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LAURA DONALDSON AND THE MILLS GALLERY

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By CHRISTIAN HOLLAND

I ran into Bill Arning, the Curator of MIT’s List Visual Arts Center, at a talk at MIT on March 11 and he gave me the scoop: Laura Donaldson was leaving the BCA. The leadership there was changing the programming model and the Mills Gallery as we knew it would no longer fit in the budget.

The first word in an email from Matt Nash, publisher of Big RED & Shiny, in response to hearing about Laura’s impending departure was “Christ.” I thought, “No, even Jesus can’t help here,” the BCA’s redefined programming had already been set in motion and the type of innovation the Mills was bringing to the BCA wasn’t compatible with this new vision.

***

Many of the people who knew I was writing this piece assumed I was going to take their side. The BCA thought, as I was a long-time supporter and had even worked for the BCA, that I would be supporting them. Oddly enough, the arts community of Boston thought that because of the same reasons, I’d be writing a scathing castigation about the choices the BCA is making.

I had considered writing a typical in-depth piece about the BCA’s new direction, what it meant for the Mills and Laura Donaldson, and the community’s reaction to the changes along with an editorial about Big RED & Shiny’s opinion on the loss of both Donaldson and one of the city’s larger alternative spaces. However, there are several conflicts of interests here:

1. I worked for the BCA for 3 years and 10 months in capacities which ranged all the way from volunteer to that which was of high enough priority to warrant medical benefits.

2. I consider Laura Donaldson a friend, close enough to hug.

3. Big RED & Shiny considers the BCA and its leadership colleagues in arms. We often fight the same battles.

4. I have personally known Libbie Shufro, the president and CEO of the BCA for longer than Big RED has existed.

5. I admit, I am very disappointed in the BCA’s decision as the Mills Gallery that Laura built is precisely the kind of organization that Big RED & Shiny loves to support and strives to be on its own.

6. I am a bona fide art critic, but not yet a bona fide journalist.
A couple days after hearing the news from Bill Arning, Big RED was to publish an issue, but we held off to dig a little deeper. We decided to talk to Laura before we released the story as it was in the best interest of her and the BCA. I met with her on March 13 to have lunch and apologize for all the times I reviewed shows at the Mills without telling anyone I worked there for longer than she ever would be able to.

Over her Arugula salad, Laura is practically effusive. I nearly finished my rich and greasy macaroni and cheese before she’d taken but two bites. I had asked her what she thought her accomplishments were.

To name a few:

1. Every show there while she was at the helm was reviewed (to give an example of how much of an improvement this was: When the art-star Annette Lemieux curated a show in 2002, it was only reviewed by one neighborhood paper.)2. Attendance doubled.

3. Through grant money, raised guest curator stipend from $300 to $1300.

4. Brought in just under $30k in direct grants in 2006. (not including $10k for Tipping Point.)

5. She wrote exhibition brochures.

6. She created a project space which helped launch the careers of people such as Steve Locke.

7. Curated a show by Bruce Bemis that received an award from the International Association of Art Critics (AICA) and for which Bemis created new work.
Laura had come into the gallery at only half-time with only one half-time staff member, Adra Raine, at a time when toilet paper and light bulbs were being rationed. A loyal platoon of volunteers was built, much due to Raine’s efforts but not without the help of the gallery’s new notoriety and credibility amongst the city’s colleges and universities, and it was not without their generosity that Laura was able to continue the gallery’s success.

***

A week after I met with Laura, she met with Libbie Shufro to outline her exit from the BCA. It was planned that she would guest curate two more shows for the gallery as a guest curator. They also discussed keeping her departure under wraps until the BCA was ready to go public with its new model. Again, Big RED complied and waited to release the story.

Another week went by--it was now March 28 and everyone who was anyone knew about Laura’s imminent departure--and I received an email from Shufro asking Big RED to hold off until mid-April, when the BCA was prepared to go public with its new model, which was fine really--there was a story here and it wasn’t Laura leaving, it was the arts community’s reaction to it. It was this story that I hoped to tell and would wait patiently for any smoke to clear and dust to settle.

Mid-April came (issue #62, due out 22 April) and we were ready to go, but again the BCA wished to delay. They wanted to wait until June, the month of their annual meeting, to outline the new model, but would release a brief outline of it to the press beforehand. I was promised a pre-release of this text before its regular release in case I wanted to “scoop the story.”

Well, I learned a lesson about journalism here. You must always do what’s in the best interest of your readers and your publication. Don’t wait to release the story and don’t tell your readers anything but what story is. At 5:30 in the evening on 6 June, the BCA’s PR person, Rob Watson, emailed me the press release detailing the new mission. This was a few hours before it went “live” and unfortunately Big RED is not a daily publication.

At detail level, the BCA’s new mission is counter to that of Big RED’s, yet we waited to discuss the story. In short, if we had not waited we would have better served our readers and our mission.

***

So why does the BCA want to change? Libbie Shufro says there is a question of what the BCA can be known for and what their profile is. They want to build an identity of community engagement and be a “cultural village” where arts and culture are integrated into one. Bill Arning voiced his concerns that this new language used sounds like that of grants writing. But Shufro responded that the new model was not about raising money. Kathy Bitetti of the Artist Foundation thinks it will, in fact, be harder to get grants with this new model. I can’t tell if the community will drive the shows and productions of the BCA will they themselves emerge as leaders within the community and continue the progressive work which Laura so nimbly was able to bring. The gallery may become more of a host like that of the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center.

The emotions which accompany this kind of change at non-profits are usually not always of joy. One leader in the arts community of Boston referred to the new programming mission as colonialist; the BCA, with its well-paid and white leadership, was now diversifying just for the sake of diversifying. It is understandable that ideas like this, though cynical in nature, do exist in economic climates like that of Boston’s where there is so little space available for artists. When I visited Shufro and Wendy Baring-Gold, the director of Arts and Community Programs at the BCA, I was inadvertently yelled at by a visually angered Shufro. In her eyes, the lack of support in from the arts community has been infuriating while Baring-Gold grew emotive and almost tearful when projecting the BCA’s and communities potentials with her and Shufro’s new plan.

***

In the eyes of many, Laura Donaldson was perfect for the BCA. But I want to end this piece with another list, a list of things about her work at the Mills that Laura was proud of:

1. The quality of her programming: the variety of challenging and visually appealing shows and the wide audience she was able to attract.2. The connections she made for the Mills.

3. The critical review she achieved.

4. The gallery’s new profile.

5. The money brought in.

6. The respect of galleries and curators she earned for the Mills.

7. She feels like she’s been able to contribute to the culture of Boston.

8. She made a real difference in a lot of artists lives.

9. She gave many people the platform to realize their vision.


Visual Arts at the Boston Center for the Arts

For more on the restructuring of the BCA:
LAURA DONALDSON TO LEAVE MILLS GALLERY by BIG RED NEWS EDITOR in issue #65


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About Author

Christian Holland is an aspiring New York City-based essayist who likes writing about how New York City isn't the center of the world. He was executive editor and founding contributor of Big, Red & Shiny, and sat on the publication's board for V2.

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