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Conflict at ConArt

ConArt Gallery and Studios in Masterton. PHOTO/FLYNN NICHOLLS

A fierce dispute over finances led to walkouts at ConArt’s annual meeting, nine members withdrawing their committee nominations, and seven resignations. FLYNN NICHOLLS reports.

Since its annual meeting dissolved into chaos last month, ConArt, the creative art collective on the corner of Masterton’s Bruce and Queen streets has been without a permanent committee.

The hub, created in partnership with Masterton Trust Lands Trust in December 2017, was destined to be a space where Wairarapa-based artists could ‘create, exhibit, promote, and sell their art to art lovers.

However, five years later at an Annual General Meeting [AGM], serious doubt was cast on its ability to manage finances and a vote to form the next seven-member committee was scuppered by resignations and nominee withdrawals, with opposing factions trading insults.

Without the numbers, the incorporated society was forced to establish an interim committee, with a vote to form a new committee signalled for a Special General Meeting on October 12.

At the September 7 AGM, committee members raised concerns about poor financial management by the outgoing treasurer Paul Gadsby who has held the position since ConArt’s inception.

The allegations, which the interim committee maintains are “unfounded”, were reportedly raised months earlier, by unelected committee member Lynne McCartney.

In June, McCartney was brought on to the committee to help with the increasing administrative workload, with questions about Gadsby’s financial practices arising shortly after.

Emails seen by the Times-Age show McCartney was concerned about a lack of budget for ConArt, a large forward-carrying loss, and incorrectly coded transactions for general expenses.

In the weeks that followed Gadsby raised his own concerns about McCartney’s membership on the committee.

Gadsby subsequently resigned as treasurer on July 21 to be effective after the next AGM committee elections, citing family and new work commitments.

At the AGM several ConArt members joined McCartney in requesting financial clarity from the treasurer.

Sonja Bremmers, Hugh Gaywood-Eyre, and Wendy Kempsell said Gadsby had failed to provide bank balances as part of monthly financial reporting, thereby, hiding the organisation’s $20,000 forward-carrying loss and Visa Card statements.

Gadsby reportedly refused to engage with any questions about the finances during the AGM, however, ConArt founder Jane Sinclair said it was impossible to respond to the “barrage of assertions and questions that were levelled at him”.

“[They] gave him no opportunity to respond and constantly interrupted and shouted over him,” she said in a statement to the Times-Age.

A source present at the meeting told the Times-Age it appeared Gadsby had very little understanding of financial planning or performance.

“He had complete autonomy over the finances with no internal controls in place, which has led to abuse of power and bad financial management.”

The interim committee, chaired by Sinclair, said it retained absolute trust and confidence in Gadsby.

“ConArt is so much more than the unfounded allegations of a small group,” it said.

Bremmers said, however, that the lack of transparency around finances was not the only issue raised at the AGM.

In an email seen by the Times-Age dated August 7, Gadsby and Sinclair sent a message to select members citing concerns with the current committee, and said they were aware of “a large number of unhappy members”

Committee member Kempsell, who was privy to the email, subsequently resigned.

In a resignation letter to ConArt members, she said she found the “whole scenario distasteful and it goes against my own personal set of values and integrity. Therefore I have decided to resign from the committee of ConArt with immediate effect”.

In an email a month later, Sinclair encouraged select members to employ “strategic voting” to form a majority group that could vote against the incumbent committee and its motions at the AGM, in order to prevent “a takeover by the present chair and supporters.”

She said members should request a secret ballot and vote against Bremmers, McCartney, and Gaywood-Eyre, who were standing for re-election.

According to the AGM minutes, the discord between the two factions arose immediately, with objections raised about the presence of a minute taker, the meeting chair Gaywood-Eyre, and the scrutineer.

The escalating tension resulted in five members “leaving in disgust”.

Further arguments emerged over committee size, with Gadsby and Sinclair seeking to maintain the seven-member status quo, while Bremmers and her supporters wanted to increase the number to 11.

Bremmers said the committee had “struggled with the workload” necessitating the appointment of McCartney.

A motion was subsequently passed in favour of the seven-member status quo, resulting in nine of the 11-committee nominees withdrawing their nominations, including McCartney, Bremmers, and Gaywood Eyre.

A “disappointed member of ConArt” said in an email to fellow members that they were “appalled at the ‘lynch-mob mentality’ to sabotage the meeting and prevent 11 skilled nominees who wanted to contribute to this community gallery.

“Their agenda to cause absolutely maximum mayhem and prevent any democratic procedures to take place was achieved.”

A second unnamed committee member said the conduct of those running the meeting was disgusting.

“I will no longer have any part of the gallery or ever again have any sort of contact with those members.”

Another said the meeting smacked of people needing their ego massaged and had little to do with supporting and promoting fellow Wairarapa artists.

In response to questions raised by the Times-Age, the ConArt interim committee said that while Bremmers and fellow members had a right to raise concerns at the AGM, the “alarm” was not shared by the majority of ConArt’s members, or its accountant.

It said the matters involving Bremmers and her supporters were “closed” and it would not be making further comment on the “unfounded allegations made by a small group of individuals, most of whom have now resigned from ConArt rather than accept the outcome of the fair and lawful governance process provided under ConArt’s rules”.

The interim committee said it was satisfied that ConArt’s financial position was sound and that it was not at risk of insolvency.

Masterton Trust Lands Trust [MTLT], which contributes an annual $28,000 grant towards ConArt’s rent, said the collective had delivered on providing space for emerging artists to showcase and sell their work.

In a statement, MTLT chair Leanne Southey said that while the concerns were serious, they were matters for ConArt to resolve.

Flynn Nicholls
Flynn Nicholls
Flynn Nicholls is a reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age who regularly writes about education. He is originally from Wellington and is interested in environmental issues and public transport.

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