $500,000.

The evaluation also revealed that some AAP exhibitions lacked a consistent level of quality and that a small core group of active members did not relate well to the larger membership.

"Change needed to happen," Ms. Morris said. "We wanted to bring in a younger component, which is why we're trying to get younger people on the board and on the committees."

Ms. Morris has been a lightning rod for some of the criticism. At a Sunday membership meeting, AAP member Lila Hirsch Brody moved that Ms. Morris be fired, but the motion was never voted upon.

"Why did she become a gallery director? Why are we giving her $48,000 a year?" Ms. Brody asked.

Before joining AAP, Ms. Morris ran the studio of her former husband, artist Burton Morris.

"I come more from the profit side. I have an advertising and marketing background," she said.

artarchitecture

Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648. First Published May 22, 2012 12:00 AM


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