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Art Center turmoil escalates

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Problems continue, Patty Kokesh resigns

By Carol A. Clark

The first rumblings of turmoil that bubbled to the surface last spring at the Art Center at Fuller Lodge has now reached a boiling point with a growing number of board members and patrons cutting ties with the troubled organization.

Former Chairman Phil Kilgour resigned in June following a contentious board meeting the previous month at which he flipped a large table over, screaming, “This is anarchy, anarchy, I’m the chairman, let me chair, this is anarchy.”

Police charged Kilgour with assault. In August, he pled guilty to disorderly conduct and the judge sentenced him to 180 days of unsupervised probation. The judge also ordered Kilgour to have no contact whatsoever with board member Patty Kokesh whom he’d tangled with at the May board meeting.

Problems have continued at the art center and Kokesh resigned Oct. 20.

“I resigned because of the unprofessional manner the board has used regarding John Werenko (ACFL executive director), allowing him to make decisions the board should be making. John has used his position over and above that of an executive director,” Kokesh said Tuesday. “He is very demeaning to women, doesn’t consider us competent volunteers or employees.” Kokesh referred to a letter Werenko apparently wrote to Kilgour late last year in whichshe said that he insulted female employees working at the art center. “Even after he admitted writing the letter to Stephani Johnson at the county, the board still didn’t sanction John. They were only concerned with how the letter was obtained and who released it,” Kokesh said. “The content of that letter accurately illustrates my experience with John.”

Local blogger Greg Kendall posted the letter on his Los Alamos County Views blog Aug. 27.

“Since then people have contacted me saying John is telling them there is a police investigation underway about me and how I obtained the letter. I state on my blog I was given the letter by a member of the Art Center in my capacity as a member of the media,” Kendall said. Kendall resigned as ACFL communications coordinator in 2007 and has worked at PAC 8 and KRSN since.

Police Chief Wayne Torpy addressed the investigation allegation this morning.  “We have no investigation underway regarding Greg Kendall and a letter or for any other matter,” Torpy said.

Kendall described being “shocked” by the letter’s content. “When faced with a bully, I had two options. I could run and hide in the corner or I could face the bully head on and that’s what I decided to do. Today (Tuesday) I received a letter from Santa Fe attorney Tracy Conner saying she was representing the ACFL board. She requested I take the letter down from my blog, which I don’t plan to do.”

Former board Secretary Maria Theye reported jumping out of the way of the table Kilgour flipped over at the May meeting. She spoke at length Tuesday about her reasons for parting ways with the Art Center.  “I was glad my term was up in June. I did not pursue serving further because of all the turmoil going on there,” she said. “When I was on the board and John Werenko decided to bring an attorney on (to attend the June meeting in which Kilgour resigned), I told him the Art Center is a nonprofit and we can’t afford it. We struggle to raise $100 or $200 and he spent $1,600 on the attorney and he never consulted one single board member. I also think Doris Jackson is a wonderful person and a priceless employee and I was very disgusted by the way John treated her.”

Jackson resigned Monday after more than four decades with the Art Center. She’s volunteered and served on the board since the 1960s and was paid staff the last eight years as artist gallery manager and volunteer manager.  

“Since that letter by John was published in August I’ve been waiting to see what action the board would take against him. He mentioned a lot of us in that letter,” Jackson said.

“I think it was three weeks ago that it became clear this board wasn’t going to do anything and that things were not going to change, so I decided to resign and pursue other interests.”

Werenko referred to Jackson’s and another employee’s husband in the letter saying, “As far as Doug’s (Coombs, former board member) comment about Doris (Jackson) and Becky (Hackenberry) seeing me as ‘hierarchical,’ that really goes to the heart of the matter!! Both women have such weak husbands that are under their thumbs they cannot stand to have a man tell them what to do or how to do it. It has nothing to do with my governance style it has to do with their relationship with men in the work place and their husbands. I orchestrated this entire thing because I had gotten sick and tired of the innuendos, backstabbing and closet female gossiping. I also wanted to re-establish your authority over the Board and this was the only way to do it, call out someone from the staff that had violated a major by-law of the organization and force the issue to a board meeting. I did this knowing full well that I would be hung out to dry. But that is the price that had to be paid. What we have demonstrated is not management but real LEADERSHIP.”

The Art Center is a nonprofit organization that receives a portion of its funding from the county. Los Alamos County Community Services Director Stephani Johnson addressed Werenko’s letter in a Sept. 14 correspondence to current ACFL Board Chair Tom Alvarez.  “I wanted to point out the clause regarding non-discrimination. I believe this issue is directly related to a couple of the comments made by Mr. Werenko in his letter to Mr. Kilgour where he writes that both women have such weak husbands and refers to their relationships with men in the workplace. I just wanted to make you aware of the requirement in the agreement and that I am concerned by those comments. The county does have an expectation that the board will follow up on any comments the public might have with the operation of the Art Center. You assured me the board is taking this matter very seriously and that if you feel the need for follow- up, you will proceed in that direction.”

Alvarez said this morning, “There is a long history of evidence in e-mail form from Mr. Kendall, in actions and behavior that Mr. Kendall holds a great deal of animosity for Mr. Werenko and he seems intent on smearing Mr. Werenko in any way he can and getting him removed from the Arts Center.” Werenko refused to admit writing the offensive letter during a telephone interview with the Monitor Friday.

“I have no comment about the alleged letter ... my name’s not on it. I’m not saying if I did or did not write the letter. I don’t want to continue this conversation,” Werenko said.

Werenko did respond regarding the assertion that people are resigning and citing him as the cause.  “I think the organization has changed dramatically and evolved to where the new board has a definite way of running things in a more professional and official manner. I’m hired at the pleasure of the board so if anyone has a problem with that then they have to decide what they want to do,” he said.

Longtime Art Center artist and volunteer Susannah Smith completed eight years on the board serving most recently as vice chair and chair pro-tem when Kilgour quit.

“When I finish my current show on Nov. 20, I’m severing all ties with the Art Center so long as John Werenko remains employed there. He’s caused too much division and strife and he’s been very vindictive and what’s left of the board is mainly unprofessional and dysfunctional and I don’t want any part of it.”

Another longtime artist and volunteer, Ken Neble, also intends to sever his ties with the Art Center. “I was fairly insulted about how the new board was being put together and I resigned after the first meeting. I feel John has acted very unprofessionally and said some inappropriate things stating I was going to bring legal action against someone, which was not true,” Neble said. “I asked him to remove those statements from some correspondence and he said he would but he didn’t — I can’t support that organization the way it’s being run. I was involved with the Art Center for so long but now I’ve removed all my artwork from the front gallery and as soon as my Life Drawings Sketchbook show ends Nov. 21, I’ll end my association with the Art Center. John has really alienated a lot of people long before this current mess; there’s actually a ‘We hate the art center because of John Werenko club’ in town. He’s been what I would consider abusive for a long time and it’s just gotten out in the news more lately because more people are less willing to put up with it,” Neble said.

Click here to read the full text of the letter allegedly written by Werenko