I was at work in early December when I received a call, asking me whether I had heard the news about the layoffs at the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum & Art Gallery. Faced with a growing operational debt, the athenaeum trustees decided to lay off all employees of the venerable institution, reorganize how it provides services and have these same employees vie for fewer jobs in the future.
It should be noted that I have a deep and abiding love for libraries and what they do. My grandmother served as a school librarian for many years, spending her retirement within the walls of the athenaeum assisting its efforts. My dear mother-in-law retired as a librarian after decades of service in the Hennepin County Library system out in Minneapolis, one of the most progressive in the nation, and my own daughter presently works as an Americorps grant writer at the Cobleigh Library in Lyndonville.
This particular issue with the athenaeum has pained me more than you know, but I believe this concern must take a true and complete directional turn for our community to heal and the institution to flourish and prosper in the years to come, as I fear the anger and frustration regarding this decision could very well haunt the athenaeum well into the future.
I know more than the average Joe about the challenges of surviving at a non-profit amidst the worst recession in 70 years. We are not the corporate world that can turn off power if the services we provide do not balance with available funding sources. Our doors are expected to be open each and every day despite economic rocky seas and, if the truth is to be told, our services are needed all the more in a downturn like the one we have experienced in the past five years, all the while surviving on much less funding.
It is not my place to question the wisdom of the trustees in taking such a directional shift, but I do think we are perhaps missing a major point when we are meeting to form a hug around the athenaeum when the very issue that caused this situation, a growing operational debt, has yet to be addressed and solved.
There is a desire among some to punish those who make perceived or even real misguided decisions, but where does that leave the athenaeum, which is already reeling from a difficult last couple years? Like many of you, I have friends within those heavy Victorian doors, and this most recent decision affects their lives as well as the athenaeum. While it may make us feel like we are doing something by challenging the decision, we desperately need to seek a solution that allows those employees to stay and lessen the financial pressure for the athenaeum, now and in the future.
I know, first-hand, what a change in services means in this new world, following our chamber being “invited to leave” the Pomerleau Building and our subsequent removal as the operator of the St. Johnsbury Welcome Center. For the first time in decades, our main responsibility as a chamber, greeting visitors, was evolving, prompting our organization to host a community forum that encouraged chamber businesses and residents of the Northeast Kingdom to voice what they needed their chamber to be in the years ahead.
Moderated by Ken and Gretchen Hammer, this forum attracted 20 percent of our membership, and we heard feedback from participants that will serve us well into this century. Its recommendations were so valued that even 1 ½ years later I keep those notes in my trustee binder, to ensure we follow these guidelines and follow the direction of our members. The athenaeum trustees may want to consider such a move, as we all must play a part in having one of the most critical institutions in our area survive.
I understand in the throes of a downturn that there are so many worthy causes to support. There is only so much money out there. It is a dilemma that has faced us for generations, that if you give to a cultural institution does that mean you cannot afford to donate to the food shelf? Inherent within this discussion is how we look at the arts and how it enriches our lives. That may very well mean that we as residents dig deeper and vote for more generous municipal appropriations and give whatever we can, even if it is change, not dollars, as it is imperative to preserve these beloved institutions.
I know that my words are controversial to some and that I will be questioned on each and every point in the aisles of the White Market, but is there anything more important that we can do than to figure out a solution to help these financially strapped organizations? Hugs are nice, but they don’t pay the bills.
(Darcie McCann is the executive director of the Northeast Kingdom Chamber.)