Meredith Stiehl has a lot riding on her shoulders. Stiehl, the president of the Fayetteville Museum of Art’s Board of Directors, has spent a lot of sleepless nights, and packed days working to keep the museum alive. When the decision to close the museum’s doors was made, Stiehl was the one who broke the news to the community, and was the one who has worked to close the facility.
“As the board president, I know, and the museum board knows that our vision has got to be based on an accurate view of the current reality,” said Stiehl during a recent interview. “We have to make decisions based on where we are right now.”
Where the museum is right now is in debt, without a staff and with its facility for sale. It is also in a bad relationship with the Arts Council Fayetteville/Cumberland County and is facing a community that is at best confused about what has happened over the past couple of years. This is the reality Stiehl lays down with at night and gets up with in the morning.
“I really wanted to believe over the past year that we could all hold hands and come together and work things out,” said Stiehl. “But that didn’t happen. So now, we have to go from here.”
Stiehl is the first to say that she is not in the business of finger pointing. “I’m not laying the blame for our closure on anyone. If any fingers are pointing, they are pointing right back at us,” she said. “But now we have to move forward.”
Part of that movement forward is the establishment of an advisory board made up of members of the community who are not board members. Stiehl established the group in March of 2009, but it was derailed in the face of the city’s task force to study the viability of the museum. On Thursday, June 10, the board met for the first time, and for the first time in a long time, Stiehl believes the museum might be on the right track.
The museum’s board of directors accepted an offer by the Arts Council of Fayetteville/Cumberland County on a way ahead. Upon the agreement of the boards of both agencies, the Arts Council will pay for a “nationally recognized visual arts museum consultant, approved by the American Association of Museums, to provide an institutional assessment of the museum and to make recommendations for a way ahead.
Stiehl said the consultant will look at everything from the museum’s finances to long- and short-term debt to its expenses. The consultant will look at personnel issues, performance issues and facility issues.
“They will go out into the community to hear what the community has to say about the museum and to see if we are meeting its needs,” said Stiehl.
The museum board will work with the Arts Council to pick the consultant. Stiehl knows that the term consultant will immediately turn a lot of people off, but she wants them to give the consultant a chance to hear their needs and to get a picture of what the community needs and wants from the museum — even if the answer is the community doesn’t want a museum.
“We want them to talk to a broad spectrum of the community,” she said. “We are going to need that input if they are going to guide our community.”
Stiehl said since the formation of the advisory group, which she said is filled with many people who may be considered the museum’s critics, more people have come forward to say they want in on charting the path forward.
“We welcome their input,” said Stiehl, who said she has had countless phone calls, and has learned more about the museum’s operations and the community’s thoughts than she had known previously.
“At this point, we really have to go back to the beginning,” she said. “Thirty-eight years ago, when the charter for the museum was signed, they had to plot the course, and we have to do the same thing. We are starting at the beginning.”
Part of that includes clearing up unfinished business. Stiehl, along with a group of volunteers has being working to ensure that area artists get their artwork back. That bills are paid, and that the closing is done in an appropriate manner. “We want to handle things in a professional manner,” she said.
“I believe the Arts Council and the museum are equally committed to keeping a strong visual arts museum in the community,” she said. “And, I believe we are on the right path. I believe we have found a common ground.”