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Petaluma Arts Center lays off staff as it wrestles with financial problems

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The future of the decade-old Petaluma Arts Center appears bleak after all of its employees were laid off within the last few weeks, leaving board volunteers to staff its Railroad Depot site.

The nonprofit, which offers arts education, performances, exhibits and workshops, has about $40,000 left of its original $1 million endowment, board president Sandra Rozmarin said.

With the endowment nearly gone and fundraising a huge challenge after the October wildfires, she said the arts center laid off its handful of staff members, including its executive director of six months, Delfin Vigil. The arts center will continue to run all its programs, including the summer arts camp for kids, and be staffed by volunteer board members for the next several months until it comes up with a viable, long-term plan, Rozmarin said.

The news of the layoffs came ahead of two town hall meetings planned for 7 p.m. today and Thursday, where the nonprofit will discuss with its members the financial challenges and possible solutions.

“The arts center will be listening closely to its members and stakeholders as it considers its future course,” Rozmarin said. “At this point all options are on the table, and we are beginning the process of considering various adjustments to the way we conduct programming and member events.”

The arts center’s net assets have continued to decline through the years. IRS-990 forms showed a fund balance of $787,274 in 2011. By 2016, its balance declined to $249,281.

The center opened in the historic train depot on Lakeville Street in September 2008, following the $1 million endowment from an undisclosed donor who since has moved out of the area.

Vigil’s predecessor, Val Richman, was the arts center’s executive director for about three and a half years. She voiced hope the center will resolve its financial woes.

“I would personally feel sad if the arts center would have to close its doors,” said Richman, who plans to attend one of the town hall meetings. “It’s a valuable resource in Petaluma, if for nothing else, certainly for the children.”

While the arts center aimed to use its endowment “as little as possible,” Richman said the organization regularly dipped into it for operational costs, although it didn’t in the 2016-17 fiscal year.

In October 2016, the nonprofit held its first Frolic fundraiser, a masquerade ball which grossed about $100,000, she said.

A second ball was scheduled for this past June, but it never happened. They weren’t able to line up earlier in the fall corporate sponsors and donors for the event.

“The fires had just happened,” Richman said. “It was really clear this was not the time to ask.”

It was outgoing executive director Delfin Vigil, a father of two, who proposed cutting his job at a monthly board meeting. He started the position in mid-December, shortly after Richman retired.

“I was very transparent with the board that this was a serious crisis mode,” said Vigil, whose position was posted last fall with a salary range of $55,000 to $65,000. “I made it clear that they weren’t in a position to pay.”

Chris Irvin, who served for two years on the Petaluma Arts Center board about five years ago, said he wasn’t surprised to hear about the nonprofit’s financial woes.

“It’s been constant financial battle,” Irvin said. “Their visions were too big with what their finances were.”

Matt Maguire, a former Petaluma city councilman, has a family membership at the arts center, where he enjoys shows and exhibits. Maguire received the board’s recent email to members about the budget problems and the upcoming meetings.

“It’s sad and disappointing to hear they’re struggling,” he said. “It come as a little bit of a surprise because they’ve just hired the executive director.”

Maguire is a big fan of the Idea Lounge, a monthly event that pairs two speakers — an artist and a seemingly random person — to discuss an artistic concept alongside a seemingly random topic. The audience contributes to the discussion by making connections between the ideas presented.

“It’s definitely a fun thing to go to,” he said. “It’s certainly important to have a viable arts center in Petaluma. I hope they’ll find a way.”