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Venerable Artists Guild sounds alarm

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 19, 2012 - In a memo to its members today, the St. Louis Artists' Guild let it be known that if it can't come up with some immediate operating cash, "the Guild will have to close."

In a "Save the Guild" memo, which is also posted on the Guild's website, Michael Drone warned that the 125-year-old nonprofit arts institution needs an infusion of $75,000 to keep going. Drone has been interim director for just six days.

In a P.S., Drone noted that part of the organization's increasing expenses include a rent increase from the city of Clayton on the restored 1920s mansion in Oak Knoll Park to which it moved in 1995. Instead of $1 a year, the Guild is now paying $18,000 a year.

In an interview with the Beacon, Drone said the memo was mistakenly sent to the media and explained that the rent increase -- which occurred a year and a half ago -- is just one example of the Guild's financial woes. Drone lauded Clayton for its support through the years and said, "All of this for $1,500 a month is a bargain. They probably could get a lot more for this building."

A more pressing situation, Drone said, is that the institution's historically lean first quarter has been made leaner by several factors.

"For the next 90 days, there is virtually nothing coming in," Drone said.

These worsening factors include a lack of carry-over budget from 2011, a major grant whose funding has shifted to the second quarter and "corporations who have helped fund the Guild have moved out of town or ceased to exist." Drone declined to name those corporations. In addition, much of the institution's money is in restricted, earmarked funds and can't be used for general operating costs.

If the Guild doesn't get all the money it's asking for, the threat of closing is "more dramatic," Drone said, than the more likely scenario that the Guild would have to reduce its hours. Staff has already been cut.

The Guild, which offers exhibition space and community programs, also plans to appeal to corporations as well as its members. Drone hopes the Guild will make money from a new program advising businesses about their arts needs and leasing, selling or leasing-to-own the work of Guild members.

"I'm trying to right this ship," Drone said.

Though brand new to management at the Artists' Guild, Drone has been on the Guild's board for several months and has a 30-year background in advertising in St. Louis. He's experienced lean years, but nothing has come close to the current economic picture. "I've never seen such a difficult time for us all," Drone said.

Bruno David, owner of the art gallery in Grand Center that bears his name, was saddened to hear of the Guild's struggle. He understands first-hand the difficulty of keeping an arts business or organization afloat during the recession.

"It's not easy; it's horrible," David said. "It's heartbreaking to hear this."