With its very survival in question, the Arts Council of Kern -- decimated by a shrinking budget and staff -- announced the resignation of its executive director Thursday.
Michael Millar, who did not return a phone call for comment Thursday, will leave the advocacy and education organization June 30 to join the faculty of an unspecified Southern California university. Anthony Goss, who was voted president of the board of directors just Wednesday, will act as interim executive director until a replacement is found. He said he will not be paid.
Millar served as executive director for two years, a period that saw the loss of a contract that totaled roughly $500,000, half of the Arts Council's annual budget. Also during that time, the organization, founded in 1977 to promote the local art scene, lost several longtime employees who oversaw a number of programs and grants. As it stands now, the staff consists of Millar and a part-time administrative assistant.
But perhaps the most indelible legacy of his tenure has been the widespread criticism by many in the arts community that the executive director, who never moved to Kern County, failed to build bridges on behalf of the agency, a perception Millar was unable to shake.
As for the budget, Goss called the situation "shaky." The Californian has made repeated attempts over the past several months to get a full accounting of the council's financial status, but the board and Millar have released only partial information. Likewise, the paper has asked for the release of an Arts Council audit commissioned by the board, but those requests have been ignored.
When asked Thursday about the council's financial status, Goss, who was headed out of the country on vacation, said he did not have the numbers available.
The Arts Council relies on mostly private support -- grants, memberships and fundraisers -- though it does get some public funding. Goss said the agency will again ask the county for money for the coming fiscal year, somewhere in the neighborhood of the $65,000 awarded by supervisors last year.
Goss, a program specialist at the Kern County Superintendent of Schools Office, has served on the Arts Council board for nearly 10 years. He agreed to answer several questions about Millar and the future of the Arts Council:
Michael Millar seemed to polarize the arts community. Do you think his reputation damaged the Arts Council?
Goss: I can understand exactly where people are coming from with their perspectives. I've been extremely impressed with his dedication, especially in recent months. He's done everything in his ability to be present at local events to show support for the Downtown Business Association and First Friday. So when he announced to the executive committee last week that he had been offered this full-time faculty position, he was truly conflicted about not letting the Arts Council down.
Since so much was made of Millar not moving to Kern County, are you under pressure to replace him with someone local?
Goss: The advantages to having someone local are obvious -- that person is connected, has prior relationships, so that definitely is a strong concentration. But it doesn't limit someone who's not from here who can come in and compensate by being gregarious and knowing a lot about the arts.
I've heard that Millar was not being paid in recent weeks. True?
Goss: All of our payroll checks have been issued. He has not cashed his checks.
Where does the budget stand? What is your income?
Goss: Our main goal is to stabilize our financial obligations so we can continue to fulfill our mission. It's no secret we've been in shaky times lately.
I've heard that grant money is being used for daily operational expenses.
Goss: We are in a really tight financial situation right now.
How do you expect to pay back the organizations that provided the grants for specific programs?
Goss: I just feel confident that our community support will be strong. I feel strong about our campaign to promote the Arts Council of Kern in a positive manner, to continue building on what we've been known for in the past. I have a feeling our longtime supporters will rally behind us. We're looking for support in the community. We actually have been in greater danger in past months than we are now.
You act as a sort of middleman with the county, disbursing about $10,000 to $15,000 in county grants to small arts organizations. What do you do with the rest of the county money?
Goss: It's a challenge in these times to balance programming with the high general operating expenses. The majority of the grants we get are to fulfill programming. Any opportunity to get money to satisfy general operations is crucial.
What are you looking for in the new executive director?
Goss: I want him or her to really engage in the community, assess the needs, especially in outlying areas; to have a stable, solid financial plan and continue to thrive, so we can get back to a point where we're a strong arts agency.