Heated debate and conspiracy theories as task force talks White Rock Lake Museum’s eviction notice

To allow for more discussion, the White Rock Lake Task Force will ask the City of Cultural Affairs to rescind the 60-day eviction notice it sent the White Rock Lake Museum in an effort to make additional space for artists at the Bath House Cultural Center. Most all on the task force agreed that the city made a mistake by not speaking directly with any museum board member before firing off a legal notice.

“Staff did not handle this properly,” said Jesse Smith, cultural affairs commissioner for District 9, who recommended the museum’s eviction.

But how and why that decision was made, and why the museum board was left out of it, was the topic of heated discussion during Tuesday’s packed task force meeting.

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Smith said it was November when Jennifer Scripps, director of the Office of Cultural Affairs, approached him with concerns that the museum did not have a signed contract for the city space.

“The museum was behind on its maintenance and hadn’t maintained insurance,” Smith said.

Museum board members Kurt Kretsinger and Michael Jung countered that the museum was never expected to provide insurance or regular building maintenance, although they tried to offer resources over the years. “We have $6,000 in an account leftover,” Kretsinger said. “You can’t pay an invoice if you never get one.”

Smith says his role as commissioner is to “make recommendations as to programming and how cultural spaces should be used.” In November, he reached out to Bath House Cultural Center manager Marty Van Kleeck, who let him know they’d prefer to use the museum space to display art. Smith also talked with David Fisher, assistant director of the Office of Cultural Affairs, who oversees that Bath House and felt the museum had gotten “stale.” Neither Fisher nor Van Kleeck attended Tuesday’s meeting, but their roles in the controversy would be intensely debated.

After the museum was blocked from installing a new flat screen TV in January, Kretsinger reached out to Fisher for assistance. Fisher responded a week later with an email evicting the museum.

“After careful consideration and many discussions with OCA leadership, Cultural Affairs Commissioner Jesse Smith, Councilmember [Mark] Clayton and the Friends of the Bath House, we have decided to close the White Rock Lake Museum,” Fisher wrote on Feb. 3.

However, Teresa Bond, president of the Friends of the Bath House Cultural Center, said they were first told about the eviction on Feb. 4, a day after Fisher’s eviction notice was sent.

Smith could not answer why the museum board and other bodies were left out of the decision-making process, saying only that he couldn’t find the museum board’s contact online.

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“I apologize for not asking the deep questions as to who was involved in the museum,” Smith said, adding that only when he saw Fisher’s email did he learn the museum board included longtime lake advocates Jung and Becky Rader, president of the task force, both people he works with often. “I am embarrassed about that. Had I known they were on the board, I would have reached out.”

Jung was willing to write off Smith’s role to a degree, saying “One of my favorite sayings is: Never ascribe to conspiracy what can be explained by incompetence.”(Editors note: Mr. Jung later clarified he meant the situation, not Mr. Smith). He was less sympathetic to Van Kleeck and Fisher.

“They knew who we were, they said not one word,” he said, questioning whether the board was intentionally left out of such discussion. “You aren’t paranoid when they really are trying to get you.”

Fellow task member Felix Saucedo clapped back, sticking up for Van Kleeck by saying it was not her job to break the news. “There was no conspiracy, it was incompetence at the higher levels.”

The future of White Rock Lake Museum remains murky. The museum board said they were open to conversations about upgrading and enhancing the displays, but wanted the city to guarantee them time to figure it out by removing the eviction notice.

Fisher and Smith both suggested that it could be relocated, something others in the room disagreed with.

“[The museum] is the only thing that has to do with the lake in that building,” said task member Chip Northrup, adding that the Bath House’s theater and art gallery “could be in a windowless building somewhere else, they don’t need to be in a building on the lake.”

Some questioned why the Bath House needs more space for art, when it already has three gallery rooms dedicated to art. Historian Dr. Steve Butler, whose book on White Rock Lake helped inspire the museum, said history is a critical part of culture.

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“It’s a cultural center, it is not the Bath House art center,” he said. “I don’t think we should tear [the museum] down, it would be like tearing out a piece of our hearts.”

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