Williamsburg Contemporary Art Center Closes Education Building, Undergoes Changes

WYDaily.com is your source for free news and information in Williamsburg, James City & York Counties.

The Williamsburg Contemporary Art Center vacated its Art Education building last month. (Courtesy WCAC)
The Williamsburg Contemporary Art Center vacated its Art Education Center last month. (Courtesy WCAC)

After last month’s closure of the Williamsburg Contemporary Arts Center’s Art Education Center, organization leaders and members alike are looking forward to a period of transformation within the group.

When WCAC first expanded into the Art Education Center in 2012, the organization was having great success with its education initiatives in the community and looking for a home base to anchor them.

But the Art Education Center never fully fledged into the resource they were hoping it would become. In three years, it never brought in enough money to cover the rent and expenses associated with the building and its staff, nor had it served to expand the offerings of WCAC’s education initiatives in the way they had been hoped for.

The year 2015 was challenging financially for WCAC, and when members of the organization’s board of directors began to brainstorm about how costs could be cut, the Art Education Center came under scrutiny.

“We started really taking a hard look at what we were spending our money on. Is it productive? Is it what we need?” said Janis Wood, WCAC’s current executive vice president and incoming president. “It became very apparent we were losing money [on the Art Education Center] every month.”

The board made the difficult decision to terminate the lease on the Art Education Center at the end of March, and since then many of the classes and other programs the facility used to house have been relocated to the gallery and art center the organization still occupies in downtown Williamsburg on North Boundary Street.

Shortly before the lease ran out on the Art Education Center, WCAC President Jane Medlin-Burton sent out a letter to the membership to communicate the changes.

“This past year has been one of significant transition,” the letter began. “Our major focus has been analyzing our financial situation and addressing difficult realties. As a result, we made significant expense reductions and established more realistic financial plans and goals.”

The letter went on to announce the closure of the Art Education Center and other related staff, payroll and operational expenses that were being reduced as a result of that closure.

Despite these measures, Medlin-Burton wrote WCAC “still finds itself in a difficult cash flow shortage” and is in need of raising $30,000 by June 30 in order to continue its ongoing commitments within the community.

Though the letter to membership conveyed the severity of the situation in which WCAC finds itself, both Medlin-Burton and Wood are far from feeling pessimistic about the future.

Over the past several months, WCAC’s board has brought on more members who have experience in the business community or with money management for nonprofits.

More focus in now being placed on fundraising through grants, sponsorships and individual and corporate contributions, and the necessary leadership necessary to succeed, Medlin-Burton said.

“We’ve been working very hard to get our finances in order and it’s starting to look very positive,” Wood said, adding she has been pleased with the progress that has been made so far toward the $30,000 fundraising goal.

Medlin-Burton’s March letter, and a follow-up letter in April, also signals a renewed commitment to communication with members – a component WCAC admits it has been lacking.

“There was a period where there was a lot of delay [in getting the membership letters out on time],” Wood said. “Now we’ve reviewed all the administrative processes and made the fixes we need to.”

Wood and Medlin-Burton attribute a drop in membership they saw at the end of 2015 to the delays in communication from the organization, and they are happy to report those numbers have bounced back significantly as communication has picked up in recent months.

In keeping with the goal of better communication, WCAC will be hosting two members-only meetings in the coming weeks at which its loyal supporters will have a chance to give feedback.

The two meetings – one at 3 p.m. April 29 at the Williamsburg Landing, the other at 6 p.m. May 2 at the Stryker Center – will each open with a state-of-the-organization introduction and question-and-answer period.

After that portion of the meeting, attendees will break into small groups led by board member to discuss ideas and voice opinions about the direction of WCAC. Medlin-Burton said this “focus group-style” meeting system has been helpful to the organization in the past, particularly when it was in the process of rebranding.

As for the services and experiences offered to both members and the community, Wood is happy to report they have remained largely intact despite the financial crunch.

“We haven’t cut back on any of the member opportunities,” Wood said. “We’ve had to regroup a little on our art education program. We won’t be able to have summer classes this year like we have in the past, but the expectation is by the fall we’ll be back to the full schedule.”

WCAC will also continue to put on exhibits, host artists workshops and participate in outreach initiatives like the popular “Centuries of Art” lecture series it presents in partnership with the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Williamsburg Regional Library.

Though other businesses and organizations around the community are lending a hand by offering up the use of spaces in which WCAC can continue to host classes and events, leadership is keeping an eye to the future and exploring options for a larger space that can combine the functions the North Boundary Street location and the Art Education Center used to fulfill together.

WCAC’s lease on the North Boundary Street property, which is owned by Colonial Williamsburg, will run out in June, but Medlin-Burton is hopeful WCAC will stay at that location at least through the end of the year while the board weighs its options about what kind of space might best serve its future needs.

With major changes behind them and more transitions on the horizon, both Medlin-Burton and Wood are feeling positive about what they have done so far and where they are headed.

They also want to assure longtime supporters that, though some of the logistics have changed and will continue to change in the coming months, the mission is remaining the same.

“I think most organizations have to go through a period of taking a look at how you’re operating and making adjustments,” Wood said. “But we have a fantastic board, fantastic volunteers and we’re excited about what this year’s going to bring.”

To learn more about WCAC’s mission and services, click here. For details on the membership meetings, click here. To volunteer, donate or become a member, click here.