With ConWorks Closing Up Shop, the Fate of a Large and Valuable Mural Is Up in the Air. Who Owns 'Hoss'? And Will It Stay in Seattle?
Walk into the South Lake Union warehouse where Consolidated Works spent almost four years in a din of multidisciplinary splendor, and there's nothing there even to soften the clack of your steps on the concrete. The curtains have come down in the theater; the track lights are all gone from the galleries. "You walk through, and it's that sound of something hollowed out," says Andy Fife.
Fife is the operations director who, with artistic director Corey Pearlstein, devoted his final weeks at ConWorks to an elaborate evacuation that will be completed August 31, when ConWorks leaves 500 Boren Avenue North and locks the doors behind it.
Maybe it has looked as though nothing has been going on at ConWorks for several weeks. But behind the scenes, when a nonprofit arts center announces it is shutting down its physical plant, another process starts up—the messy and complicated task of finding good adoptive homes for its belongings. Unlike for-profit companies, a nonprofit cannot just liquidate everything for cash, pay off debts, and ride into a zero-balance sunset. A nonprofit has to answer to granters, donors, artists, and, if it's in debt—as almost all are by the time they reach this point—creditors.
The easy stuff goes first. Some granters have rules. For example, 4Culture, the arts arm of King County, gives money as an investment in public benefit, meaning that a nonprofit is not allowed to take the county's money, buy equipment, and sell it for cash. That equipment has to bring a service to a public audience, and if the nonprofit can no longer provide that service, then the equipment must be returned to 4Culture or given to another nonprofit. There are exceptions if the equipment has depreciated, or if the public benefit has already been met. Debra Twersky at 4Culture said ConWorks has fulfilled its service obligations for the two capital grants it received: $100,000 toward building out its space in 2000, and $5,000 for video gear in 2002. ConWorks can sell its depreciated gear and not worry about the $100,000, Twersky said.
The low-budget, scrape-it-together, recycled culture of nonprofits everywhere means that if you look under the seats or up at the black lighting units in any smallish theater, you'll find the stencils of previous owners. "You can see how many theaters are supporting each other around town," said Gillian Jorgensen, artistic director of Annex Theatre. Knowing that ConWorks's theater curtains were purchased with a restricted grant, Annex called ConWorks and nabbed them. Among other hand-me-downs, Annex owns a fake lawn from Seattle Repertory Theatre and the orange couches from the ConWorks unisex bathroom, purchased at ConWorks's garage sale July 15 and 16.
Nonprofits are also driven by broader notions of stewarding cultural events and objects. "As director of 911 [Media Arts Center], I found this box of artist books that could have been sold on the open market and we would have gotten a lot of money, but I knew they needed to go to a place where they would get used, and they were purchased with public money," said Robin Oppenheimer. She called in a librarian from special collections at the University of Washington, who declared the set a find, one of the best series of 1970s artist-made books in the country. They're still at UW, where anybody can use them.
What about when the asset in question is a major work of art? A museum's ability to sell an artwork is governed by guidelines that wouldn't apply to a center like ConWorks, which has only one piece in its collection: the 20-by-80-foot Barry McGee graffiti mural Hoss. It dominates the central room at ConWorks and backgrounds the memories of countless bands gigging; artists performing; and audiences drinking, cheering, and chomping on snacks—as San Francisco–based McGee, originally a street artist named "Twist," would certainly appreciate.
As of August 31, Hoss will have no home in Seattle, and will probably have to leave. But its fate is still in question.
McGee made Hoss in 1999 at Rice University in Houston. The next year, it came to ConWorks for a show, and McGee left it in the hands of then-executive director Matt Richter and then-visual art director Meg Shiffler as a gesture of support for ConWorks, which was campaigning for its new home on Boren Avenue. According to Shiffler and Richter, the transaction included a letter from McGee. They understood that Hoss would be held as a restricted asset, essentially something ConWorks owns but can't sell without the artist's permission.
As of press time, nobody was quite sure about that letter's location or its contents. (McGee told Shiffler he doesn't remember writing it.) Board spokesman Eric Prager, a Seattle attorney, said his conversations with McGee will be private, but that "among the things I'll ask him is if there's a way to keep it in Seattle." McGee did not comment for this story, but his New York dealer Jeffrey Deitch (who was not part of the original transaction) said the piece belongs to McGee, and McGee wants it back. (Richter says it was appraised at $47,000 in 2000; McGee sold a smaller multipanel work at auction in 2003 for $56,000, but a work as large as Hoss would probably have fewer takers.)
Prager would neither confirm nor deny rumors that ConWorks had considered selling the piece and using the profits to pay down debt, which Prager characterized as "significantly less than $100,000."
Richter's point of view: "Barry shouldn't have to cover the board's debt."
Doug McLennan, longtime cultural journalist and editor and founder of ArtsJournal, said it's not so simple. Of course, if an arts organization is seen to be fleecing an artist or donor, its reputation will be lost. But, McLennan said, if an artist is supportive of a sale, there's nothing unethical about selling an artwork for which you can no longer provide a good home. Why not work with museums or dealers to place it well, and meet a fiduciary responsibility at the same time? "With something this big, for instance, there's the cost factor of putting it in storage," McLennan said. "If you already have debts, can you afford to take that on?"
Shiffler, now a city gallery administrator in San Francisco and the person who worked most closely with McGee, agrees. But she said McGee has told her that he plans to take his mural back, disassemble it, and use pieces of it in newer works, as is his practice.
McGee made Hoss less than two years before his wife, the artist Margaret Kilgallen, died of complications from breast cancer, only a few weeks after she gave birth to their daughter, Asha.
So Hoss may be a sentimental piece for McGee, like it has become for the people of Seattle.
"Small nonprofits burn bright and burn out, and that is a vital part of moving culture forward," Shiffler said. "I love the fact that this piece of ConWorks is going to go on and live and be part of something new."