CEPA Gallery Executive Director Sean Donaher and board president Nancy Parisi have resigned from their positions with the downtown institution, following a financial and public relations crisis that came to a head in November.
The gallery announced Donaher’s resignation in a statement on Wednesday, saying that he was leaving to “pursue other endeavors.” Donaher, reached by email on Wednesday, said this about the end of his 23-year career at the gallery: “It was time.”
Acting CEPA board president Robert Fleming characterized Donaher’s departure as the result of a board-led review of the organization’s financial challenges.
“Any time an organization goes through a major crisis, the board and staff are going to review everything, or at least they should,” Fleming said. “It’s no secret that CEPA certainly had a significant financial cash flow crisis at the end of 2015. The board has been taking stock of the challenges CEPA faces, and whether Sean was the right person to lead CEPA going forward. On balance, we thought it was time for a change.”
While CEPA conducts its search to replace Donaher, the gallery will be led by Education Director Lauren Tent and Artistic Director David Mitchell.
In November, after cash flow problems at the gallery resulted in a series of calls from creditors to gallery staffers, Donaher was placed on paid leave while the gallery conducted an internal audit of its finances and returned to his position in December.
[Read Dabkowski's interview with Donaher after he returned to work in December]
Despite repeated requests to the gallery, which received more than $200,000 from government sources in the 2013-14 fiscal year, staffers and board members declined to provide the findings of that audit or even a ballpark estimate of its current debt load.
“You’re not entitled to it,” Fleming said of CEPA’s debt. “I think CEPA is moving in the right direction. We’re not in a debt crisis or cash flow crisis at the moment.”
According to the gallery’s financial filings with Erie County last year, CEPA held liabilities of $82,000 at the end of the 2013-14 fiscal year, including a largely maxed-out $50,000 line of credit from M&T Bank and nearly $5,000 of credit card debt. In addition, the State Department of Taxation and Finance filed a tax warrant against the gallery for $2,591.38 last November for unpaid employee withholding tax. It is unclear how much more debt the gallery has accrued since mid-2014.
“We’ve been making payments on all of the debt. We’re in pretty good shape,” Fleming said. “We obviously have some backlog outstanding. Our cash situation and accounts receivable is pretty darn good right now.”
Parisi, for her part, said her decision to resign ahead of the end of her term on June 30 was due to her need to focus on her photography business.
“When you volunteer for a board, you don’t expect to enter into a managerial position,” she said. “You just think we’re going to work together with the staff and we’re going to raise money. Nobody expected this.”
Despite that, Parisi added, the gallery just held its the most successful auction in its history, raising $98,000 and helping to put the gallery on more solid financial footing.
Asked how the gallery got into its fiscal crisis, Fleming pointed to CEPA’s problematic merger with Big Orbit Gallery and the growth of its staff. He also echoed comments made last year by Parisi about the gallery’s unique funding cycle, which depends on a biannual auction and often creates a cash crunch at the end of each two-year period.
“The Big Orbit merger and the increase in staff size was based on funding that was perhaps one-time only,” Fleming said. “We certainly had some unusual grant [delays] from last year that made things tough. So I think that the process we’re going through now will give us a better picture of how we are going to be stable all the time, not just three-quarters of a two-year cycle.”
Tent, the interim co-director said in a phone interview that the organization’s health is “absolutely fine.”
“In terms of Sean, he’s moving on,” she said. “That’s it.”
Asked about whether the gallery is on solid ground following the resignations of its two most prominent figures, Fleming echoed Tent’s sentiments.
“I think we’re on a stable footing. We’ve had new grants come in, and our auction was the most successful ever,” he said. “We certainly have long-range planning to do, but I would not say that this is an unstable situation.”
News Staff Reporter Matthew Spina contributed to this report.