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Sonoma County Arts Council broke, lays off staff

Published: Thursday, October 17, 2013 at 7:09 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, October 18, 2013 at 7:16 a.m.

The group that organizes the popular ARTrails program underway this weekend has run out of money and has laid off its four-person staff.

The Arts Council of Sonoma County, a nonprofit founded in 1984 to represent the county's art community, was forced to take the drastic step this week after private grant funds dried up, said board chairman and author Tom Lombardo.

“Our staff members are incredible people who are dedicated to the arts,” Lombardo said. “We put off the denouement as long as we possibly could.”

Four board members have resigned and the group is now in debt, though Lombardo declined to say how much.

“We need a CPA to help us understand the books before we can comment on them with integrity,” Lombardo said.

The board recently discovered that for some time the group's executive director, Jennifer Sloan, “was not providing the Board with critical information, including financial information that could have informed decision making,” Lombardo said.

Once a full accounting is made the board will make the findings public, he said. Sloan was among those laid off. She could not be reached for comment.

John Moran, who worked for the organization for eight years focusing on information technology and performing arts, said he and others were called into the group's Rohnert Park offices and given the news Monday.

“I am, as they say in my country, gob-smacked,” said Moran, a native of England. He said he knew the organization was struggling but had no idea it was at risk of shutting down.

The other staffers laid off were ARTrails manager Vicky Kumpfer, and Courtney Arnold, who helped seek grants.

This weekend's ARTrails Open Studios program, which features more than 160 artists welcoming the public into their studios, will be unaffected by the layoffs, Lombardo said.

The council suffered from a series of financial challenges. The first was when the California Arts Council cut its funding for budget reasons about 10 years ago. That forced the group to seek private funding to stay alive. It was successful for a time.

The council used a grant from the Irvine Foundation to put on art festivals, according to Karin Demarest, program officer for arts and education for the Sonoma County Community Foundation, which administered the grant. The relationship ended in 2011, she said.

A grant from the Hewlett Foundation funded the group's administration for several years, Lombardo said. Those funds helped the group develop a separate arts calendar website called sonomaarts.com.

Some artists, however, questioned using grant funds to develop a website instead of putting the money into events or directly supporting artists. The site also had some technical problems and was in the process of being updated, Moran said.

The group had sought to position itself as an umbrella organization for the 130 different arts groups in the county representing an estimated 27,000 artists of all disciplines.

Initiatives included advocating for a county-wide arts plan, funding general arts advertising and working toward a public interactive map of public art installations. Lombardo said the arts are a major draw for tourists and the group advocated for greater taxpayer support for county arts programs.

At times, however, the group's efforts to secure grant funds gave some the impression that the council was competing with other arts organizations instead of collaborating with them, according to some arts leaders with knowledge of the situation.

Bodega Bay painter Janet Moore said she participated in the ARTrails program, which is in its 28th year, and the West County's Art at the Source program, run by the Sebastopol Center for the Arts.

She said both are successful and well run, with the difference being the Art at the Source program is completely run by volunteers. That gives Moore hope that whatever happens to the council, ARTrails will survive.

“I would hate to see it go by the wayside,” Moore said. “Is it possible for volunteers to run it? Yeah.”

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