“This is the strangest resignation I’ve ever witnessed,” said the Guild’s Board President, Frances Halsband, as she and three other board members gathered in the organization’s offices and checked whether things were in order.
She noted how Nesbett, a surprise “out of the box” hire who came on board June 10 after the Guild’s previous director, Carla Smith, retired after 13 years, had called a staff meeting last Friday, July 16, to say he would be leaving after seeing the Guild through the weekend…and then abruptly packed up both his office and the Byrdcliffe home he and his wife Shelly had been given to use rent-free. She found out about his departure Saturday at 8:30 a.m.
“Resignation is acceptable, disappearance is not,” noted board Vice President Henry T. Ford.
“Fortunately, this was only a five week thing… a blip,” added board secretary Matthew Leaycraft.
Just then, the Guild’s longest-serving board member, local architect Les Walker, stepped in with a notepad and informed everyone that he’d just uncovered a pile of un-deposited checks to the organization, as well as long-written checks that had never been signed and sent out.
“Have you figured out why he was so angry?” Walker asked those already assembled.
Nesbett wrote in his July 17 letter, “This letter serves to notify you of my resignation as the Executive Director of the Woodstock Guild of Craftsmen, Inc. (dba Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild), effective immediately…There are a number of factors that led me to this difficult decision.” He continued with three pages of charges against the organization under the headings, “The Guild’s financial troubles are worse than I could have imagined,” “The Guild rewards fiscal mismanagement,” “The board is not taking the financial situation as seriously as it should because it is overly concerned with alienating core constituents and projecting a public image of weakness,” “A significant frustration for me was that I was not given the authority commensurate with an executive director position,” “A sad reality is that the organization’s power lies not with the board or the Executive Director but with its volunteers committees,” and “The board gets too caught up in details when it should be looking at the big picture.”
Nesbett’s email continued.
“When I started on June 10th, I was optimistic about the Guild’s future. I knew that the changes that needed to be made would be difficult and would be met with resistance, but I didn’t know how bad the financial situation was and I didn’t realize how little power I would actually have,” concluded the man hired from a string of not-for-profits he and his wife had started and run in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood over the past decade or so. “Today, I am not optimistic about the Guild’s future. Rather than stand at the helm with my hands tied while the ship continues to take on water, I’ve decided to step away from the organization. I’m hoping that my resignation will underscore the urgency of the situation.”
“Wow,” was all Ariel Shanberg of the Center for Photography at Woodstock — the only other local executive director of a local arts organization who Nesbett had spoken to during his short time in town — could say about the resignation letter that had been broadcast not only through inner circles, but to all Nesbett’s cultural world contacts, it seemed.
Former director Smith said that she considered a number of the charges Nesbett had leveled directly at her in his letter as libelous.
“No one can come in and understand the dynamics of an organization as complex as the Guild, with all its programs and property needs, in that short a time,” said Smith. “It turns out he’d never really worked with a real board of directors or committees; he had a degree and worked with his own organizations, for which he and his wife served as board members.”
Both she and Shanberg, as well as Woodstock Artists Association and Museum Executive Director Josephine Bloodgood, all acknowledged that the financial situation for all cultural organizations is vulnerable these days…and always.
“We’re all struggling,” was how Smith put it.
“We’re not bankrupt and most of what he says is simply not true,” added Halsband, in the Guild offices on Monday. “In fact, I believe we’re having one of our best years in a long time. We almost have a balanced budget, and a much lower deficit than usual. We’ve put nearly $200,000 worth of renovations work into the buildings at Byrdcliffe and we’ve almost rid ourselves of any credit card debt.”
The Guild, as with all cultural organizations in town, as well as throughout the state and nation, has been battling major governmental grants cuts, drops in foundation funding, as well as in individual giving over the past decade… beginning with the social program cuts of the Bush years and now vastly extended by the economic doldrums of the past two years of recession. Moreover, it has, like all its peers, been steering a course through leadership shifts, changing boards, and constant re-identification with Woodstock’s own changing population.
Before Smith came on board in 1997 to replace former Red Cross official Caroline Harris after one year on the job, the Guild had been through a quick succession of directors exacerbated by one couple’s splitting while at the organization’s helm. Meanwhile, the last decade has seen similar disturbances at WAAM, which shifted directors several times in a few years as its own board disintegrated a few years ago, and CPW, where Shanberg was a surprise, youthful hire from within following the forced resignations of the organization’s founding directors after a quarter century.
Meanwhile, other local arts organizations, from the Woodstock Playhouse to the Woodstock Film Festival, have made the local news in recent years for both their ongoing funding struggles and, in the Playhouse’s case, facing foreclosure because of their ongoing failure to meet their own budget requirements.
Charges and counters
Following Monday’s gathering at the Kleinert/James Arts Center, to be followed up by a full board meeting to be held this coming weekend, Halsband and Leaycraft drafted a point by point response to Nesbett’s charges.
“Before I was hired, I reviewed the Guild’s budget, which I was told was more or less balanced. I didn’t ask to see financial statements — a mistake,” wrote Nesbett, adding how he later “learned that the Guild had $0 in cash in the bank and $0 in cash reserves and that it had been struggling for more than a year to make its bi-weekly payroll.” He mentioned “the crippling mortgage on the White Pines property, “maxed-out” lines of credit, “$27,000 on a credit card earning 29% interest, $47,000 in loans from the endowment, $15,000 in loans from board members, and an additional $50,000 that needed to be repaid to the Vincent Wagner Trust — a fund that had been raided to cover operating losses.” He brought up a portion of the Guild’s original Peter Whitehead endowment that had been converted to an annuity, “which meant that it was producing so-called guaranteed investment income (5%) but its principal was being depleted as a result,” in his own words. He charged the Guild with operating on a $5,000 per month deficit.
“Our $450,000 2009/2010 budget was balanced,” responded Halsband and Leaycraft. “Fact: on May 8 in preparation for his interview, Mr. Nesbett requested current financial information. On May 10 he was sent the budget, current financials, and P&L for the shop, among many other documents. At no time during Mr. Nesbett’s tenure was there a $0 balance in our operating account. Our bookkeeper affirms that in 16 years we have never missed a payroll.”
The two board members acknowledged having a mortgage on White Pines, the historic Whitehead home that helped serve as a centerpiece for the centennial celebration for the Byrdcliffe Colony six years ago. And yes, they said they did maintain a revolving line of credit on a credit card.
“The $27,000 balance was due in August to jump to a rate of 29%. The board anticipated paying off this debt both to celebrate our new Executive Director’s arrival and to demonstrate board support for the organization. The board has donated to date $22,000. We expect to pay off the entire amount in the next few weeks,” Haslband and Leaycraft wrote. “In the past few years the board has authorized borrowings from the endowment for a total of approximately $60,000. Currently the endowment stands at approximately $600,000.”
They pointed out that the annuity was purchased as “a guaranteed way to maximize income without depleting principle. This has proved a sound investment especially with the downturn in other investment returns.”
“We are not running a $5,000 a month deficit,” they said, without embellishment. “However, a small annual deficit is not atypical of arts organizations.”
“As is well known, over the past few years, the Guild’s former Executive Director spent restricted funds on operating costs, causing the organization public embarrassment and adding to its long-term debt obligations,” Nesbett went on, in his letter. “Several weeks ago, I learned of another incident wherein the Guild wrongly spent a restricted fund (the Alf Evers Trust — $25,000 — established by a former board member AJ Lederman) for what appears to have been operating expenses. In any other organization, such financial mismanagement would be grounds for immediate termination. Yet, despite these situations — and possibly others that aren’t yet known — the Guild rewarded the former Executive Director by a) not firing her; b) celebrating her tenure at the Guild both with a retirement party and the establishment of a work-fund in her name; and c) re-hiring her as the director of Historic Byrdcliffe.”
The board response noted how the trust mentioned by Nesbett had been set up for a program no longer being run. Smith added how all decisions to shift funds were authorized, as they occurred, and now being repaid.
“The Alf Evers Trust was used per the terms of the gift to purchase, catalogue, and preserve the Evers Collection,” Halsband and Leaycraft wrote. “Carla Smith voluntarily retired. There was a party to recognize her 13 years of service. Private donors contributed to a fund allowing her follow through on a project for cataloguing our collection in collaboration with the Dorsky Museum. The WBG Board strongly affirms Carla Smith’s fiscal integrity.”
Later, Lederman wrote and said she contacted Nesbett when she heard he was looking into the selling of the Evers collection of papers and books, which he later said was just a rumor…he was trying to ascertain their worth to answer storage concerns.
Smith said that she was working with that collection, for which part of the cost of curating and restoration will now be paid by a newly-announced $150,000 Institute of Museum and Library Services grant she helped shepherd through, intended for the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, WAAM, CPW, and Women’s Studio Workshop.
Short v. long term
“Rather than shutter programs and balance budgets, the board has consistently looked for stopgap approaches with minimal public ramifications,” wrote Nesbett, mentioning his suggestion that the Guild close down the Kleinert/James gallery and music programming, or rent the facility to another organization. “The board is again looking at temporary short-term solutions — including withdrawing funds from the endowment or selling more land — when it needs to act quickly in more substantive, long-term ways.”
“The truth is the opposite,” the board responded. “Shuttering programs to preserve real estate assets is contrary to our mission. Mr. Nesbett’s proposed short term solutions would have yielded small reductions in operating expenses through cut backs in staff and programs, but completely ignored the primary challenge of this organization: which is how do we best bring our endowment and extensive real estate holdings into alignment with focused programmatic vision.”
Nesbett wrote: “In order to balance the budget, I needed the authority to hire, fire, and reconfigure the staff, and I needed control over the Guild’s programs. I had neither, despite what my contract said. When I presented an emergency plan to the board in response to the operating deficit, my suggestions to cut staff were significantly curtailed out of concern for organizational morale and public perception. In response to requests to immediately mothball programs that are loss-producers, the board also put the brakes on any such action, again worried about alienating constituents (mostly volunteers serving on the various program committees) who might kick up dust in the community.”
“Precipitous action without strategic context, as proposed by Mr. Nesbett, is a recipe for wasted opportunity and failure,” Halsband and Leaycraft responded. “The board was indeed concerned with the morale of its staff, some of whom have been in our employ for many years. We were reluctant to support action that might alienate our loyal volunteers. Further, the WBG cares deeply for its relation to Woodstock and the larger community. The board assumed and Mr. Nesbett’s contract of employment indicates a spirit of collaboration between the board and the executive director. This seems not to have been Mr. Nesbett’s understanding.”
In a separate interview, Halsband noted that Nesbett had been distinctly ordered not to make any major changes, or firings, until the organization’s fiscal year shifted October 1. She further called his term, up until then, as “provisional.”
Nesbett said that the Guild’s system of volunteer boards and committees made it, “almost impossible for an Executive Director to act on any decision handed down from the Board.”
The board replied that, “Mr. Nesbett’s primary responsibility was to devise and implement a comprehensive strategic plan and to fundraise toward that plan. We have no further comment.”
Nesbett complained about a Monday, July 12 meeting where he says board insistence on organizational details involving the Guild’s annual gala, including who to pick as a caterer, were counter-productive.
Halsband spoke about how Nesbett and his wife had been asked to come forth with plans that could be approved, only to show up at that meeting empty-handed…after already postponing the event from August into September.
“He was unprepared to take advantage of the considerable expertise and fundraising capacity of the development committee who had been assembled specifically for their extraordinary expertise in the corporate, institutional, and foundation worlds,” she and Leaycraft later wrote.
On Tuesday, I spoke to Nesbett as he traveled by train to Philadelphia for a consulting job. He asked that I be sure to acknowledge having curated an art exhibit for the Guild in the past year and requested doing so again, as well as friendships I’ve maintained with Guild staff and volunteers on its various committees, many of whom stepped away from their long-held positions during the departed director’s brief tenure. But he also acknowledged having been pleased by the story I’d written about his hiring a short while back, and how I’d pieced it together via e-mail when he was unable to set aside the time for a one-on-one phone conversation, let alone a meeting in person.
“My whole purpose was not to hurt the organization or town but to be clear about why I was leaving,” he said. “I would say that over the five weeks I was there, on a daily basis there’d be something revealed to me by people or my own research that made me cringe…By week five I realized the situation was worse than I had anticipated.”
We asked Nesbett whether he thought the Guild would survive, given the harsh prognosis he’d broadcast in his letter.
“My concern would be that they sort of take small steps to keep going and patch holes, without any real change,” he replied. “In that way they’d slowly whittle away…The public would not necessarily notice its decline. But I would be concerned if I were a citizen of Woodstock.”
We asked whether any of Nesbett’s frustrations had anything to do with the town, to which he quickly replied that he and wife Shelly Bancroft “never got to know the town. We got to know the culture of the Guild.”
In subsequent conversation, Nesbett spoke about how the Guild needed to put all its priority onto its historic properties at Byrdcliffe, with an emphasis fully on infrastructure over arts programming. He noted how, “the town is so small that no one wants to alienate anyone,” and yet the Center for Photography had demonstrated a way in which a local presence could be maintained with a much wider national and even international base of support…and outreach.
“I kept asking the board to explain why they were maintaining some program that broke even while others actually ran at a loss,” he continued. “In regards to their now questioning my experience, I have a degree in not-for-profit administration from Columbia…The only reason the organization is complicated is because it’s unnecessarily complicated. It should be streamlined.”
Nesbett said that when he came on the job, he told the board he wanted no contact with Smith, its previous director, because he wanted to come in with fresh eyes. Chief among his goals, he felt, was to “reposition the Byrdcliffe Brand” by shifting its artist-in-residence programming to something much younger and broader based beyond the arts. He said that the Guild, as it stood, was too reliant on local money and “needed to get out of its rut.”
Later, he explained what his vision was in a separate e-mail, noting that, “Byrdcliffe: The Institute for Visionary Thinking” would “invite brilliant, creative young adults (20s) with utopian ideals and a desire to make the world a better place to join a community of like-minded people in residence. The core group would be creative people...artists, designers, architects, writers...but it would also include philosophers, theologians, etc. The residents would be visited weekly during the summer months by established ‘visionaries’ who would give public lectures in Woodstock and then meet privately with the residents to discuss their ideas and projects…The repositioning of Byrdcliffe in this way was a strategy to a) distinguish it from other residency programs; b) develop it as a national brand; c) play off its early, utopian history; and d) expand the potential funding base...bringing more money not just into the Guild but also into the region in support of creative endeavors.”
Separately, Nesbett called the Guild’s use of volunteers and committees “unnecessarily complex” as well as “inefficient, redundant, and are not centrally coordinated,” and charged again that the board’s fear of “alienating or offending people in town…has given birth to a quagmire.”
As for staff and board charges that Nesbett had brought Bancroft into all elements of the Guild’s operation, the former director said his wife’s involvement had been mentioned in his contract, along with his $50,000 salary.
“Shelly and I work collaboratively on all our professional activities,” he said, touting her past experience with an artists collective in Boston, as well as their Triple Candie Gallery in Harlem, which caused a major art world stir a few years ago when it started showing unauthorized retrospectives of artists’ work without their permission.
“Rather than cheerleading for artists and boosting careers, Triple Candie has taken the lonelier path of challenging the art world by turning tradition on its head,” wrote Art Info’s Chris Bors in 2009 of the couple.
“We felt that the only way we could do what we wanted was to take back some of the control that we had given away. So we created something completely different by using the detritus of the art world to tell our own story,” the two were quoted, at the time. “Our program is decidedly anti-material and anti-market…A lot of our shows were realized when the art market was going through unprecedented growth. The greed that we saw in the art world was coupled with the greed that we were seeing in society at large, so we tried to do shows that shifted the emphasis. Because we saw artists as complicit with the problems we were seeing, we were motivated not to work with them.”
Quit and blame
Halband said that Bancroft had only been mentioned as a possible future hire, and no more.
Smith said that she wondered whether the Board had done due diligence on the couple, as well as Nesbett, before pointing out the various awards and honors the Guild has received in recent years, from National Endowment for the Arts funding and a coveted Pollack-Krasner Foundation program presenting Master Artists working with artists in residence. She pointed out the state arts council funds the organization keeps getting for its music programming, as well as its self-supporting visual arts program, considered among the best in the Hudson Valley in recent years.
As for troubles along the way, over the years, she added that, “As boards change, dynamics change.”
Bloodgood, at WAAM, noted how much progress she’d seen at the Guild in recent years, especially in terms of its outreach to other cultural organizations and the town in general, via the Woodstock Consortium Smith helped put together and lead.
Shanberg spoke about how much he’d liked Nesbett the one time they’d had coffee, and how just last week they’d been in touch about borrowing equipment and sharing programs.
“I was enthused by Peter’s background and fresh ideas,” he said. But then he pointed out how much more important it was that the town’s cultural organizations were getting together and collaborating on a regular basis.
The Guild’s President Emeritus Doug James weighed in.
“It concerned me that Peter Nesbett started out by saying he wouldn’t give up his city ventures or his home there. This stands in contrast to Carla, who first told us she needed a week to determine if she wanted to dedicate her whole life to this job, then accepted,” said James. “When Nesbett got here and saw this was a full time job, he quit and blamed us for his mistake. It’s now clear he did not want a full time job here, nor did he want to answer to anyone…The fact that Mr. Nesbett appeared at a time when we are restructuring and refining our mission and our identity must not stand as fodder for this man’s inflammatory statements to further his personal ends at our expense. Such conclusions largely based on looking at years of CPA approved public records during a few days tenure simply don’t merit any measure of credibility.”
Meanwhile, Guild programming was continuing, via staff and volunteer input, as usual, with a monthly Byrdcliffe Artist in Residence Program potluck dinner, Open Studios event, and readings at the Arts Colony’s Villetta Inn at 5 p.m. Friday, July 23; a Heads/Hearts/Bodies exhibition of sculpture and pottery with artists Bob Barry, Jamie Gaul and Marianne Levy at the Barzin House (5 West Byrdcliffe Road, across the road from the Byrdcliffe Barn) 5:30 p.m.-8 p.m. Saturday, July 24; and the Guild’s 19th Annual Woodstock Beat on Saturday, July 31 featuring Steve Reich and Musicians, NEXUS, and So Percussion performing Reich’s seminal work Drumming on its 40th anniversary at the Maverick Concert Hall.
“What lessons have I learned from this?” Nesbett repeated a question while on the train Tuesday. “The desire for change and the ability to change are two different things.”
“It’s frightening for me to think of how many people out there were frightened by his words,” said Halsband, separately. “I guess we will never really know what drove him to resign in the way he did, and to write such a letter.” ++