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Turf war: Vero Art Club wants hold on land next to Museum for possible home

STORY BY MICHELLE GENZ, (Week of October 13, 2011)

The Vero Beach Art Club will not withdraw its recent bombshell letter laying claim to the balance of the land it co-leases with the Vero Beach Museum of Art, according to a board member.

Chris Pierce, a member of the art club board’s negotiating team, characterized an agreement on how much the club should pay to use museum space as only a “ceasefire for now” in what could become a literal turf battle between the two factions.

Pierce says the museum has not responded to the letter.

Museum Executive Director Lucinda Gedeon says there are no plans to respond. “I don’t know what they anticipate” in the form of a response, she said Monday. “They certainly can’t claim the land. The land is co-leased by both parties and we would have to sign off on anything that they proposed -- period.”

“The letter’s not going to be retracted,” Pierce said. “So many people have told us that: ‘Do not allow anything to come between you and the lease,’ ”

 “We have agreed to the schedule of charges so we can stop negotiating for a while,” Pierce said.

The declaration made by the club late last month reserving all remaining land around the museum for the club, as well as the possibility of building a home for the art club separate from the museum, was discussed briefly at a board meeting last week.

“We already have sketches of what it would look like,” said Pierce, adding that the club is still considering other options for a new home.

Gedeon confirmed that with the announced settlement of space use fees, the issue of the land remains the elephant in the room.

“No, I am not at all reassured” that the settlement resolved the club’s contention that it can claim the remaining land on the lease, Gedeon said earlier in the week.

On hearing Pierce’s characterization of the settlement as a “ceasefire,” Gedeon responded, “As far as I’m concerned, it’s over.”

The claim was the final and unexpected salvo in six months of feuding between the two groups which co-lease the museum property from the city.  It came in the form of a letter sent by the club’s attorney, Keith McCormick, to museum attorney Ralph Evans and suddenly ratcheted up the relatively simple matter of determining fees for museum rooms into a power play that would appear to threaten the museum’s autonomy over its future growth.

With the onset of the Vero Beach cultural season, both sides felt it best to resolve what minor differences on space use fees remained prior to the letter.  “They said, ‘Let’s just stop this for right now,’ said Pierce. “We’ll regroup over the coming season and get an idea of what we’re going to do.”

Until the club sent the letter, the museum assumed it had full access to the 7.2 acres of land leased from the city, and recently drew up long-range plans to build a children’s interactive museum as well as a large community performance hall.

The museum has been the only structure on the leased land and is responsible for its upkeep. While co-tenancy has required the museum to gain club approval for any changes to the lease, the museum has until now enjoyed free rein from its co-tenant in several expansions.

In March, with construction slated to begin on the most recent expansion, the museum’s attorney omitted the club from the lease without its knowledge in an application to the city for a minor lease change. That omission enraged the art club board.

The museum then formally asked the club to remove itself from the lease. The club refused, as it has since 1981, and both names ended up back on the lease.

The museum, though, pursued its request for solo leasehold, saying the club’s position as co-lessee was no longer relevant.

 Since it opened in 1986, the museum has allowed the club to use its facilities for free and pay only a minimal fee for an office in the administration wing. The new space fees are being charged for the first time.

Artist Dawn Mill has presented a rough sketch of a proposed new home for the club – potentially within the shadow of the museum – that incorporates architectural elements in the museum’s design. “It’s got the criss-cross windows,” she says. “It’s kind of like a mini-museum.”

If the club chooses to build on the land, of course it’s going to be beautiful, said Pierce.

Club President Rita Ziegler is asking for volunteer professionals including artists, architects and project managers to form a new long-range planning committee.

“The club needs to get a sense of the direction it wants to go in,” said Pierce.

The request for volunteers came at the club’s first meeting of the season last Thursday, held in the museum’s Leonhardt Auditorium.

Exactly what the club would pay for using that auditorium, as well as other museum facilities, has been at the heart of negotiations for months. The club, which hasn’t paid to use rooms in the elaborate structure apart from $7,700 a year for an office, has now agreed to pay approximately $2,700, a token compared to the museum’s estimated $40,000 normally charged to the public for similar use.

Even that $2,700 may be further reduced, Pierce says.

“She (Gedeon) still wants to charge me $1,000 for the Under the Oaks banquet,” says Pierce, referring to the awards ceremony for the club’s signature event, the Under the Oaks Fine Art and Craft Festival, which draws 80,000 people to Riverside Park, across from the museum.  “I told her I’ll trade you the Holmes (Great) Hall for a booth at Under the Oaks.”

Ziegler said the club’s “open studios” will not begin until January. Space for those discounted public painting and drawing sessions, held in the museum’s education wing, is costing the club $50 per session for the first time.

Pierce and Ziegler both say the club is still considering other options besides building on land shared with the museum. Pierce and others were given a tour of downtown’s former diesel power plant by developer David Croom, a co-lessee of the city-owned structure. The large brick structure, on State Road 60, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

 “That would be fabulous,” said Pierce. She envisions galleries where the public could view artists at work. The second floor could have tenants “to carry the freight” of rent, she said.

Pierce also hasn’t dismissed the club taking over a space on the mainland owned by the city but unused in recent years. The building, a former jail which in its last incarnation served as offices for the Recreation Department, is located near Vero Beach High School and the Boys and Girls Club, making it convenient to any after-school programs the club might want to sponsor, she said.

Those options and others will be considered by the new long-range planning committee before being presented to the club’s membership at large. “When you’ve got close to 600 members, it’s kind of tough to get the train moving in the same direction,” Pierce said.