The news was announced as part of a Special Meeting called by some of the Guild’s membership at the Kleinert/James Arts Center this past Sunday afternoon, September 26. Following introductions of each of the Guild’s board members, with basic bios, the meeting began with detailed responses to a list of questions about the Guild’s current finances, which included what the board has termed a “systemic debt” of approximately $30,000 in recent years.
New York City gallery owner Peter Nesbett, hired to replace longterm Guild Executive Director Carla Smith in June, resigned his position five weeks later blaming the organization’s financial challenges, for one thing, for his actions. At the time, then-Board President Frances Halsband countered that many of the charges brought against the Guild, Smith, and various board and committee members were false and exaggerated, and based on misinformation.
Sunday’s meeting, however, revealed much financial distress at the former crafts guild that was given stewardship of the renowned but unsuccessful colony by the Whitehead’s son, Peter, in 1975.
Mortgages taken out against the White Pines property, which was passed to Whitehead’s cousin Mark Willcox, who later sold the classic Arts & Crafts home to the Woodstock Guild while simultaneously making “major donations” of Byrdcliffe furnishings and archival materials to major institutions such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Winterthur, have included $296,000 from M&T Bank and a $485,000 loan from the Catskill Watershed Corporation, now whittled down to just under $260,000.
Annual dept payments, the board noted were currently adding up to $77,000 a year.
On top of that, it was announced, were immediate cash needs, exacerbated by the loss of the Guild’s annual gala due to Nesbett’s abrupt departure last summer, including $12,000 for three months of late payments owed the CWC, $14,000 in owed property taxes, and approximately $6,000 in other such debts.
On the “plus” side, noted Board President Henry T. Ford and Board liaison Matthew Leaycraft, who is currently overseeing day-to-day operations at the organization, were $14,000 in board loans whose payments have been postponed a year, the whittling away of $29,000 in credit card debts to a current amount of $8,000, a decrease in the amount borrowed from the $660,000 Whitehead endowment on which the Guild operates from $45,000 eight years ago to a current $29,000, and the setting up of $4,700 per year payments designed to replenish the $41,309 Vincent Wagner Endowment that had been set up to fund candlelight piano concerts in the Byrdcliffe Barn.
“We have no liens,” Ford said. “Although this is all something to be concerned about…when Peter Nesbett left we realized our primary responsibility was to stabilize the organization’s finances.”
Outside of pure monetary figures, Ford added that a well-connected fundraiser has been brought on board part-time, and any search for a full-time director would be postponed until the new year.
Going over balance sheets, Board Chairperson Frances Halsband (who had been president until it was pointed out that she’d overstayed her appointment, per the Guild’s bylaws) listed over 300 acres in real estate, over 30 structures, as well as the Guild’s Kleinert/James and an accompanying rental property (34 Tinker Street) in the Woodstock village center. Net worth, she said, had been assessed at $5.5 million, including the endowment and estimated value of collections.
Matching actual to anticipated revenues, the Guild’s $554,000 annual budget revealed a drop in contributions over the past year of approximately $20,000, a slight rise in grants, a $20,000 drop in earned income from events and gift shop sales, as well as drops in rentals. The total net loss, when offset by a reduction operating expenses, was $27,034 for the year.
Asset rich, income poor
Moving on to talk about shortfall-closing options discussed at their Saturday, September 25 board meeting, Ford started with a list of what the Guild’s board had decided not to do, from selling or even renting the Kleinert/James Arts Center and its galleries to sale of easement-protected properties adjacent to its 300 acre-plus main campus at Byrdcliffe; it decided against inquiries into legally borrowing from the Whitehead endowment, or selling of any of the colony’s collection.
Three items were left under the heading, “Action Plan,” however: the selling of 34 Tinker Street, the rental house adjacent to the K/J; the mortgaging or sale of the Serenata property within the colony, and the outright sale of White Pines.
“This has been a very painful decision,” Ford said, referring to the matter as being defined by terms of “proper stewardship.” “We as an organization don’t have the assets to do with it what it needs…This let’s you all in on our dirty, dark secret. We are asset rich but income poor.”
Halsband pointed out that any sale of White Pines restrictions would remain in force, calling them “extremely appropriate,” especially given the building’s official historical stature and previous funding restrictions that insist it be open to the public at least 12 days of every year.
It was noted that the place was currently without electricity or plumbing, although it did have a new roof as part of $400,000 in repairs to date, as opposed to an overall restoration cost of approximately $2 million.
Others pointed out how the Guild’s board had never been able to settle on a proper use for the historic building, with some calling for an Arts and Crafts museum, and pure preservation, while others had aimed for galleries, offices and even studio retreats augmenting the rest of the artists colony and residency programs currently based at the Villetta Inn and its outbuildings.
Where are the big New York parties?
After a moment of stunned silence from the packed room of Guild members, questions focused on what the board was and had been doing regarding fundraising beyond possible assets sales. Several people asked why the board had not gone to the community for help, or lived up to recent promises to do more private fundraising in New York City, where most of its members were based.
“This is the first time we’ve been able to see all these numbers on the same page,” Halsband replied. “In a way, this is a new beginning…If we now fall apart into warring factions, we get nowhere.”
Leaycraft noted that the current board had dug up $44,000 from its own pockets over the past year, and raised at least another $25,000 in fundraisers.
People in the audience complained about oversight and a lack of transparency in dealings with the organization’s membership.
“It’s a new day…we’re a new board,” Ford replied as Halsband stood to one side.
“We should be doing a better job putting money into programs and not into real estate,” Halsband added, noting the failure of previous fundraising campaigns on behalf of White Pines. “We are an arts organization and not just landlords…Every dollar that goes to the bank does not go into programming.”
Guild members started asking for new committees on fundraising and membership. It was agreed that all financial reports be made public, and fully-disclosed annual reports would be made available henceforth. The sale plans listed under “Action” would be made less final-sounding.
“We owned White Pines until you decided to use it as a cash cow to borrow against,” said Edwina Hoffman, a former Guild board president. “Where were the big New York parties you promised? What happened?”
“The loss of our Executive Director was devastating to us. We ended up losing five months in a critical year…it’s tragic,” Halsband replied. “We’re $30,000 in debt right now.”
Someone said that maybe the Guild, and troubled Bydcliffe legacy, owed thanks to Peter Nesbett, the short-lived and acrimonious ex-director.
“He did bring to light the tumor in this organization,” said a member.
“Every day I ask Ralph and Jane (Whitehead) to send us more money,” Ford said, earlier. “Our prayers have not been answered.”
“Maybe there’s a reason,” Halsband herself commented, at one point, “Peter Whitehead didn’t leave us White Pines for a reason.”++
The Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild’s annual member’s meeting is set for 1:00 PM on Saturday, November 20 at the Kleinert/James Arts Center.