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Secrecy, apathy put CEPA in crisis mode

When cultural institutions fail, they rarely do so because of a single person or a single mistake.

The failure of such institutions, from Studio Arena Theatre to the Arts Council of Buffalo and Erie County, is almost always the result of systemic flaws that amplify minor problems into major crises. And among those flaws, none are more damaging than secrecy and apathy.

Both of those forces led to the current crisis at CEPA Gallery, whose board recently dismissed longtime CEPA employee and Executive Director Sean Donaher after a cash-flow crisis reached a critical point at the end of last year. Nancy Parisi, CEPA’s overwhelmed and underequipped board president, quit her post two weeks ago.

This week, after the gallery announced the news, both co-interim director Lauren Tent and acting board president Robert Fleming declared in no uncertain terms that everything at the gallery is “fine” and “on stable footing.”

But CEPA Gallery is not “fine.”

A gallery that places its director on paid leave pending a financial investigation only to reinstate and then dismiss him five months later is not fine. A gallery whose board president leaves her post six weeks before the end of her term is not on solid footing. And an institutional structure that allows unsustainable amounts of debt to accrue every two years, to the point where creditors ring staffers’ phones off the hook and the state Department of Taxation and Finance files a warrant for back taxes, is about as far from copacetic as you can imagine.

The leadership that remains at CEPA refuses to even hint at the amount of debt the organization faces while continuing to seek and receive public subsidies in excess of $200,000 per year, a clear sign that the crisis is far from over.

So how did CEPA – the once-venerable institution known for challenging and expanding our understanding of art and photography and educating generations of students – get to this point?

It all started one October day in 2008, when CEPA Director Lawrence Brose was visited by two agents from the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency performing a child pornography investigation. That investigation, which ended with a plea deal for a minor obscenity charge in 2014, nonetheless removed the most competent and talented staffer in the organization’s history and set off the first of many crises.

A more active and engaged board might have let the next years play out differently, but CEPA’s board did not. It ensured that the crisis of Brose’s departure would quietly grow, one bad decision and oversight at a time.

This is where secrecy and apathy come in.

The first poor decision, though I as an outside observer supported it at the time, was to elevate Donaher from the position of artistic director – for which he was eminently qualified and talented – to executive director. In that role, Donaher kept the organization afloat, but also pushed a series of moves that turned out to be difficult to execute or ill-advised, notably CEPA’s costly merger with Big Orbit Gallery on Essex Street. What’s more, his apparent lack of acumen with the financial side of the operation meant that he was ill-equipped with the fallout of those decisions.

As Donaher struggled in his own secret silo to patch together an ever-more precarious situation, the board worked in theirs, apparently unaware of the extent of the impending crisis. While Donaher is far from blameless, there was a clear lack of oversight from the board to ensure that a relatively new executive director was being properly scrutinized and assisted with some of the more challenging aspects of his job.

If the board was doing its job, the problem would have been caught long before the creditors started pestering CEPA employees, and before Donaher was summarily placed on leave. If the board was doing its job, one of the gallery’s longest-serving employees and an asset to the community who struggled with the financial aspects of the organization, might still be serving the institution he helped to build.

In his more than two decades at CEPA Gallery as a volunteer, curator and director, Donaher created adventurous and challenging programming that often delivered on the institution’s early promise to expand Western New Yorkers’ understanding and appreciation of photography and visual art.

His departure didn’t have to happen, and it points at deeper problems that remain to be solved. CEPA is an essential Buffalo institution that, even in its dysfunction, performs a vital service to local residents and students. It cannot be allowed to crumble because of an apathetic board or one over-promoted – if gifted – employee.

Only two things can pull CEPA back from the brink. The first is a commitment to constant oversight and full transparency – between the staff and the board and between the organization and the public. The second is a renewed commitment to the mission of the institution and an effort to ensure equal fervor for that mission among every single person on the board.

The first task is easy, the second, considerably more difficult. Both are essential.