The Art of Walking Away

If there are 12-step meetings for executive directors coping with departures from cherished art projects, then Charles Desmarais, director of the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC), and Emily Buddendec

If there are 12-step meetings for executive directors coping with departures from cherished art projects, then Charles Desmarais, director of the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC), and Emily Buddendeck, co-founder of SSNOVA (Sanctum Sanctorum Nonprofit Organization and Venue for the Arts), will soon become acquaintances.

The announcement involving Desmarais came Sept. 24 via a streamlined CAC news release. After eight years as director, he leaves Jan. 1, 2004, for a six-month sabbatical.

The announcement arrives just four months after the opening of the new museum building, a project Desmarais spearheaded since its inception. He returns next July in the new position of Curator-at-Large. In the meantime, the search begins for a new CAC director.

Everyone involved with the CAC agrees it's a sweet deal for Desmarais, who gets to break away from administrative responsibilities and focus solely on exhibition programming. How the center adjusts to Desmarais' job change remains to be seen, although the number of kinks related to operating in the new building have just been doubled.

As of now, Desmarais reports directly to the CAC Board of Trustees. The chain of command regarding Senior Curator Thom Collins, Assistant Curator Matt Distel and the incoming director still needs to be determined.

One odd detail is clear: The new director will begin his/her job with the old director hanging around.

"I've thought about the impact on the museum long and hard," Desmarais says, speaking two days after the announcement. "I wonder if it's the right thing, but we've (CAC staff) proven that we're skillful in the management of the institution."

For the next 30 minutes, while driving to Louisville to visit an exhibition, Desmarais explains why he's walking away from the director's office. He talks at length about the stressed condition of CAC staff over the new building, the involvement of a management consultant firm hired to address staff issues and his own need for a break.

Desmarais is convinced stepping down from the institution he's led to a hard-fought new building is the right thing. The job for the CAC staff is to prove him correct and to handle the change in leadership with other bugs related to the new building.

No news release announced Buddendeck's Sept. 14 departure from SSNOVA, the Brighton Corner venue she created two summers ago. Reports of her break with Fred Lane, owner of the five-story Central Parkway Mockbee Building housing SSNOVA, made the gossip rounds in a haphazard manner, true to the venue's grassroots spirit.

Only Buddendeck knows the rationale for her decision. For the time being, she's not talking, allowing incoming SSNOVA directors Christopher Daniel and Carissa Barnard to announce their plans for the much-admired venue.

Early on a Monday morning at a Mount Adams coffeehouse, Daniel and Barnard display energy and enthusiasm that extend far beyond their tall cups of coffee. They avoid specifics about new board members and a new venue name until a promised Oct. 3 news release. What the artists and co-curators of the Massive exhibition can confirm is their decision to take over SSNOVA's administrative and programming duties from Buddendeck.

Many pressing issues remain. A dehumidification system is needed to allow for longer exhibitions. Parking and neighborhood safety issues need to be addressed. Barnard and Daniel are committed to renovations to meet fire code and handicapped accessibility requirements.

The pair begin their SSNOVA duties as volunteers just as Buddendeck did, but they plan to raise the funds necessary to create full-time salaries. They envision gallery talks and tours promoted to residents of the Brighton neighborhood. They're interested in outreach, building the venue's diverse range of programming into a calendar that includes local college students and visiting artists with international reputations.

"We need $30,000 in emergency operating funds," Barnard says. "We already have a space in the building ready to become an office. We need office furniture. We need to have a painting party. So many people have already contacted us to offer support.

"We're so excited and we're used to challenges, but it would kill us if this were to fail. A closed SSNOVA would create a horrible reputation for Cincinnati."

In terms of personal transitions, Desmarais has a new job waiting for him when he returns to the CAC. But it's anyone's guess what Buddendeck will do.

She walked away from SSNOVA without a back-up plan or a job offer from a local arts institution, which might explain how desperate she was to leave.

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