“Mistakes have been made by various members over the years; I probably top the list of mistake makers,” Bob Marable, a founder of the Oconee Cultural Arts Foundation, acknowledged during a January meeting between the nonprofit’s Board of Directors and around 100 artist members.
“We learn from mistakes, apologize when necessary and move on,” he said. “OCAF will only win again carrying out the mission by working together in a happy environment and working as a team.”
Marable added that knowing OCAF’s history will help its leaders plan for the future.
In 2024, OCAF celebrates its 30th year as a Watkinsville-based artist guild, exhibit space and arts education nonprofit offering year-round workshops and events. It’s also a year in which its Board of Directors is tasked with hiring a director after firing its previous leader and mending relationships with disgruntled and estranged members.
The meeting several weeks ago was held at the request of the group Concerned Members of OCAF, which in the fall brought forth issues of transparency, use of Rocket Hall, bidding practices and budgetary overruns, the loss of an annual fundraiser and the termination of a director and office administrator.
Newly elected Board Chair Brock Toole addressed the “general sense of unrest” with promises of conflict resolution. Early in the meeting, members of the board introduced themselves. Some self-identified as artists, others said their children or family members have an interest in art, and all emphasized that they want to move the nonprofit forward and see it succeed.
“I think it’s important to give back to our community and keep this organization as strong as it needs to be,” said board member and retired educator Judy Marable, who acknowledged the “blood, sweat and tears” of OCAF’s volunteers and contributors.
Board member Ryan Hammock spoke candidly about OCAF’s finances, explaining that the mid-year fiscal budget showed $287,833 in total revenue and $317,637 in total expenses, resulting in a year-to-date net loss of about $29,800.
Board member Justin Cofer spoke about an executive director search committee, which will involve artist members. He said OCAF will begin recruiting and taking applications in April and May.
“We are going to be very deliberate in hiring a director to get the best person we can,” Toole told members.
After the meeting, Toole added, “We are trying to be pretty inclusive. We are going to try to do what we feel is correct and based on everybody’s feedback and input.”
Later in the meeting, several OCAF members suggested that the board hire an interim director. Toole said after the meeting that the board will, in fact, put in place an interim director.
Some OCAF members also advocated for the re-instatement of former Director Wendy Cooper and former 12-year office administrator Sherry Woodruff.
OCAF member Mary Lillie Watson, a former HR executive, said that the board should put in practice policies and procedures for personnel, “because frankly, I was shocked and appalled at the way the last two employees who were terminated were handled…You can and should do better.”
When OCAF member Kathleen McQuiston called on the board to re-hire Woodruff, dozens of fellow members applauded.
“She has a lot of people who appreciate her,” McQuiston said, before adding that the board should also rehire Cooper. McQuiston stated that many people have concluded that Cooper was fired because “she was asking too many uncomfortable questions.”
The board has declined to give a reason why Cooper was terminated, though Cooper previously told The Enterprise that she clashed with the board and its previous chairwoman on multiple occasions.
The board has also declined to state why Woodruff was fired, though Woodruff told The Enterprise that she publicly lost her temper when Cooper was fired and immediately informed patrons of Cooper’s firing.
Former OCAF Director and former Interim Director John Kirschner said it was poor timing to fire Cooper shortly after the formation of the Concerned Members of OCAF, whose grievances aligned with Cooper’s. Kirschner applauded artist members for raising money to support the former employees, since they were denied severance.
McQuiston said she was disappointed that when Concerned Members of OCAF presented a list of potential candidates to fill vacancies on the board, none of the people on the list were chosen, including her husband, Lawrence Stueck, who is a founder of OCAF.
“We had quite a few people reach out,” Toole said. “We picked the ones we felt were most qualified for what we needed at this time.”
Toole noted that being a founder does not automatically guarantee one a spot on the board. The board did select several artists and someone who previously held a board seat, he said.
Former OCAF Director Cindy Farley provided the board members a packet of information about a capital campaign from 2015 to 2018. She opined that institutional knowledge is lacking, as some pieces of art are not being properly cared for and one piece from OCAF’s permanent collection was donated to a thrift store.
“Please, before getting rid of anything, ask someone who has been here for a long time,” she said.
OCAF member Laura Rose, who spoke about a single bid on mulch for a garden going over budget, said the greatest wealth OCAF possesses is its volunteers, some of whom have great skills in landscaping.
“If you’re not calling on us, you are failing your financial duties,” she said.
In its January newsletter, the OCAF Board of Directors noted that in December, a communications committee was formed to address transparency and trust concerns.
“This group will oversee a newsletter, notes from the board, acknowledgements to members, donors and sponsors and general communication of any type,” stated the announcement. “One of the first things they will address is the OCAF website.”
The OCAF website is currently down for maintenance, Toole told The Enterprise. Toole also said that the board will discuss how to celebrate OCAF’s 30th anniversary in the near future.
Toole said he hopes members will continue to engage with the board.
“Hopefully this is the beginning of something that is going to be fruitful for OCAF,” he said at the conclusion of the January meeting.
In other news, The Georgia Artists with Disabilities exhibition at OCAF ends on Friday.
“Experience the Novel Art Chapter Two Exhibition” is open until Feb. 10. This exhibit showcases the “Wonders of Watercolor” artists that inspired Gail Karwoski’s latest novel, “Skeleton in the Art Closet.”
Beginning in March, OCAF will host Youth Art Month in the Main Gallery and textile art by Laura Leiden in the Member’s Gallery. Those start March 1.
OCAF is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Video of the January meeting can be viewed at vimeo.com/902091845?share=copy and was made available by retired journalism professor Lee Becker.