The Bush Barn Art Center on Thursday, Oct. 22. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

After more than a decade leading one of Salem’s oldest arts organizations, Sandra Burnett is retiring at the end of the year.

Burnett, 70, leaves behind a Salem Art Association that has so far survived the pandemic with a mix of staffing cuts and new grants, according to a Salem Reporter review of recent monthly financial statements.

“We’ve been judicious with our expenses, our financials are good. We have not touched the endowment,” said Laura Tesler, the incoming board president. “We’re better off than a lot of other 501 c3s right now,” referring to nonprofits.

But with the pandemic still raging, uncertainty looms for the association’s core programs, including the Bush Barn Art Center, which has remained closed since March even as other local galleries opened over the summer only to close again last week.

The going has not always been smooth.

Staff turnover has added to the challenges, and the association has been without a gallery director since David Wilson resigned in July. He told Salem Reporter he left because of conflict with Burnett about the vision of the organization and said he objected to the lack of a clear plan for reopening the gallery.

The association has been working on virtual programs since the spring and plans to set up an online marketplace to sell art that would previously have been available in the gallery store. That’s been in the works since September, and Burnett said she expects it to launch over Thanksgiving weekend.

Burnett announced her intent to retire to the association’s executive committee mid-year, promising to guide the organization through the pandemic and leave it in good shape for her successor.

She’s been operating from her home in western Washington since Oregon’s work-from-home order went into effect in March and plans to remain there and focus on her own artwork.

“It’s time. I’m not a spring chicken any more and there are other things I want to do,” Burnett said.

Alicia Bay, Sandra Burnett and Nathan Bay attend the Clay Ball on Saturday, Feb. 22, in Salem to support the Salem Art Association. (Mary Louise VanNatta/Special to Salem Reporter)

The Salem Art Association formed in 1919 as the Salem Arts League and moved to Bush’s Pasture Park in 1953, originally operating out of the historic Bush House. In 1965, the association moved into the former horse barn behind the house, which became the Bush Barn Art Center. 

Since she arrived in 2009, Burnett has overseen a substantial expansion of the association, including the opening of the Annex, an addition to the Bush Barn Art Center in 2016, and the spinoff of the Bush House Museum into a separate nonprofit organization.

Board members credit her with building the association’s financial reserves while adding programs.

“Under her leadership, Salem Art Association has flourished, moving from a financially tenuous organization into a more stable and forward-looking platform for the future of arts in Salem,” the board wrote in a statement announcing Burnett’s retirement.

Chris Neider, who oversees the city of Salem’s transit occupancy tax, which funds local arts organizations including Salem Art Association, said Burnett has a strong track record of fundraising and that under her leadership, the association has become one of the more financially stable arts nonprofits in the city.

“It’ll be interesting and a new dynamic. She definitely has big shoes to fill, whoever’s going to fill her spot,” Neider said.

The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on many nonprofit organizations which have seen major fundraising events canceled, donor contributions dry up and revenue from programs evaporate.

The art association was in a better position than many to weather the storm. The city owns the Bush Barn Art Center and leases it to the association at no cost while paying 80% of utilities.

Art covers the walls as the Salem Art Association prepares for the opening of its annual Young Artists Showcase on March 7, 2020. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Still, board reports and financial records show the year began in a tough spot, as the association took $35,000 from its reserves to make payroll that month, the first time since Burnett took over.

Burnett said that was necessary to cover income that didn’t come in as fast as expected.

The end of the year is typically the leanest time for the association, she said, and she expected to restore the money to the reserves by March.

That didn’t happen because the pandemic hit, the Bush Barn Center had to close and Burnett decided to cancel the annual Art Fair and Festival, a major July event that draws artists from around the Northwest to Salem and earns about $100,000 for the association. Instead, the event was held virtually, generating, substantially less revenue.

Burnett laid off all the employees temporarily. By the end of March, financial records show, the association had just $7,377 cash and owed artists more than $16,000 in refunds for Art Fair registrations.

Burnett submitted a revised “emergency” budget to the board to cover April through December, which expected to cut payroll costs in half through layoffs and hours reductions, and spent just $341,000 instead of a planned annual budget of just over $1 million.

In April, she said the association brought back many employees to their regular hours, expecting federal relief would come soon.

Subsequent conflict among employees led several staffers to leave. The events director left in May. Burnett said her departure was an “HR issue” unrelated to financial challenges but declined to provide specifics. Wilson left in July.

Wilson said he was reprimanded for questioning the lack of a reopening plan for the gallery and pushing for the association to do more virtual programming early in the year once it became clear the extent of closure. He said he didn’t understand why the art center remained closed to the public, forgoing revenue from its shop which also directly supports local artists, while other local galleries reopened over the summer.

Burnett declined to discuss the personnel issues, but said in general, the financial pressures the association faced this year compounded existing differences among staff about how the association should move forward.

“Sometimes there are conflicts within a staff group that leadership has to act on,” Burnett said. “You have to defend the organization above all those other things.”

She said she didn’t feel reopening the gallery over the summer was prudent, even as other arts organizations like the Hallie Ford Museum of Art reopened, because of the gallery’s small size, the fact that many Gallery Guide volunteers are elderly and high risk, and the possibility of a surge in Covid cases that would force another closure.

She said she elected not to hire a new gallery director to save money and leave the choice to the new executive director.

“It’s a financial consideration - how do we fundraise to keep the gallery open when hardly anyone’s coming in?” Burnett said, speaking in early November before another statewide shutdown required art galleries and museums to close again.

The association received $102,000 in federal paycheck protection program money in mid-May, which covered staffing costs through the end of the virtual art fair in July. It also received almost $20,000 from the Oregon Cultural Trust.

As a result, most of the 11 employees are back on duty, working on digital events and exhibitions and planning for next year’s Art Fair, Burnett said. She re-hired the association’s events director, Stephanie Patterson, in October.

“The staff we have now are absolutely fabulous. They’re working as a team, they’re supporting each other,” she said.

A poem by Joy L. McDowell in the window of the Bush Barn Art Center on Thursday, Oct. 22. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

The association’s YouTube channel has posted dozens of videos since the pandemic began, some demonstrating techniques like using a pottery wheel, while others guide kids through art activities they can do at home using materials from the association.

An exhibit called “The Collaborative Body” is underway in the Annex now, with 15 artists working, one at a time, to paint the walls in anticipation of an eventual reopening. The exhibit is modeled after the party game where one player draws a head for a body on a sheet of paper, then folds the paper over, leaving the next player to draw a torso to match a head they haven’t seen.

Participating artists will paint bodies on the walls the same way, working on a piece without seeing the whole.

“It’s a way to interact with each other, but one at a time,” Burnett said.

Tesler and board member Matthew Boulay are on the association’s search committee for a new director, and said they hope to hire someone in the next six months. 

Boulay said they’ve received about 100 applications.

“We’re excited about the opportunity to go forward but we certainly are going to miss Sandra,” Boulay said. “We have nothing but good things to say about her and are collectively sad that she’s going.”

Tesler said the association is optimistically planning to hold Art Fair in person next summer and hopes to reopen the Bush Barn Art Center earlier in 2021. With so much uncertainty about the pandemic, there’s no set date yet.

“We have found ways through this to serve the artistic community. We hope to continue that,” Boulay said. “None of us are thrilled to keep our doors closed.”

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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