Life after Chamberlin
Changing the guard at the Art Center
by Jan Schlain
At age 103, the Ann Arbor Art Center is looking for only its second paid leader.
The first, Marsha Chamberlin, was hired thirty-three years ago to turn the all-volunteer Ann Arbor Art Association into a professional organization. Chamberlin, who'll retire as president and CEO once her successor is in place, recalls being told, "'we want to establish structure here. We want someone who can run the business well.'"
The last volunteer director, Jean Amick--a gifted artist who died at age eighty in 2007--laid the groundwork. "She was the visionary," says Chamberlin. "They raised $30,000 in 1974, and convinced [philanthropist] Eugene Power that he wanted to co-sign a bank note" to buy a double brick storefront at 117 West Liberty. "They immediately put that gallery shop in."
The shop is still there and still accounts for much of the center's income. Showcased in one of the storefronts, it's filled with beautifully turned wood bowls, glazed pottery, Martha Keller flower paintings, Pewabic and Motawi tiles, silver and glass jewelry, and cards, all hand-made by local and regional artists.
The other storefront houses the ceramics studio, its potter's wheels purposely set right in the clay-spattered window to promote the center's art classes, its other big source of revenue. (Painting and other classes are upstairs.) "We don't do technology," says Chamberlin. "We show it sometimes. We are really teaching art fundamentals--whether you're getting it as a six-, sixteen-, or sixty-three-year-old."
Chamberlin built the Art Center into an institution--one that could afford to pay an executive director and a rotating roster of paid subordinates, supported by volunteers and a well-connected board. Over the years, as the fundraising climate improved, then worsened, it has grown, then shrunk, rented, bought, and sold space, and currently is back in its original location, doing much of what it was doing when Chamberlin started. In recent years, since the loss of Pfizer's underwriting and the recession, it has reduced staff and expenses while growing student enrollment (particularly in summer camps)
and art sales.
"We made a conscious decision to make more income earned than unearned," Chamberlin says of the latest changes. Historically, she says, the split has been about half and half--50 percent earned (from memberships, gallery sales, and classes), 50 percent donated. "Because of the financial debacle, fewer and fewer companies were giving less and less," she explains, so earned income is now up to 65 percent of this year's $750,000 budget. "We feel very fortunate," Chamberlin says.
In August, Chamberlin said the board was in the "last phase" of hiring her successor. Board president Carrie Hensel, owner of Inner Circle Media, says they aren't looking to change the center's mission--"We don't want someone who is going to come in and say, 'We are going to offer dance!'"--but want a person "with a high level of business acumen, who knows how to get tied into the art community."
Chamberlin has agreed to stay on for a one-month transition, sharing her experience, email contacts, and reminder list. She'll also pass on her Rolodex, reputedly one of the best in town--although, she smiles, it's just "a pile of business cards rubber-banded together."
[Originally published in September, 2012.]