Questions Linger as Artpace Moves Forward with Interim Executive Director

click to enlarge Questions Linger as Artpace Moves Forward with Interim Executive Director
Francisco Cortes
In a surprise move, the nine-person board of renowned contemporary art space and artist residency program Artpace parted ways with Veronique Le Melle, its executive director of two years, on April 20. The following day, they replaced her with interim Executive Director Riley Robinson, who had served as Artpace studio director since its founding in 1995.

“Artpace appreciates the contributions Veronique Le Melle has made in her tenure,” the board said in a press release on April 21.

They added that “the organization has increased business efficiency and identified new revenue streams to build a sustainable future,” all of this framed after requisite (and well-founded) praise of Robinson’s capabilities.

There were no details about Le Melle’s departure, only one announcing Robinson’s appointment and, secondarily, giving Le Melle some quick props.
In the days since, local news outlets have posed questions to Robinson, Le Melle and Artpace Board Chairwoman Patricia Ruiz-Healy. The Rivard Report’s Beth Ferking cited reports of “demoralizing and high staff turnover,” and that Le Melle had “an abrupt manner that was off-putting to some in the city’s arts community.”

But no one has been able to gain any definitive insight from the board or anyone willing to go on record about the circumstances surrounding Le Melle’s departure. Was she let go? Did she quit? Whichever the case, why?

The thing is, this is only a story because there’s no story being offered, which naturally leads folks to speculate.

Some of the speculation centers on Artpace’s funding. A sizable chunk of Artpace’s funding comes from the Linda Pace Foundation, though that money is slated to run out in 2024, as stipulated in Linda Pace’s will. Like a parent to its child, the Linda Pace Foundation is supposed to support Artpace just long enough for it to reach self-sufficiency. Of course, the foundation could choose to still send some funds Artpace’s way, but there would be no stipulated regularity or sum to it.

Is it possible that, as it tries to get its legs, needing to stand on its own, the organization is jumpy? Did money have anything to do with Le Melle’s departure?

Communicating with the Current via email, Ruiz-Healy shed no light on the larger question of Le Melle’s exit but said of Artpace’s finances that “the board and staff feels very positive” and that they “are implementing dashboards for membership, grant, and other sources of income and that way have a visual tool that helps everyone stay on track and motivated.”
click to enlarge Artpace Interim Executive Director Riley Robinson - Francisco Cortes
Francisco Cortes
Artpace Interim Executive Director Riley Robinson
For his part, Robinson, eager to get to work, told the Current he will shift immediately into the executive duties. Those include more programming and fundraising than he is used to.

“I am just interested in moving forward. We are honestly in a really good place,” Robinson said.

He insisted several times that there is no situation about which to be concerned. “We’ve got things under control,” he said.

Then, for a moment, we were able to pretend we were having the kind of conversation we’d prefer to have with Artpace’s new, if temporary, leader. We talked about his vision for the place and some of the highlights of his long dedication to the organization.

We talked about how, as a talented artist himself, Robinson is uniquely positioned as a director to allow artists to pursue their projects without asserting his own vision. “If I have something to say or want an idea executed a certain way, I can do it myself,” Robinson said.

“Since I can make my own work, I don’t need to influence other artists’ work at all or insert my ideas about what they should say or how.”

But with conflicting information coming from sources close to the situation about how Le Melle was received, with no explanation from the board about the circumstances surrounding her departure, and with no public record of any performance evaluations/reviews that Le Melle had ever undergone, questions unrelated to his own capabilities loom over the beginning of Robinson’s tenure.
Artist Ana Fernandez, one of the brightest rising stars on the San Antonio art scene, worked closely with Le Melle and others in founding and running Creative Women’s Alliance, an organization that “formed as a forum for women artists of color to create and support professional opportunities within the San Antonio arts community.”

“She’s tough and smart and a general badass,” Fernandez said of Le Melle. “I can imagine she could be intimidating to a certain type of person, but not me.”
She told the Current that Le Melle worked “tirelessly to support and expand this vision/mission,” and that she felt “lucky to have been able to work with her.”

The alliance exists outside the scope of Artpace.
click to enlarge Questions Linger as Artpace Moves Forward with Interim Executive Director
Chris Castillo
Kelly O’Connor, head of collections and communications at the Linda Pace Foundation, echoed some of Fernandez’s sentiments, telling the Current that “[the foundation] had the opportunity to work with some of the artists Le Melle affected in a positive way,” and that “Veronique has been and will continue to be a strong advocate for women of color in our local community.”

Another source, who worked inside Artpace during Le Melle’s tenure, talked glowingly about her efficiency and dedication to the organization and its people.

When asked about Le Melle’s performance, Ruiz-Healy added a touch more praise, noting “she was good in restarting the grant pipeline that is so important for the organization.” But she didn’t say anything that explained Le Melle’s departure.

If Le Melle was doing a good job and showed no outward signs of dissatisfaction with her position, then what happened? If she left, what caused her to leave an organization still in the midst of executing a strategic plan towards institutional self-sufficiency that she helped create?

If she was asked to leave, then what event, infraction, budget review, evaluative measure or executive process led to that result?

For the moment, these questions linger. And those who believe in the mission of Artpace, and who have supported what the organization has accomplished in its 23 years, are left to take it on faith that the board’s unwillingness or inability to be transparent in this matter isn’t masking turmoil or instability.

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