Baltimore Clayworks executive director resigns under fire

The executive director of Baltimore Clayworks has resigned amid controversy over his decision to lay off two popular resident artists.

Reached at Clayworks in Mount Washington, Benjamin Schulman confirmed Monday that he resigned after a year on the job and said this would be his last week there.

Based on a hue and cry in the Clayworks and local arts communities, the board of trustees set a town hall-style meeting for Wednesday, June 20, at the ceramics studio, 5707 Smith Ave., to discuss Schulman's resignation and plans to search for an interim and a permanent executive director of the nonprofit organization.

"This has been a painful period for Clayworks, and we have clearly heard your voices and want to continue the dialogue," the board stated in an e-mailed announcement of the meeting in the Classroom Building at 5:30 p.m. "We need you to stay connected and committed to Clayworks as members, students, artists and donors. Your concerns are our concerns. If we address them, together, we can eliminate any obstacles impeding our goals.

Board president Gwen Davidson would not comment, calling it a personnel matter.

Schulman would not say which artists were laid off, but said the layoffs were a result of financial difficulties.

"For all nonprofits, the economy is a challenge," Schulman said. "You need to make extremely difficult decisions."

He said he was surprised that the outcry has led to his resignation, but not completely surprised by the furor over the layoffs.

"I had an inkling" there would be controversy. "I think that's fair to say," he said.

Barely a month earlier, Schulman, 40, of Mount Washington, wrote a letter to the "Clayworks community," in which he reintroduced himself after a year on the job and laid out his vision for the future of Baltimore Clayworks — an institution in the arts community after more than three decades in business.

Benjamin Schulman, executive director of Baltimore Clayworks in Mount Washington, felt the need to re-introduce himself after a quiet first year on the job.

That vision included expanding the campus on Smith Avenue, opening satellite offices in arts-starved west Baltimore, offering a bigger array of community arts programming on the Mount Washington campus, and using perks like free rent and stipends to lure talented pottery makers to Clayworks as artists in residence, Schulman said in an interview last month..

He also said he wanted to make Baltimore Clayworks more financially sustainable on its own.

Currently, the center has an annual budget of about $1.1 million. About half comes from foundations, private donors and government grants, including roughly $65,000 a year from the Maryland State Arts Council. The other half comes from earned revenue, including class fees, gift shop and gallery sales, and the renting of space for three-hour birthday parties with food and ceramics instruction, he said in that interview.

"When I spoke (last month), I had not thought I would be resigning," Schulman said Monday. He also said he had not yet laid off the artists when he gave that first interview.

When asked why his letter of re-introduction to the community did not make mention of financial difficulties and the possibilities of layoffs, Schulman said, "That's a very good question."

But he referred that and other questions about the layoffs to Davidson. He also said that he showed his re-introduction letter to her before he sent it out.

Other board members, including State Sen. Lisa Gladden, could not be reached for comment.

Schulman said he doubted he would attend Wednesday's town hall meeting, but added, "I believe in the organization as much as I always did."

Schulman is only the second director in Clayworks' history. The first was Deborah Bedwell, who was founding director for 32 years.

Bedwell, who is now a Clayworks board member and president-elect of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts, could not be reached for comment.

Schulman said he thinks Bedwell was too tough an act for him to follow.

"I just think transitions are really difficult," he said.

Schulman said last month that he saw his job as being to "build on (Bedwell's) life's work and make (Clayworks) even more successful than it already is."

He said Clayworks is in the early stages of a five-year, $2.5 million fundraising campaign to renovate and expand the gallery building on Smith Avenue to include an auditorium for 120 people for slide shows and lectures, and an enclosed courtyard.

The building, a former convent, houses exhibitions, a solo gallery, a gift shop called a sales gallery, and a community arts gallery and instruction component for the public, including at city recreation centers and public schools.

Schulman said Baltimore Clayworks has the most extensive community arts program in the nation, and that he wanted more such programming, which already includes ceramics instruction at Tuerk House, a drug and rehabilitation center in west Baltimore.

Clayworks might open at least one satellite office in west Baltimore, with the aim of bringing ceramic arts to the city's disadvantaged neighborhoods, Schulman said.

Working at Clayworks as recently as last month were 10 artists in residence, who split their artwork sales 60-40 with Clayworks.

"They want to be here," said Schulman, a former ceramic artist, academic, curator and critic with a master's degree in fine arts. "One of my goals is to do more of this for more artists. I want to find more ways to support the artists and subsidize them."

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