Claremont Insider: Farewell, CMA

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Farewell, CMA


We were sorry to see the Claremont Museum of Art close its doors at the end of December. We liked the idea of a museum to showcase local artists and hoped it would make a go of it.

The museum had the misfortune of opening just before the economy tanked, and that certainly contributed to its demise. It also may have suffered from too small an audience. We'd always wondered how they'd be able to support itself when its core audience came from a town of only 35,000 people. CMA didn't seem to have much wide appeal outside Claremont. For example, a December, 2008, fundraising dinner in Pasadena ended up costing more than it brought in.

When it was still a going concern, the museum did make a splash with a $10 million gift from an anonymous donor. The donor, however, attached some conditions to the gift, and the museum wasn't able to use the money for its $900,000 annual operational budget. In the end, the donor pulled the $10 million, and the museum's fundraising efforts fizzled.

Facing closure, the CMA came to the City for money last September. They asked city staff for $4,500, and staff dutifully complied by giving the museum the money without a public hearing. That money helped keep the museum open until the end of October, when the CMA again had to go hat in hand to the City for a second cash infusion of $5,721, again without public input.

During that period, the museum made some changes that included expanding its board to include former Claremont mayors Sandy Baldonado and Ellen Taylor (the kiss of fiscal death, if the CMA had really thought about it). We interpret the inclusion of these two as a sign that the 400 had taken up the museum's cause, which made sense because some of the biggest donors came from the 400. In any case, the museum also closed its store, cut back its hours, and laid off all except one employee.

Former Mayor Ellen Taylor
blowing hard


None of the museum's changes made any difference, and by November, the museum had to come before the City Council for $18,879 from the City's Public Art Fund to keep it going until the end of December. The city staff report from the 400's ever-reliable Mercy Santoro gives the background.

At a meeting on November 11th, the City Council heard a pitch from the museum. Among the pitchmen was none other than former Mayor Taylor, who, with her typical Ellen eloquence, explained how the museum go in such dire straits: "...things came [up] and just kicked us in the goddamned butt. [at around 3:17:00 of the meeting video]"

As we might expect, Councilmember Pedroza and Mayor Pro Tem Elderkin were the most sympathetic to Taylor's message from the Claremont 400 that we really need this museum (and you better support it). In her comments, Taylor kept using the 400's buzzword "vision," implying that that anyone who voted against the City donating the money was blind to what was best for the City. In other words, you're either with us, or you're a bad person.

Taylor's words also carried the implicit threat that any councilmember heartless enough to vote against giving the money would be done as a local politician. It's the 400's polite way of strongarming people (or The People) to get money they think they need: Why exactly do you hate the museum? Other societies might call this extortion.

Councilmember Peter Yao was really the lone voice of reason, pointing out first that he was concerned about what might be construed as a gift of public money, which would have been an illegal action. Yao further pointed out that because the City had essentially provided the museum with 100% of its working budget, it had a duty to question how effectively its money would be used. After all, Yao asked, what good would it do to give the museum the city funds if it was just going to delay an inevitable failure?

Another question Yao posed was to asked what plan the museum had to raise the $200,000 they were aiming for to fund its 2010 budget. None of the museum representatives could answer that, other than to say that they had formed a working group to work on a plan to develop a plan for fundraising. In other words, they had no real plan.

The discussion included other absurdities. Among these was the idea, raised by Pedroza and Elderkin, that the museum store was a moneymaker. Despite comments from a museum representative that the store had been "hemorrhaging money," Elderkin, assured as ever of certain certainties, wanted the museum to reopen the store. Elderkin also expressed absolute certitude in the museum's fundraising team, which surely portends greater fiscal problems for the City if, as expected, Elderkin takes her turn as mayor in March.

Still, in the end, the council bowed to the pressure and voted unanimously to give CMA its $18,879 (we never did figure out what changed Councilmember Yao's mind). The museum had its money and went off merrily to find the $200,000 they were sure was waiting for them. Unfortunately a final fundraiser managed to raise only $26,000 in pledges, and on December 27th, the museum shut down.


You'd think the 400 would have learned at least a little financial sense from the Claremont Trolley experience. If you'll recall, the City found it cheaper to put the trolley into storage and eat the lease payments rather than continue to fund its three-year $889,000 budget.

Yet, despite all evidence to the contrary and lacking any specific data, the 400, through its mouthpieces, trotted some of the same arguments for the museum that it used in its failed attempt to keep the trolley going: it brings economic benefit to the city; it just needs a few more months to really get going; we just need to make a few changes to turn it around.

Well, they got their way, and the museum closed anyway. In the process, the city frittered away nearly $30,000 at a time when Claremont is having to lay off employees and cut their benefits, reduce services, and raise fees in order to address a $2 million dollar budget deficit for the current fiscal year. As Councimember Yao pointed out, one can be supporter of the museum on the personal level, but one should not turn that personal view into a public one at the cost of vital taxpayer dollars.

With the 400, though, rationality has limits, and Yao's arguments fell on deaf ears. The nearly $30,000 Claremont doled out to the museum may be chump change to city staff, but the city's deficit is really as much the result of the accumulation of decades of these stupid little financial decisions as it is a matter of the current recession.

Our suggestion to future councils is to just say "No" the next time the 400 comes calling, no matter how painful that may be. A little tough love might be good for them and for the city in the long run.