A change in direction: After hiring a new director, the Cortez Cultural Center board is optimistic

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The redesigned cultural center has a fresh, spacious look. Photo by Sonja Horoshko

The Cortez Cultural Center has undergone another shakeup, one of many in its troubled history, but its board of directors is confident that they are moving in the right direction as they address tough issues surrounding their mission, finances, and leadership.

Jeff Weinmeister, who served for 11 months as deputy director under Donna Steward, became the fifth executive director in four years at the cultural center. He replaced Steward, who turned in her resignation March 16.

The center has been plagued by financial, programming and cultural challenges for more than a decade. (See http:// fourcornersfreepress.com/?p=1033)

Weinmeister comes to Cortez after boosting his career in public relations and business while working at Disney Corporation and the International Olympics Committee during the Salt Lake City Winter Games.

He was born and raised in Windsor, Colo., a rural community northeast of Denver, population 18,000. Even though Cortez is less than half the population of his hometown and not located near any urban centers, Weinmeister sees a great opportunity here. The center is poised, with his help, to tap into the cultural-tourism market and improve participation in the center’s activities.

Weinmaster said the past 11 months have brought changes that are the result of strategic workshops held by the board.

“They updated the mission statement and Steward redesigned the logo, added the tag line,” and marketed their re-dedication to the mission. Now he believes the center is prepared to ratchet up interest and support.

“I am in a unique position to implement programs and development that will attract tourism, benefit the center and the community,” he said in a recent interview, “but I am also sensitive to the needs of the arts in the community. I play the euphonium.”

That sweet-voiced cello of the marching bands is king of the wind instruments, and extremely important in music by composers such as John Phillip Sousa. Weinmaster went to college on a music scholarship, but changed focus, he said, when he became interested in business.

In an effort to address community concerns, board president Lee Bergman invited focus groups to his home last fall, said Weinmeister, “including artists, donors, and non-donors, to get their vision, their take on the center’s place in the community.”

The work and responsibilities he has inherited from Steward are the result of those efforts. He hopes the progress will continue.

Although Weinmeister said new programs coming soon to the center are a secret at press time – he intends to announce them in May – he hinted at their content, saying, “What we are introducing now will address the tourism market.”

‘Turning a ship around’

The cultural center is housed in an historic department-store building at 25 N. Market St. It has served the community for 27 years. It was formed out of a desire to provide educational programming through its affiliation with the University of Colorado. Originally named the CU Center, it received funding from the university until the affiliation ended and the Cortez Cultural Center was reborn with a broader mission that included cultural components and the arts.

The shift from academia offered the local center an opportunity to expand its mixture of events to include a birdwatching festival, marathon run, the Hawkins Preserve (an archaeological site south of town) and Native American dancing on the plaza for tourists during the summer months, all programs that still exist.

Three years ago the center was embroiled in struggles with its finances and vision, while critics said it needed to make changes. In October 2013, then- Director Shawn Collins announced that the iconic center was facing a budgeting shortfall of $10,000 to $15,000, due primarily to a drop in sales in the gift shop. Collins said, “The center’s directors are facing the reality of it.”

Since then, and especially during the last year, more change has come. The cultural center has addressed past issues about mission priorities that could change funding resources and expand revenue.

The announcement from Steward that she had resigned caused unease among some in the community, including many artists. “A donor once asked me what I was prioritizing. I answered, ‘I am changing the culture of the cultural center,’” she told the Free Press. “In my opinion the payoff came when the people we served were persuaded to believe in the cultural center, especially to bring the arts community back after they had been so turned away.”

According to Steward, the task she faced when she assumed leadership almost a year ago was formidable, “like turning a whole ship around at sea.” A few months before her appointment, she had accepted a position on the board of directors. Soon after, Anne Beech, director at that time, resigned.

Steward applied with a clear understanding that the position was risky and underfunded, but she felt her New York City background in marketing, public relations and the visual arts would help. The board hired her and simultaneously, without informing her, hired Weinmeister as deputy director to handle the financial responsibilities.

At that time the center felt gothic, she said, “with little modern influence or cultural awareness of the ‘other.’ In fact, I was embarrassed by the board’s persistent resistance to address real cultural issues and explained that to the board of directors. I was hoping we could attract more multi-cultural board members in order to learn from and address our programming with more informed and enlightened sensitivity.”

‘No indication’

On Friday, March 13, Steward was called into a meeting with Bergman and the treasurer of the board, Duncan Rose. According to Steward, she was told that the board had found that she had not lived up to anything she’d promised almost a year earlier. She was told her job performance was not acceptable.

“I had no indication that the board was thinking this. All was well 30 minutes before the meeting and suddenly I was being told I didn’t do the job and was unprofessional. I thought my board was in agreement with all the decisions I had made to accelerate the changes and market the cultural center and the new programs. I couldn’t be more surprised.”

At the regular board meeting the following Monday, Steward asked the board directly if they supported her work. “No one replied that they did. I then presented my resignation.”

She wrote a letter to the public explaining, “…I did my best to serve the Center and make wise choices with our limited resources. I strongly disagree with the board’s decision and with their evaluation of my performance and I told them so. My volunteers were told that I left to ‘pursue other opportunities’ and nothing could be further from the truth….”

According to Steward, she had worked to resolve the goals developed by the board, including outreach to the fine-arts community. The life-drawing class was something she knew would draw artists to the center. “It is a time when artists can hone their skills, and meanwhile exchange ideas. It is a way to create communication and support the arts community,” she explained.

The popular studio time was offered on Thursday evenings. Following Steward’s resignation, the next session was cancelled.

Weinmeister apologized for the short notice of the cancellation, saying he knows attendance was increasing. “We will be resuming the classes on Tuesdays and will let people know in advance,” he added. A press release to that effect confirmed that the life-drawing session would resume Tuesday, April 7, at 6:30 p.m. at no charge to the artists.

Board makeup

In a small, hard-working community such as Cortez it is difficult to find people with the time and interest to serve on a board. The cultural center’s board is no exception. Board makeup is a thorny subject for some community members, particularly regarding the lack of Native American representation, but it is not always easy to find people willing to serve.

The senior member of the existing cultural board is Diane Cherbak, who has been on the board for five years. The other members have been seated for shorter periods of time. Their talents and backgrounds are impressive.

Cherbak was a flight program manager for Lockheed, Bergman was president of a chemical company, while Randy Bangert holds a Ph.D. in ecology, Duncan Rose is a former county manager in Tallahassee, Fla., and Teddy Lewis is an addiction counselor, art therapist and artist.

Bergman declined repeated requests to be interviewed by the Free Press.

Early last summer, Cortez City Councilman Jim Price, then a new member on the center’s board, was actively eliciting public support and interest in the work of the center, which receives some funding from the city. But three months after Price accepted the board position, he resigned. “Another lady and I were tasked with getting more exposure on Facebook,” he said. “I spent over $250 of my own money and got over a thousand new likes at the site. A board member resisted [our efforts] throughout and insinuated that I couldn’t be trusted and so I resigned.”

Price posted Steward’s letter to the public on his Facebook page. “I thought Donna did a remarkable job,” he said. “The board of directors put a lot on her and she shouldered it like a trooper.”

Fresh energy

The center’s main floor houses a gift shop, museum and a gallery/public space. Steward’s interest in redesigning the space reflected many comments she heard when she took over the directorship last year.

One concern was the size of the gift shop, at that time easily 50 percent of the square footage. “We came up with a workable design compromise and a lot of paint,” Steward said. “The point was, I promised to make the place welcoming.”

Dedicated gift-shop floor space now is around 30 percent, and has moved to the south side of the room at the main entrance. The museum uses another chunk of the space, lining the east and north walls with display cases and shelves, and the exhibit walls in the back of the spacious room are now clearly visible from the entrance.

The windows are clean and bright, and a large banner displaying the logo hangs in one. The whole space breathes with fresh energy.

Three years ago, according to then-director Collins, the center’s general operating budget was close to $235,000, much of it garnered from fundraisers, such as the Sweetheart Ball, and Ladies Night, both held at the Elks Club. The projected net income in 2012 from the gift shop was just over $1,000.

Today, however, the general operating budget has shrunk. Weinmeister was unable to project the net income from the gift shop, but said the total operating budget for the cultural center is about $180,000, with close to 5 percent of that coming from a City of Cortez grant.

Varied offerings

During the past 11 months the center’s Facebook account and web site have been updated. Event announcements like those posted for last September show how variety is increasing. An evening slideshow on wild orchids was presented by photographer and naturalist Bill Lemons followed later in the month by collaboration with the Dolores River Anglers’ chapter of Trout Unlimited. They sponsored a “Basics of Fly Fishing” weekend workshop that included classroom sessions and streamside coaching.

The list of events reflects a real effort to develop an audience and offerings that will attract local participation.

“It’s the responsibility of the center to recognize that its work creates tendrils into the community,” said Steward.

“Our efforts to understand this, to reach new audiences, were paying off. Turning it over was like turning mulch. We were persuading people to trust the center again.

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From April 2015.