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Museum board fires Dickens

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By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — The board of trustees of the Contemporary Art Museum in Raleigh has fired its long-time executive director, Denise Dickens.

“The board has decided to change direction somewhat in our leadership and has decided to replace her,” says Frank Thompson, board chair.

The museum needs to boost fundraising and involve more people, says Thompson, who won’t disclose details of the rift, saying they involve personnel matters.

People familiar with the situation say Dickens and board members also ran into personality clashes and differed over the future of the former warehouse the museum is renovating.

Some board members want to sell the warehouse to realize an increase in its value, while Dickens did not want to sell it, sources say.

Thompson says the building’s future was not an issue but adds the board is “not cutting off any options,” including a sale.

The building is worth $1 million to $1.2 million, up from $430,000 the museum paid for it, he says.

“There’s a strong commitment on the board to keep the building,” he says. “That building gives us some opportunities in the future.”

Dickens, executive director for nearly 13 years, did not return calls but confirmed by fax that she was “leaving to begin a new chapter in my life.”

Founded in 1983 as the City Gallery of Contemporary Art after the North Carolina Museum of Art move to West Raleigh from downtown, the organization formerly leased spaced at 220 S. Blount St.

After its 10-year lease expired in the late 1990s, the museum looked for new space, targeting the then-vacant Briggs Hardware building at 220 Fayetteville Street Mall, but could not get financing or philanthropic support.

The museum eventually secured a $430,000 loan from First Citizens Bank to buy a 22,000-square-foot former Dillon Supply Co. warehouse and office at 409 W. Martin St.

The museum four years ago launched a $1 million campaign to repay the loan and begin renovations, and the next year increased its goal to $2.5 million.

The drive has raised only $450,000 in cash and pledges, and the museum’s scheduled opening this fall has been put on hold.

The museum has worked with at least four consultants, including David Winslow of Winston-Salem, who conducted a feasibility study and recommended the museum not undertake a campaign; fundraisers Gail Perry of Raleigh and Whitney Jones of Winston-Salem; and Beth Briggs of Raleigh, who assisted on board development.

The museum has repaid more than half the loan, which the A.J. Fletcher Foundation backed as loan guarantor, and has refinanced it with Mechanics and Farmers Bank.

The Raleigh City Council last year agreed to give the museum $600,000 from the tax on hotels, motels and prepared food – but only if the Wake County Board of Commissioners would match that amount.

The county has not even considered the request because funds from those taxes are not available and because the request did not follow guidelines for seeking funds from those taxes, says County Manager David Cooke.

“We won’t have a positive balance until the end of this fiscal year that ends June 2003,” he says.

Thompson says Dickens “did an excellent job for us doing what she’s good at, which is curating events, bringing various elements of the arts community together to work on projects, working with the school system and really getting the museum through some tough times.”

In her fax to the Philanthropy Journal, Dickens says the board “is now committed to building on our accomplishments and is defining a new direction for the museum.”

As the museum “goes through this change in an difficult environment for a small art organization, it needs your support,” she says, adding that she is “looking forward to remaining an active member of the Triangle cultural community.”

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