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Downs Sets New Tone for the Figge Arts Center PDF Print E-mail
Art - Feature Stories
Tuesday, 26 August 2003 18:00
The steel that’s rising from the ground along River Driver between Harrison and Main streets in Davenport is the physical skeleton of the $34.4-million Figge Arts Center, but it also stands as a symbol of a new framework for doing business for the Davenport Museum of Art (DMA).

Under Director Linda Downs, whose one-year anniversary at the museum is September 3, the DMA has gone a long way toward re-inventing itself. On August 6, the Davenport City Council approved sweeping changes to the museum’s governance structure. Three governing boards are about to be eliminated, replaced next month by a single board. The City of Davenport’s annual subsidy of just more than $750,000 is scheduled to be eliminated in 20 years and possibly reduced before then. DMA workers will cease being city employees a year from now. The museum will stop being a city department and will take over the Friends of the Davenport Museum of Art’s not-for-profit status. The art collection will remain the property of the city, which will also insure it, but the museum will be the collection’s official caretaker.

Beyond the governance issue, an Artists Advisory Council started meeting this week, representing the first formal link between the museum and local artists in nearly a decade. (See sidebar.) And a new staff member has been added to reach out to schoolchildren and senior citizens.

All of these moves work toward one goal: taking the “Davenport” out of the museum’s name and turning it into a private regional facility that can be self-sustaining. The steps that have been taken so far are small, and there’s still plenty of work to be done.

“It’s an opportunity to really work in earnest at having the Quad Cities … support the museum on a regular basis,” Downs said. The motivation isn’t altruistic; to survive without Davenport’s annual support – and in a building with twice the DMA’s present operating budget – requires the museum to reach out to a broader base.

The change in board structure “brings governance in-line with the programming,” Downs said. “Right now, we are programming for the Quad Cities and beyond, and it really is a regional facility.”

The new board has been nominated, but Downs said she wouldn’t discuss its composition until she receives the final two responses. With 48 members combined among the three current boards – the Davenport Museum of Art Board of Trustees, the Friends of the Davenport Museum of Art, and the Davenport Museum of Art Foundation – and only 15 seats on the new board, a lot of people will be dropping out. Orientation for the new board is scheduled for September 16.

Downs said that she is pleased that among the 48 current board members, all but one have indicated they’ll continue to be active in museum committees, if not the governing board.

Among those who will not be on the consolidated board is current DMA Board of Trustees President Budge Gierke, who started serving on the Friends of the Davenport Museum of Art board in 1986 and was appointed to the museum’s Board of Trustees in 1996. He said he elected not to seek a seat on the unified board. “Fresh blood is one way to put it,” he said. “I think terms limits are a good idea, and we don’t have them. Turnover’s a good thing, and I wanted to set an example.”

Already, Downs said, the move toward regionalization has helped generate money. Downs said the most rewarding aspect of her first year on the job has been seeing “the enormous support from the Quad Cities for this project. Individuals and corporations are giving [to the Figge Arts Center] at levels they never have before.”

So far, the museum has raised $7 million of the final $10 million for the Figge Arts Center. Except for a $1-million gift from Deere & Company, new gifts to the Figge haven’t been announced. Downs said that the DMA plans to broaden its fundraising campaign when contributions reach $8 million.

As for the remainder of the money, Downs said, “I hope it’s [raised] within this fiscal year [which ends June 30]. … But we have until the opening of the building,” scheduled for 2005.

When the capital campaign for the building is complete, Downs and the museum will be raising money for the “arts walk,” a project on the land surrounding the Figge Arts Center intended to “extend the aesthetic of the museum into the city and down to the river,” Downs said. According to Rich Horst, treasurer of the Davenport Museum of Art Foundation, the original estimate for the project was $5.5 million. Downs declined to discuss the cost, saying that consultant Hargreaves Associates is expected to turn in an initial plan in mid-September.

After raising money for the arts walk, the museum will be working toward building an endowment to support Figge Arts Center operations. There’s no target or timeframe for the endowment yet, but Downs estimated it would take $60 million to generate the $2.4 million to $3 million annually necessary to cover expenses. “It’s going to take a decade at least to get anywhere close to that goal,” Downs said. She added that she’s received permission from the museum board to combine the capital and endowment campaigns, meaning that fundraising solicitations to individuals and corporations will eventually include both components.

The amount of money and duration of fundraising make it crucial for the Figge Arts Center to do more than pay lip service to the idea of being a regional arts facility. If the promises don’t turn out to be true, community and corporate support could stop flowing.

Reaching out seems to be a new priority for the museum under Downs. In addition to creating the Artists Advisory Council, the museum five months ago hired Sue Gerace as outreach coordinator, focusing on programming for seniors and children. Gerace said she’s been developing programs with the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and YMCA. She’s also working with organizations such as Center for Active Seniors Incorporated and Senior Voices to get seniors signed up for hands-on and art-history classes. “She’s full of ideas,” Downs said of Gerace.

The DMA has also turned its lower gallery into a photography lab and is taking digital pictures of roughly 1,000 works – about one-third of the collection. “This will update our collections-management system,” Downs said. “This is what we can afford now. We’re focusing on the finest works of the collection.”

Michelle Robinson, the museum’s curator, said some rotating exhibitions for the Figge Arts Center have been set. She wouldn’t discuss the first exhibition, which will open in September 2005, because a contract has not yet been signed. But the second show, opening in January 2006, will feature installation works by contemporary Haitian artists, and the third will be an American show focusing on works from the 1930s. (Between now and the Figge’s opening, the DMA is rotating works from its permanent collection rather than bringing in traveling shows.)

These are some of the behind-the-scenes things going on at the DMA, but the construction downtown has been overshadowing them. As the Figge Arts Center rises, it will clearly be the focus of most attention.

“We’re two months ahead in terms of construction,” Downs said of the building being erected downtown.

When the DMA signed construction contracts, Downs said, “it was a buyer’s market. Many of the bids came in lower than anticipated, and with a shorter schedule than anticipated,” she said. And the construction crews have stayed on those schedules. “There’s a bit of competition between the Ryan building [the future headquarters of Lee Enterprises and RSM McGladrey one block north of the new arts center] and the Figge on the construction,” she added.

Planning for several components of the Figge had to be accelerated by the pace of construction. “We had to be sure we’d place all the outlets and conduits in the right place [on the second floor, which will be poured soon]. … I thought we would have to make those decisions in the fall or winter.” That might sound like a trivial detail, but it impacts not only where phones and computers can go, but also interactive components.

The Figge Arts Center is currently slated to open in May 2005, but Downs said that if crews continue to stay ahead of the construction schedule, the new center might open sooner.

As important as the building is, Gierke said, what’s really important is what happens inside the new facility. “The building will build itself,” he said. But Downs “has the ability to really put the building on the map.”

The issue of governance was important to resolve, Gierke said, because different groups of people were charged with making decisions about different components of the museum. Now, “one group will be thinking about the building and operating the museum,” he said.

Furthermore, three boards “sapped staff time,” because employees were reporting to three entities and often duplicating work. “It’ll free up a very considerable amount of time,” he said.

But perhaps most importantly, the de-coupling of the museum from the City of Davenport will help the Figge Arts Center establish the regional presence it needs to survive. “We’ll have the need and the ability to attract and nurture interest from around the community,” he said.
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