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Lincoln Arts should open books to public

By: Carol Feineman, Editor
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I would not want to go a day without listening to music or looking at a painting. So I appreciate organizations such as Lincoln Arts that bring different genres to the public. Lincoln Arts was founded in October 1986 “to support and promote the arts, culture and history in the greater Lincoln area,” according to its Web site. Even when the economy is vibrant, running a nonprofit arts organization is not an easy job. Hundreds of other groups are vying for the same donation money from area businesses and individuals. I know from first-hand experience. Starting in 1992, I ran a Grass Valley cultural center for five years and was then an arts/entertainment editor for eight years. In those 13 years, I saw that organizations strongly backed by the community were the ones to not only survive but to be well-received. Today, with more residents losing their homes, taking salary cuts and/or going on unemployment, it’s an even harder struggle for nonprofits that also have to pay their bills. It’s difficult for nonprofit arts organizations when residents must weigh purchasing a $20 concert or dance ticket, for example, against watering a backyard or buying new sneakers. So I cringed when I heard concerns from a handful of the 199 residents and business owners, who recently signed a petition asking that Lincoln Arts conduct annual, independent financial and management audits. The petition was received at the Lincoln Arts office at 580 Sixth St. on July 2. The person who mailed the UPS-delivered petition, Terry Dorsey, hasn’t heard back from an organization representative. “I’m not surprised. One of the reasons we were doing this petition is because management at Lincoln Arts seems to be quite confused and doesn’t like any form of criticism,” Dorsey said. “And historically in the past, if someone did this, they were called where they were berated and threatened by the executive director.” I know how these petition-signers feel. Lincoln Arts executive director Claudia Renati has not been forthcoming with my editorial staff as well. When I called last Friday to ask her about the petition, Renati passed the phone to her board president, June Reeves. The president told me their attorney said they didn’t have to answer to nonmembers. Several times this year, The News Messenger asked Renati about the organization’s expenses and income, and how much the annual Feats of Clay fundraiser brought in last year. Questions you’d expect from a newspaper when Renati and her president were quoted in an earlier story that said Renati and her daughter, the office manager, might be laid off because of budget problems. A story exactly a month later reported staff staying and President Paul Apfel resigning, partly over disagreements with salary cuts and budget issues. Renati repeatedly refused to say what the budget’s income and expenses were. When I asked what the Lincoln Arts budget was for a column I was writing two months later, Renati would not give me that information. In fact, Renati tried to get the newspaper’s top management to make the stories disappear, threatening that she would no longer advertise with us. Since the city gives Lincoln Arts free rent and Lincoln Arts relies on the public for donations and to attend fundraisers, Lincoln Arts should be open about their operations. It’s also good PR to show the public that an organization has nothing to hide. In an e-mailed Lincoln Arts & Culture Foundation newsletter for July, Reeves wrote that “... since our membership remains low, we are going to schedule a couple of fundraisers before the end of the year to keep the coffers full.” I called the Lincoln Arts organization Tuesday to find out how many members belong. The executive director told me she didn’t have that number and would have to wait until her daughter, the office manager, arrived. Renati then added that she wouldn’t answer unless her attorney, Therese Adams, advised her to respond. As an arts lover, I don’t like to see Lincoln Arts embattled with about 200 community members. It isn’t fun to watch. Likewise, those who organized the petition don’t want to see Lincoln Art floundering. The petition-signers waited until after Feats of Clay was over in May to strike this conversation so that the Lincoln Arts’ annual fundraiser would not be hurt. Whatever the reasons have been for Renati’s on-going refusal to share information, I hope she and her organization will begin responding to the public. The News Messenger, the 200 petition signers and Lincoln Arts members all care about the organization’s survival. Many of the signers are former Lincoln Arts members. If Renati and her board would at least talk to the signers, the Lincoln Arts’ representatives could find some common ground among its former supporters. This is as good a time as any to try to work together. The arts belong to everyone. Carol Feineman can be reached at carolf@goldcountrymedia.com