Board “likely” to sell Center for Cultural Exchange

The Center for Cultural Exchange may exchange its home for cash. (photo/Sean Wilkinson)

The Center for Cultural Exchange may exchange its home for cash. (photo/Sean Wilkinson)

Board “likely” to sell Center for Cultural Exchange 
Non-profit may continue without its signature space

By Chris Busby

Having unexpectedly lost its founders and directors this fall, the Center for Cultural Exchange may soon give up its performance space and offices in Longfellow Square. Portland attorney Jay Young, president of the non-profit CCE’s board, said it is “likely” the Center’s signature building will be put up for sale next year, given the organization’s financial situation.

“We face some financial challenges that are outside our control,” said board vice president Chris Kast, an executive at Banknorth. Board members didn’t give many details about the non-profit’s finances, but said high overhead costs and increased competition for grants and donations are factors. The Center’s annual operating budget is reportedly around $850,000.

Kast and other board members stressed that though selling the Center itself is a strong possibility, they hope to continue some of the arts and cultural organization’s educational offerings and other projects. 

“We’re going to have to somewhat contract the scope of what the Center does,” said Young. In addition to hosting shows at its 220-person-capacity space, the Center offers workshops and performances in schools, commissions artwork (like this year’s multi-media project “Homeland Security”), sponsors artists-in-residence and releases world music CDs, among several other initiatives. 

One project unlikely to continue next year is the Center’s Festival of Cultural Exchange, a two-day event of music, dance and other performances by local, national and international acts. “I doubt we’ll attempt the festival in 2006,” Young said. “Although I wouldn’t rule it out.” 

The Center lost money on the festival last year, the first year it was held, and the two-day event was a break-even for the CCE this year, according to Young. 

However, last summer’s event, held along a block of downtown Congress Street, cost the CCE in terms of its public image. Many people complained they were denied access to residences and businesses on the block unless they bought a ticket. Organizers said that should not have been the case, and apologized for any confusion. 

In an Oct. 23 article in the Portland Press Herald, Young had said a decision about the festival needed to be made by January. But in a recent interview withThe Bollard, he said that decision could wait until March or April, by which time performers would have to be booked for the August event.

The board’s search for a new executive director to replace co-founder Phyllis O’Neill is also being deferred, and may not take place at all, said Young. 

Program director Ryan McMaken, who worked under departing co-founder and artistic director Bau Graves (O’Neill’s husband) for several years, “has really sort of stepped up as far as assuming more management responsibility at the Center,” said Young. “Bringing in a new executive director over Ryan’s head may not be the answer…. We’re not clear what we’re looking for.”

Neither McMaken nor the CCE’s interim executive director, Bo Norris, could be reached for comment. O’Neill and Graves announced their intention to leave in October (Graves has taken a job as president and CEO of an arts and cultural foundation in Virginia) and planned to move earlier this month. They could not be reached for comment.

O’Neill and Graves organized performances, festivals and other cultural events as leaders of an earlier organization, Portland Performing Arts, before that group bought the Longfellow Square building from the city in 1997. The city had acquired the then-vacant and run-down tax-delinquent property the year before, and the city council’s decision to sell it to the arts group, rather than a private developer offering more than double PPA’s bid, was a matter of controversy at the time.

O’Neill’s group paid the city $65,000 for the three-story space, and the organization reportedly spent nearly $800,000 renovating the building before it opened as the Center for Cultural Exchange in early 1999. 

The property, which is still owned by Portland Performing Arts Inc., is currently worth $518,800, according to city tax records, and its taxable value is expected to increase by nearly $100,000 next year, according to the city assessment. 

It’s unclear whether the city would receive any proceeds from the building’s resale. Young said that was a question the board is looking into. City attorney Gary Wood could not be reached for comment before this article was posted. 

Board member Barbara Goodbody said the Bush administration has cut funding for the arts, and though the Center has not lost any federal money as a direct result, the cuts have increased competition among non-profit arts groups for the funding that remains. “Everyone is really, really struggling right now,” she said. “I’ve never seen so many requests for money come across my desk. It’s just every single day…. This community is very, very generous, but it’s small.” 

Goodbody also noted that since the CCE opened nearly seven years ago, several other venues that host cultural events and performances have sprung up, like the University of Southern Maine’s Multicultural Center (located on USM’s Portland campus) and the Maine Irish Heritage Center (located a few blocks down the street from the CCE). 

Goodbody, a photographer who also serves on the Portland Museum of Art’s board of directors, said she’d like to see more collaboration between the various arts and cultural organizations in town. And she said the CCE’s board would like to hear what direction people think the organization should take at this point. 

“Certainly, our mission is to serve the community,” said Goodbody. “If members of the community don’t want us to serve, then that becomes another subject for discussion, but I don’t think that’s a problem.”

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