Sebastopol Center for the Arts Faces its Greatest Challenge: “Save the Center”

Shortly aer Sue Ellen McCann became interim Executive Director for the Sebastopol Center for the Arts (SebARTS) last December, she realized that the Center might not be able to continue much longer. The pandemic had taken so much out of the organization; it lost staff, donors, members, event bookings; plus it struggled to maintain its aging facility. How would it recover?

This March, SebARTS has launched the “Save the Center” campaign to seek a broader base of support for its mission, the many uses of its building and managing its programs. It’s the “greatest challenge to date” for the organization, according to the campaign announcement.

The pandemic has been difficult for many non-profits but even more so for arts organizations. Main Stage West theater closed at the end of February.
“Any public facing organization that convened people, whether it was for conversations or for entertainment or for education, really suffered badly during the pandemic,” said Sally Baker, SebARTS Board President.
Arts organizations lost both earned income and donations. They also lost regular interaction with the people who valued their mission. Resuming normal operations has been a challenge.
“Figuring out how to cope during the pandemic was one thing,” McCann said. “What brought us to where we are right now was the starting up again.” By the end of last year, SebARTS was trying to stay open with only two staff members. “I’m sure the community was thrilled when the Center opened up again, but then Covid hit again. They never really got their feet underneath them to get re-started,” explained McCann. She complimented the hard work of the small staff and how they helped bring her up to speed on the organization.
McCann, who previously worked at KQED before moving back to downtown Sebastopol, saw a lot of possibility in the organization but she needed to see how committed the Board was to planning for its future. She also brought in Steve Markus as Interim Associate Director. He had also moved to town aer working in theater and performing arts organizations in Los Angeles. The two of them did an assessment of where the Center was financially and what kind of budget and staffing would allow it to function properly.
At a January board meeting, McCann told them: “We weren’t going to have enough revenue to get past June of this year.” SebARTS needed considerably more money to keep its doors open. “When you give bad news like that to people, they quite oen back away,” she said. But the board’s response was amazing. “They leaned in. They’re exhausted too and they, of course, were shocked. I think they knew on some level; they just didn’t know the details – when it was going to happen or how bad it was.” Almost nobody knew how bad it was either.

The February Donor Meeting

McCann and the board reached out to the donors of SebARTS and invited them to a meeting on Sunday, February 5th. More than 50 people showed up. McCann told them frankly that the organization was in trouble and would be forced to shut down.
“I was impressed by the immediate response at that meeting,” said Markus. “They were not going to let it happen; the Center could not close. It’s a really supportive group.” McCann’s takeaway from the meeting was “that we had a mandate to keep the Center open and to move ahead and hire new staff.”

“The amazing thing about this organization is that it is really positive, which is why I think the community has responded the way that it has,” McCann said. “They just needed to be asked.”
The meeting generated donations of $185,000 within 48 hours. It was a great response but alas, not enough. “We created the “Save the Center” campaign aer the meeting to ask for help from the greater Bay Area community and beyond,” said Markus. The campaign’s goal is to raise a total of $285K by June and then another $285K by the end of the year.

The Place of SebARTS in the Community

Sally Baker is an artist herself, a former teacher of fine arts at the high school level, and a believer in arts education. When we talked by phone, she was waiting in Santa Rosa for AAA to arrive and fix the flat tire on her car. Baker has been involved in the Sebastopol Center for the Arts since it was housed in the basement of the Methodist Church.

“A lot of people aren’t aware of all the things that go on at the Center,” she said. In addition to the art gallery and the event space, she cited Art at the Source Open Studios (Spring) and Sonoma County Art Trails (Fall). SebARTS has many educational programs as well.


Programs at SebARTS

If the Center closed, Baker believes it would be “heartbreaking” for local artists. She added that “artists depend on the Center to be inspired, to take classes, to build community and create artists.” She said that there aren’t many galleries for artists to show their work and sell it. They also depend on the Center for making a living as professional artists. SebARTS could almost be viewed as a member collective. Artists are members who are required to put in time on committees and help organize programs. McCann said that SebARTS has 220 volunteers. “The Center wouldn’t run without volunteers,” said Baker. There is a special event this Sunday for volunteers.

“We take the arts for granted until it’s gone; then we notice,” Baker said. Her son was one of the leaders of Main Stage West.

Moving Forward

McCann and Markus are optimistic about prospects for Save the Center campaign. McCann is interviewing for a full-time Executive Director to replace herself. She has opened the search for an advancement director to lead fundraising efforts from individual donors and institutions. An art auction for the fall is on the drawing board. “One of the things that was really fun about the donor meeting was everyone enjoyed getting together,” said McCann “It was a great conversation and obviously we were very happy with the results, but I hadn’t really thought about that aspect as also a symptom of Covid.”

The Sebastopol Film Festival resumed this year and Baker said it was successful. “It was evidence that people will come out,” she said, confirming by the end of our call that AAA had arrived. When she called back the next day, she told me that her flat tire had been fixed. She wanted to add: “Even though our name is Sebastopol Center for the Arts, we feel our scope is more countywide or across the North Bay in terms of what we do and who we serve.” The Center helps bring people from outside the area to Sebastopol to see the art and meet artists.

Markus said that he knew nothing about the organization when he joined it. Now he thinks “it’s a remarkable group of people who have been rowing in the same direction and don’t tire.” He added: “They have been working on making, enjoying and providing art to this community, even during a particularly difficult time.”

Link to SebARTS website. Photos provided by SebARTS.