On Friday the thirteenth — that’s the Friday that preceded Christmas by fewer than two weeks — Marcheta Williams, President of the Madera County Arts Council (MCAC) went to Circle Gallery while Executive Director Rochelle Noblett was at a physician’s appointment, had the lock on Rochelle’s office changed, and locked her out. Rochelle had not been told that she had been fired. In fact, she did not receive notice of termination until she got a registered letter on Dec. 23, 2019, the day before Christmas Eve.
If you know Rochelle, and this includes pretty much everyone who ever walked into Pete’s Sport Shop on South C Street or who had ever been involved in any community activities, helped out with civic projects, or contributed to any of the scholarships that she’d initiated, then you know that she is a woman who has had 40 years of business experience and humanitarian service. She has a wall full of awards and certificates that document a life of successful achievement at everything to which she has set her hand. In addition, she completed her degree in art, magna cum laude, at Fresno State University. But, the Board of Directors of the MCAC fired her, a person who has transformed the Arts Council and Circle Gallery into programs and facilities of which the entire community can take pride.
Although term limits precluded me from serving on the current Board, I was a Board member for most of the past two decades, serving three years as president (2006-2008, and 2016-2017). So, as a still-active and informed member of the MCAC, I ask a simple question: Why?
Why did the Board fire the best executive director that the organization has had since it was founded under the guidance of the late Nancy Clute?
In a sane world, we must assume that there was a very good reason to get rid of an executive director who supervised the move from a tiny store-front operation (1400 square feet) on North Schnoor Avenue to a 5,000-square-foot stand-alone gallery at 424 N. Gateway Drive.
In a sane world, the Board must have had a very good reason to fire the person who had been selected to serve in Sacramento on the California Arts Council’s committee that evaluates grant applications from every local arts council in the State of California. They must have had a very good reason to fire the person whose grant application on behalf of the MCAC for fiscal 2020 received a score of 6, which is a perfect score, from the sitting state-council members. This was a remarkable accomplishment, putting the MCAC on equal footing with arts councils from Los Angeles and San Francisco.
In a sane world, they must have had a very good reason to fire the person who increased revenue from membership dues from $6,500 to nearly $21,000 in just her first year on the job; the person who, during that same period, increased revenue from sponsorships from $500 to $17,700, and that boost in revenue has continued to increase; the person who brought about a nearly six-fold increase in memberships in three years, so that the income from members now stands at $37,000. During the last seven months alone, Rochelle wrote $215,000 worth of grants for the MCAC. So, in a sane world, the Board must have had a very good reason to fire the person whose management skills dramatically improved the organization’s finances.
In a sane world, why would the Board fire the person who increased attendance at Circle Gallery exponentially? One of Rochelle’s first priorities was to find a larger and more visible location for the gallery. Before the move to the Gateway Drive location, average weekly attendance at Circle Gallery was a single digit number; during her last year as executive director, weekly attendance surged into the hundreds, and the organization’s reputation spread beyond the boundaries of our city and county.
People throughout the Central Valley visited the Coyolxauhqui exhibit, which ended on Dec. 20. The artwork had been in storage since the artist, Gloria Osuna Perez, died in El Paso, Texas, in 1995. Gloria was born and reared in Madera and was a significant part of the Chicano Art Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. However, her husband Roberto brought the exhibit to California this year, stopping first at Circle Gallery because of his knowledge of Rochelle‘s ability to display the work professionally and her dedication to the arts.
The exhibit featured a six-foot ring of clay panels that are the artist’s interpretation of a piece of Aztec art that was uncovered when Mexico City began excavations to extend its subway system.
Seventy school children were scheduled for a banquet and tour of the masterwork on Monday, Dec. 16.
Likewise, people from Valley State Prison had been invited for another banquet and tour on Wednesday, Dec. 18.
Five executive directors from other Central Valley arts councils responded to invitations for Thursday, Dec. 19. In the past, Circle Gallery never had this kind of exposure.
In a sane world, the Board of Directors would have considered this before firing their executive director.
Both beginning and intermediate guitar lessons have been offered. The Winter Pop Up show, featuring handmade items by local artisans, was held on Dec. 14.
A Winter Animator’s Camp for 4th through 12th graders ran Dec. 30 through Jan. 10. However, as of this writing, the gallery is closed.
And all this follows the regular art exhibitions and the record-setting 26th annual Celebrate Agriculture with the Arts show and contest, the longest-running exhibition of its kind in California.
In the recent past, the MCAC has held Paint Nights, taught Folkloric dancing; hosted exhibits by the Western Yosemite Artists; and decorated a special room for Dia de los Muertos. During the latter observation, two Bandas and Oaxacan dancers performed two hours past closing time because the public was having so much fun, and Rochelle wanted the attendees to enjoy the evening.
She has also aided other arts organizations and high marks for helping the California State Summer School for the Arts in Valencia secure two grants worth $50,000.
The Board must have had a very good reason for firing the executive director who has accomplished so much. And, indeed, they do have a very good reason; in fact, they have about three million reasons.
When Elaine Secara died, she bequeathed about $2.5 million for the MCAC to obtain a building for its activities and to dedicate it to her husband Franklin. That money has been invested and has grown, but it is targeted by some Board members who want to use it as seed money for a proposed $65 million performing arts center. If it were ever to be built, the gallery would be a very small, almost insignificant part of the edifice, most of which will be a 500-seat theater, an additional smaller theater (for lectures), and a dining area. Needless to say, it will not be dedicated to Franklin Secara and would never be owned by the MCAC, the organization which Mrs. Secara specifically designated in her will.
Moreover, the MUSD is in the process of building a new school on Road 26, dedicated to Mathilda Torres, and that complex will have a theater that can accommodate the needs of all of the schools in and around the city. No study has been done to indicate that Madera needs two performing arts theaters. And data gathered from elsewhere in the Central Valley show that 500-seat theaters cannot support themselves, and they drain the community of other resources.
So, it is highly unlikely that the performing arts center will ever be built. One of the performing arts center Board members told the Madera Tribune that her group has already “raised $3 million” toward the project. In fact, her organization has not raised any money for construction; her reference to $3 million is the MCAC money that is being held captive by the MCAC Board of Directors on which she sits and wields exceptional influence.
In a sane world, however, it doesn’t make any sense to direct the Secara funds toward the proposed performing arts center. Raising $65 million in Madera for such an edifice is virtually impossible. A few years ago, the Madera Regional Hospital Foundation did a study that showed that the people of Madera could contribute about $500,000 per year for worthy projects, like buying an MRI machine and a CT scanner. Its efforts in fiscal 2018, however, brought in less than $200,000.
But, let’s be optimistic. Let’s assume that the group that is pushing for the $65 million performing arts building could raise $500,000 per year. If that dream came true, it would take 130 years to gather the funds for a $65-million building. And, of course, 130 years from now the edifice would cost our grandchildren’s grandchildren considerably more than $65 million.
And let’s not forget that Madera has a large population that lives below the poverty threshold. That’s why it was highlighted in a survey by the Department of Housing and Urban Development as a “pocket of poverty,” a community that was “left behind” during the economic boom of the 1990s. Many of our clients cannot even afford $5 classes. We know that we have a few donors who can write pretty big checks. Who are the potential donors who will be counted on to write all the smaller checks that eventually push the total toward annual donations into the mid-six figure range?
I don’t want to exaggerate about the chances of raising $65 million for a performing arts theater. Actually, the donated money, if properly invested, would grow more quickly than 130 years because of the interest it would earn.
Still, we would be looking at many decades of inflation that would offset much of the interest income before construction could begin. And by that time, the architect’s plans would be outmoded because of changes in building codes, desirable materials, and cultural changes in the perception of a grand building. Likewise, it is unrealistic to think that the County of Madera will hold the land that is currently being considered on reserve because it is in a prime location.
In a sane world, people can understand the mathematical impossibility of current plans to come to fruition.
In a sane world, an executive director who has performed well beyond expectation would be given a raise. She would not be fired, especially in such an insensitive manner and for such an unethical and spurious use of the Secara inheritance.
— James A. Glynn,
Former president, Madera County Arts Council