Thursday, March 5, 2009
It was a rich old time by all accounts, when genius walked afoot on the Big Sur Coast, when the dining tables of Carmel Highlands homes were pounded during passionate speeches by talented inebriates of high understanding, and the crowned heads of the international art community stopped by to talk technique with a man they acknowledged as a master.
“The walk to Ansel Adams’ house would take me five minutes,” photographer Al Weber chuckles. “A lot of times in the late afternoon, I’d get a call, it’d be Virginia [Adams] saying, ‘It’s almost 5 o’clock. Ansel’ll be out of the darkroom in a while and nobody’s here to have a drink with him.’
“It was a nice way to end the day,’’ Weber adds. “Just as likely when I went down there I’d find somebody like Dr. [Edward] Land from Polaroid, or [Yousuf] Karsch from Ottawa, Georgia O’Keefe… jawdropping people. Ansel was constantly surrounded by a very high echelon.”
Ansel Adams had come to the Monterey Peninsula to join the boldly innovative Edward Weston, one of the first photographers whose work was acknowledged as “art,” and who influenced Adams immensely. Weston and his family had a home on Wildcat Hill in the Carmel Highlands. Adams moved nearby. Around them grew a sizeable community of photographers who came to visit but often returned to stay.
The early photographers were a social lot – perhaps because the art form was so young – who taught by demonstration and example. Equipment and techniques were constantly expanding, and they shared new developments, gave workshops and critiqued each other’s work.
Adams was often the host. Out of these convivial gatherings emerged a society dedicated to the promotion of creative photography.
“The Friends of Photography started around cocktail hour at Ansel’s or Cole [Weston’s],” recalls Ted Orland, who became an assistant to Adams in 1966.
Adams conducted legendary annual workshops in Yosemite, engaging a succession of technically brilliant assistants who became significant artists in their own rights, each carrying some aspect of the Adams legacy. Orland was one; so were Weber and Dick Garrod, all prominent photographers and teachers still living locally.
“Edward’s son, Cole, was the first director of the Sunset Center in Carmel,” Garrod recalls. “The whole thing began as informally as Cole saying to Ansel, ‘Why don’t you and your pals open up a gallery? I have this room in the Center.’”
So the Sunset Center became the address for one of the most significant organizations in contemporary photography. Founded by Adams as Friends of Photography in 1967, the address carried the weight of that legacy for most of the last 42 years as the Center for Photographic Art until, six months ago, a concerned new board of directors considered closing its doors.
PAST GENIUS, CURRENT PROBLEMS…
The legacy of genius is famously difficult to administer. Aware of his place in the history of modern photography and enjoying worldwide recognition in his lifetime, Adams was absorbed with another legacy – using his stirring images in a successful fight to preserve Yosemite for future generations: the first national park. Locally, he fought to protect the Big Sur coast: “Let us not go down in history as the generation that stood silently by while the Big Sur coast was developed and its natural beauty destroyed. Let us, instead, leave a splendid legacy for our children.”
The weight of that legacy moved the newcomers on the CPA Board of Directors to act last fall, when their own investigations revealed, in the words of new Board President Chuck Davis, “an alarming long-term record of spending that vastly exceeded the Center’s income.” On behalf of the entire board, Davis – a respected underwater photographer – wrote to CPA members: “The new board conducted a thorough examination of the Center’s fiscal records. This discovery process confirmed… it would be only a matter of weeks before the Center would have been unable to pay its obligations… The board realized that if it did not do something drastic… the Center would have to close its doors and forfeit its historic Carmel gallery location.”
His heartfelt message outlined the steps the new board had taken to quench the outflow of funds, seek grants and technical assistance, and rekindle the enthusiasm of former supporters. Davis asked members to join in the efforts to “right the ship” and announced a curtailed schedule of exhibitions, workshops and special programs.
The letter sent a jolt through the photographic community of the Peninsula and beyond. “We’re the next generation; we can’t let this die,” says Robin Robinson, a highly regarded, widely exhibited photographer who’d joined the board just as it became clear that the money was running out – fast.
AS IT WAS IN THE BEGINNING…
The forces that led the institution to the brink of ruin were precisely those that established it as a major force in modern photography.
“When the Friends established the gallery in the Sunset Center, the original mission was to support all forms of photography, especially new or unknown or experimental work. That part didn’t happen much, but they did have very good exhibits,” says Weber, who was running the photography department at Monterey Peninsula College when Adams recruited him to teach the Yosemite workshop. “Major exhibits by major photographers from around the world, the cream of the crop.”
The participants in the first Friends of Photography exhibition were Ansel Adams, Wynn Bullock, Imogen Cunningham, Dorothea Lange, Brett Weston, Cole Weston and Minor White. From that day forth, Friends’ exhibitions, workshops, seminars and publications involved the greatest names in modern American photography.
“If you were a young photographer looking for an exhibit, your chances were very slim,” Weber says. “Ansel wanted to show fine art photographers of the highest profile, the more established the better. But he was always very generous about looking at the work of young artists and giving advice.
“The Friends of Photography was really an extension of Ansel Adams. In the early days he ran it; when it needed money he sold a print.’’
“It was a beautiful time of my life,” Garrod recalls. “Before we had staff, volunteers headed committees, Wynn Bullock got the shows and hung them. We all loved each other, worked together with no hierarchy. It was a hell of a good time.”
As Adams’ health declined, he increasingly left the running of the Friends to colleagues and by the mid-’70s, to professional staff. “The Friends was a big fish in a small pond here in Carmel, and Ansel was interested in making it a broad-based organization in an artistic sense,” Orland says. “Eventually, the Board of the Friends took up more and more of the decision-making as Ansel retreated from the scene. They felt they needed to be in a metropolitan center to grow and moved to San Francisco. There was a kind of logic [to it], but what got lost was the connection with the artists who were the basis of their existence. They began to think that the organization was more important than the artists upon whom it was founded.”
Adams, who died in 1984 before the move took place, left a substantial part of his photographic estate to the Friends. The Ansel Adams Center opened in San Francisco in 1989 and closed its doors in 2001, after a decade of extraordinary shows, publications and workshops – and many financial woes.
“After the Friends of Photography left, the Sunset Center galleries were going to be empty,’’ Garrod recalls. “Roger Fremier was the head of photography at MPC, and with a lot of encouragement from the photography community, he rented the place as a gallery and meeting place for local photographers. It was called the Photography Center of Monterey Peninsula.’’
Contemporaries recall a division between those who wanted to keep the focus local and those who wanted to bring in national and international exhibitions, as the Friends had. The increasingly bitter division led to Fremier’s resignation. In 1988, the name was changed to the Center for Photographic Arts and in 1991, Board Member Dennis High was hired to run it.
But the division that dogged the Friends and the Photography Center continued.
“We have a real challenge in our region – we are isolated while the world is changing around us at a very fast pace,” High says. “When I became director, it was agreed that the direction should be widened a great deal. I set out to bring a national and international view.”
High organized almost 150 exhibitions from 1991 to the present, and, indeed, did show the greatest names in world photography in a schedule that generally balanced national, international and local exhibitions. But what largely disappeared were local juried shows aimed at members. “The shows I brought in were shows you’d see in New York, Los Angeles; shows I developed personally with the artist or with their estate,’’ he says. “I stand on my 17-year record.”
“The balance of shows was pretty good, including some very inspirational shows I’m glad to have had the opportunity to see,’’ says Robin Robinson. “But it became increasingly clear that local photographers weren’t respected or welcomed unless they were being asked to donate work for an auction. It stopped hosting photography coups. It lost touch with the people who supported it.”
“The Center got away from its community base where local artists had a chance to show their work,” says Kim Weston, son of Cole Weston, grandson of Edward Weston and the nephew of Brett Weston. “I’m not talking about a funky hometown thing, but a balance. But Dennis loved going to L.A., rubbing shoulders with celebrities, showing works of David Lynch, Graham Nash, Dennis Hopper. There’s nothing wrong with that being part of the mix, but it became his direction. These shows did nothing for the Center, they were just a Friday night party. Where’s the Graham Nash collection? Did David Lynch give anything to the Center? Now Dennis was driving a Porsche, hanging out with Dennis Hopper… He stacked the board with people he could bend.”
Membership dwindled from more than 800 to just over 250 members. According to longtime supporters, attendance at exhibitions and openings sank to an embarrassing level. The Center’s annual awards program became a costly Pebble Beach affair. “Dennis wanted to make it the Academy Awards of photography,” said Chuck Davis. “But many local photographers couldn’t afford to attend, though they were asked to contribute work to the auction.”
ACCOUNTING ON THE BUDDY SYSTEM…
High was a member of the Board of Directors. It’s rare for staff to serve on the board that approves their salary. A board is responsible for making sure a nonprofit adheres to its mission; a deliberate counterbalance to the professional staff, setting direction, overseeing planning, approving expenditures and programs. Some level of “board management” by professional staff is expected and needed, but the board, by majority vote, is responsible for governance. The board usually plays a pivotal role in fundraising; its members are often required to make substantial contributions and help acquisitions. The CPA board was not a fundraising board.
According to present and former board members, High stacked the board with friends and supporters. “There were no financial reports. Dennis would tell us what we spent and what we earned,” says one, “and most were ready to give Dennis the benefit of the doubt.”
Ted Orland served on the board from 1995-2000. “In those days we had limited sources of income but limited outlays as well. The lack of money was always a topic, but how it was being spent wasn’t a big issue – it was always postage, Dennis’ salary, the secretary’s salary, always in balance and always precariously low. In some years, Dennis took a salary cut when things were too tight.”
The Center’s finances received an extraordinary injection of funds in 2002 as the result of a bequest from Elizabeth Harrington, who’d actually left a trust to the Photography Center of MontereyPeninsula. This infused about $400,000 into the Center.
After the bequest, High’s modest salary was increased to more than $66,000. Other expenses rose; membership revenue dwindled.
“Early on, Dennis wanted to use some of the trust for remodeling the exhibition and office space, and that was fine,” says Neil Shapiro, the attorney and board member who secured the trust for the Center and became president of the board in 2003. “Not long after, he said we needed to use some of the funds for operating expenses. We approved with the provision that the money never again be used for operating expenses unless with unanimous [board] approval. When I resigned in January 2005, there was about $350,000 in the bank. I understand that in ’08 there was less than $30,000.”
Tax returns show operating losses growing annually to $93,000 in 2006. Unable to convince his colleagues to put the brakes on spending, Shapiro was the third board president to resign within five years. In a scathing resignation letter, Shapiro criticized High’s resistance to “every effort to require accountability.”
Most nonprofit organizations seek foundation or other underwriting support as they expand their scope. But the organization’s tax returns from the last decade show only a few small grants; other contributions were dedicated to specific projects, not to the operating expenses that grew steadily – without an income to match.
“I joined the board in Spring 2007,’’ Chuck Davis remembers. “Dennis recruited me because of my involvement in new media. I didn’t have any clue how bad the financial picture was.” But Davis, Amy Essick, Robin Robinson, Scott Campbell and Greg Mettler of the new board took action.
To stem the cash crunch, they offered High a part-time position in lieu of his full-time salary which the organization could not afford to pay. High refused the offer and resigned. Through the end of 2008 the new board grappled with the fiscal crisis, oversaw day-to-day operations and began reaching out to the greater photography community to advise and assist them in setting a future course.
Davis’ letter to members announced upcoming workshops – hearkening to early traditions. He promoted the Center’s annual Collector Fine Print Program – a program originated by High through which each year, five or six outstanding photographers were asked to create and donate an edition of signed original prints, which were then purchasable by members at a reasonable price. Davis announced new exhibitions, and the board applied for a grant to the Community Foundation for Monterey County for assistance on a fundraising plan.
Having worked the equivalent of a second full-time job for six months, most of the “rescue” board resigned, exhausted but with goodwill, at the end of 2008. “Around July,” Davis says, “the Center was like a ship going under water; now we’re chugging along and beginning to pay attention to our navigation.”
CREATING A FUTURE…
The Board of Directors now has six members: Davis; Denise Sallee, who took over as president; Amy Essick, who provided tireless leadership in the beginning of the rescue operation; and new members David Bayles, Jim Kasson and Huntington Witherill – all respected photographers who are making sure their community knows it is welcome and needed.
Kim Weston curated the first exhibit of the post-High CPA, Photographs: In Conversation with Robinson Jeffers, part of the National Endowment for the Arts-funded “The Big Read.” Esteemed photographers donated works in the exhibit to benefit CPA. “Hundreds of people attended,” Shapiro says. “There were poetry readings in the patio with a circle five or six deep; for many it was the first time they had been to the Center in nearly a decade.”
Judy Sulsona, executive vice president of the Community Foundation of Monterey County, is very supportive. “What impressed me was the candor and commitment that the new board leadership showed,” she says. “They have a really well conceived plan. I feel that the organization is in good hands.”
“We have no intention of becoming a local camera club,” Davis says. “We want to look at every aspect of the photography experience, but we must serve the community that supports us first.” The current show by Tobin Keller was initiated by High but curated by Keller himself. Opening on March 28 is an exhibit curated by Ansel Adams’ family showingAdams’photographs from the family collection, many never seen before.
The future of the Center for Photographic Art is not simply a return to the past. The board has rededicated the CPA to “inspiring excellence in photography” through exhibitions and educational programs – and preserving the visual and written record of its history. “There was never a focus on collecting work,” says Sallee, the new president. Though the great names in photography exhibited there, they were not asked to contribute works to the Center, as there was no permanent collection.
After the organization becomes stable – while continuing its exhibition and education programs – the new board plans to begin strategically collecting works and creating an archive where students of photography can study papers and original prints of the masters.
“They would be filling a vacuum,’’ Weber says. “I have a foundation for Photographic Preservation. We help artists organize images, correspondence, negatives and prints so they can be placed in a museum or archive or university that conserves and collects important work. If the Center gets involved in that kind of thing, our organization would jump in and help.”
“Collecting and archiving California photographers would soon create a world-class place for [artists] to donate their estate,” Kim Weston adds. “Showing art work isn’t enough to make this a really international center, but my dad [Brett Weston] ended up giving the Edward Weston collection to Tucson – that’s where Ansel’s work ended up. It could all be here for the kids to come see.”
Carmel Mayor Sue McCloud agrees it is crucial to save CPA.
“Photography has been a key ingredient in Carmel history,’’ she says. “People come for the art, but spend a night here, eat in our restaurants – such institutions are important to the city’s prosperity.
“The city has an art collection with 150 Edward Weston photographs, most never exhibited. We need to have a place to display them,” she continues. “The north parking lot of the Sunset Center is designated to become a museum where these and the rest of the collection can be exhibited along with new gifts we often receive from people who move here.”
Years ago, Kim and Gina Weston, concerned about the Center’s lack of emphasis on youth outreach,began the Weston Scholarship Fund for high school and community college-age photographers. “We don’t want the analog, black and white, wet photo process to die,” Gina says. (In fact, their program embraces all kinds of photography and young talents.) The CPA recently developed itsown educational program and intends to continue such outreach.RETURN TO TRUE CENTER…
All the elements seem to be in place for a Center for Photographic Art: vision, leadership and support. Symbolic of its renewed acceptance by regional photographers, on Feb. 28 the center hosted a reception and book-signing of new publications by Richard Garrod and Loran List of the ImageMakers of Monterey. The ImageMakers was founded by Garrod in 1996 after he left the CPA board, determined to create what the Friends once had: a place for photographers to meet. ImageMakers’ 50 members meet monthly to share their work, exchange ideas about techniques and new developments in photography.
Meanwhile, the board is working hard on fundraising and developing a long-range plan. It will, undoubtedly, welcome your support.