By Jane Smith
The popular Arts Garage venue received reprieves recently from two Delray Beach agencies, but the nonprofit organization can no longer rely just on its programming.
The organization needs a strategic plan, city commissioners and their Community Redevelopment Agency board members said.
In its short history, the Arts Garage has developed a loyal base of fans who love the intimate setting of a small performing and visual arts space. The organization remains dependent on city tax dollars for its below-market rent of $800 a month for 10,000 square feet where it serves as the gateway to the Pineapple Grove Arts District.
In addition, the Community Redevelopment Agency supplies about 18 percent of the Arts Garage’s $1.5 million budget.
The Arts Garage ran afoul of the CRA last fall when it failed to produce an audit of the previous financial year showing the Delray Beach money was segregated from the money used in its Pompano Beach operations. The CRA withheld the fourth-quarter payment for the last financial year.
Eight days later at the CRA board meeting, longtime Arts Garage board member Robert Schmier described the financial situation as “a severe cash crunch.” Executive Director Alyona Ushe said the organization is operating day to day and needs the money to help pay for the audit.
The following Friday, the CRA board held a special meeting to release the fourth- quarter payment of $68,750. Before the CRA makes an allocation in its current financial year, it wants to see an audit of the last financial year, a long-term lease with the city, separate accounts for the Arts Garage’s Delray Beach and Pompano Beach locations, and a strategic plan.
The Arts Garage has relied on the generosity of its volunteers and board members, including Schmier. He loaned the organization $68,000 without interest in the summer of 2014 while it waited for payment from the city’s CRA, according to the organization’s tax return. The loan was repaid that October.
He also donated $6,000 during that year. The tax return listed $80,000 as the salary for Ushe, the Arts Garage executive director.
Recent renovations costing more than $50,000 were done for free by Chuck Halberg, a general contractor who volunteered his services, according to the Jan. 15 letter sent to the City Commission. Schmier and his wife also agreed to pay $25,000 for new lighting and sound equipment, the same letter said.
The Arts Garage had a March 15 deadline from the city to buy its space for $2.5 million. The city didn’t hear from the Arts Garage staff until the city manager sent a letter in early January asking for a written reply. Its executive director said the organization wanted a 10-year lease at the same rental rate with an option to buy.
That letter set up a Feb. 16 confrontation with the Arts Garage on the City Commission agenda.
“The Arts Garage created a silo in Delray Beach,” Commissioner Jordana Jarjura said, “and became a competitor when it partnered with Pompano Beach.”
She said the City Commission is accused of using “taxpayer dollars to support a private club.”
Mayor Cary Glickstein added, “We are here because the Arts Garage failed to perform.”
He said that he believes the arts can be an economic driver. “It was a terrible idea to sell the space to a law firm when we need public gathering places,” he said. “I support what the ideal represents to the town in the branding opportunity for the arts.”
Glickstein pointed out that 35 people either quit the Arts Garage staff or were fired in the past few years, which he called an “exploitation of human capital.”
Glickstein said he talked with the auditors who called the Arts Garage finances in 2013 and 2014 a “train wreck.”
Commissioner Mitch Katz said his wife is a member of the Arts Garage guild and volunteers for it. Later he said they both pay to be guild members, but they don’t partake of any benefits listed on the Arts Garage website.
Commissioner Al Jacquet wants to see a change in the board composition of the Arts Garage. “Then you could offer more programming that attracts people different than yourselves,” he said.
In January, the Arts Garage had started a social media campaign urging its supporters to sign a petition to save it and email the city commissioners asking them to renew its lease.
Commissioners said they received hundreds of emails.
The emails said the city is attacking the arts. But the city gave the Creative Collaborative Community, which oversees the Arts Garage, ample opportunity to grow, Jarjura said.
The collaborative was supposed to be an umbrella group for Delray Beach arts groups; instead, it morphed into the Arts Garage board and burned more bridges than created collaborations, the mayor said.
Commissioners finally agreed to offer a month-to-month lease for six months while the Arts Garage board comes up with a plan to address specific issues:
• Provide quarterly updates to the city about how it will solve financial problems raised by its auditor.
• Seek city approval before subletting its space.
• Add minority members to its all-white board.
• Provide an out clause for the commission.
• Expand its programming to attract a more diverse audience and youths citywide.
• Consider other uses in its space, including a small independent bookstore.
If all that were accomplished, then the commission would consider offering a shorter-term lease, between three and five years.