HUNTINGTON BEACH — Cost cutting always sounds frightening, and the Huntington Beach Art Center--opened only six months ago--seems far too young and promising to have its wings clipped.
But last week's money-saving move by the center and the City Council to trim staffing and reduce operating hours will be implemented in the most pragmatic and least hurtful way imaginable, without altering the fresh and challenging quality of the center's programming.
The changes, which go into effect Oct. 1, mean that three of the seven staff members will be reduced from full-time status to 30 hours a week, but they'll see no change in their benefits. These staff people are responsible for curating exhibitions, organizing educational programming and performance events and dealing with the mechanics of receiving art and installing exhibitions.
Part-time staffing hours also will be reduced, obliging the center to close two hours earlier on Tuesdays and Wednesdays: at 6 p.m. rather than 8 p.m.
All this is aimed at bringing 1995-96 operating costs down from the proposed $550,000 to $406,351, the amount that was approved Sept. 18, and which again includes an $81,000 city allocation. City support represented a little less than 20% of the center's 1994-95 budget of $432,680, which covered the cost of getting it open in March and its first six months of operation.
Although any cutbacks are dismaying, by reducing staff hours rather than instituting layoffs, the center avoids the kind of decisive retrenching that is difficult, if not impossible, to counteract in the future. Similarly, a reduction in midweek evening hours is less drastic than chipping away at the weekend, when most of the center's special events take place.
Best of all, from the public's point of view, programming plans for the coming year remain intact, according to center director Naida Osline.
"It's actually going to look like we're doing more with less," Osline said earlier this week, referring to events and classes that won't begin until later in the season. The challenge will be "how to deliver the same kind of services to the public at a quality level."
"We're still in the formative stage of thinking of new programs. If we get caught up in enthusiasm, [we'll have to] look at what we can realistically do. [But] the mission to present a range of contemporary exhibitions and performance art, film and video remains the same.
"It's not a content issue," she said. "It's a funding issue."
The debate over the center's operating costs stems from the lack of a formal agreement about who is in charge of the center. Instead, there is an informal agreement that the city will operate the center, provided that center revenue and money raised by the private Huntington Beach Art Center Foundation would cover all costs beyond the city's fixed allocation.
Indeed, during the past few months, the city has made it plain that it isn't in a position to bail out the center if it doesn't meet its income projections. After the center proposed a $550,000 budget last summer, the City Council yanked it out of the pile for further scrutiny.
In response, the center made what Osline calls "more realistic income projections, based on our first few months and what the foundation said they would raise."
Later this year a committee--made up of foundation members, city staff and perhaps City Council representatives--will hammer out a so-called "memorandum of understanding" stating who is responsible for the center's operations.
Another project will involve the formation of a public nonprofit corporation to oversee staffing of the center, as a way to remove the most costly aspect of the center's operations from debate over use of the city's general fund.
This year, the center expects to generate $104,350 through admission charges, class and workshop fees, donations, store revenue and memberships (a membership drive will begin next month).
The rest of the budget is to be met by $221,000 in contributions from the foundation, which nets about $100,000 from an annual equestrian fund-raiser. The target for the foundation's next event--"A Masked Ball for the Arts," on Dec. 2--is $15,000.
"I consider [the budget] more as a planning tool for what we can afford to do," Osline said. "If we can raise more money, we can add things back on. Increasing the staff [hours] is a primary goal.
"Hopefully, people will look at [the budget cut] as a challenge. We have a great thing going here, and I think people don't want to lose that."