"Wow," said Deborah Bedwell, seeing the size of the crowd as she walked into a public meeting June 20 about the future of embattled Baltimore Clayworks.
Like all of the 75 people at the meeting, Bedwell, 65, was worried about the solvency of Clayworks, where Executive Director Benjamin Schulman resigned under fire earlier this month after laying off two resident artists in the midst of an unspecified budget shortfall.
But Bedwell was more than just a worried member of the Clayworks community. She was former founding director of the 32-year-old ceramics studio in Mount Washington.
And as it turned out, she was the guest of honor at the meeting.
The audience of 75 burst into applause as Gwen Davidson, president of the board of trustees, announced that Bedwell had agreed to lead Clayworks again, this time as unpaid interim director, while the board searches for a permanent successor to Schulman.
Bedwell, one of nine potters who started Clayworks as an artists collective in 1980, said she would stay only through September, because she is president-elect of the National Council on Education for the Ceramics Arts.
"I will be here for this community until we figure out the next step," she said.
Davidson said hiring a successor is a high priority and that Clayworks has hired a professional search firm, which will seek the input of members.
"This cannot take months to figure out, so we're on it," Davidson said.
Schulman, 40, was a protege of Bedwell's and only the second executive director in Clayworks' history, but he lasted only a year. Bedwell and Davidson said they thought Schulman, a former artist and teacher, would be a good fit as director, but that he lacked an appreciation of "the culture" of Clayworks as a nonprofit arts organization with 835 paid members and an email list of 6,000.
Many in the audience were stunned to learn that two resident artists, whose salaries were the lowest, had been laid off, and that Schulman had resigned. Several at the meeting asked Davidson and Bedwell to rehire the artists.
"if it's a matter of money you need to bring these people back here, you need to do it. We'll fund-raise," said Cathy McDermott, of Mount Vernon, a member of Clayworks since 2003.
"I think what I'm hearing is that we didn't do a very good job of taking care of our people," Davidson said.
"No," several people in the audience agreed in unison.
But Davidson and Bedwell stopped short of saying they would rehire the laid-off artists. They promised only to "revisit" staffing as part of the process of solving the budget shortfall.
"We're looking to make the operating budget wholly sustainable," Bedwell said.
She told the Messenger that she needs to "dig in" to examine the budget, because she has no clear fix yet on how how many thousands of dollars short it is.
"I've heard 60, I've heard 35, I've heard 150," she said.
"We clearly have a financial challenge," Davidson told the audience in Clayworks' Classroom Building in the 5700 block of Smith Avenue. But she added, "This organization is not in crisis. We have some issues we have to deal with and we're going to do that."
Bedwell told the audience that for now, she has "time and energy" to lead Clayworks again, and asked for the public's support.
"I see love and hope and passion for this organization," she said, looking around the meeting room. "Why else would you be here?"
McDermott said she was happy with the meeting and with Clayworks, which has helped her recover from a car accident that left her temporarily paralyzed on one side of her body.
"This place got me on my feet and gave me my confidence," she said.
Member Laura Penza, an architect who lives in Homeland and works in Govans, said she too was pleased by the meeting and the temporary return of Bedwell.
"It was what it needed to be," Penza said. "We all love her."