NOMA — Almost one year ago, the Brentwood Art Center, its staff and its students were staring down the very real possibility that the school, a bastion of the Santa Monica art community, would close its doors for good.
Today, nothing could be further from the truth.
A fundraiser at the end of 2012 brought in the capital needed to jumpstart operations at the center, hire back nearly all of its teachers and push forward with a new nonprofit status.
With that mostly completed — the center is still waiting on its federal tax exempt status to go through — the school is back in the black and looking at new opportunities to spread art through the community through partnerships with nonprofits and scholarships.
The center has steady enrollment and increased its offerings this year to include a mixed media class with more changes on the horizon. It’s also lowered the price on classes for youth, said Samantha Ollstein, director of the Friends of the Brentwood Art Center, the nonprofit that now runs the school.
“We’re doing better and better every month,” Ollstein said. “The energy here is fantastic. Everyone is excited. It warmed the whole school when the community came together and was passionate about bringing it back to life.”
That means a lot to a person like Ollstein, who has been attending the Brentwood Art Center since she was still in grade school and worked for six years as an adviser at the center. Her mother took art classes from Edward Buttwinick, the one-time owner and founder of the school.
“The center turned me on to a world that I was extremely passionate about,” Ollstein said. “Being able to inspire and expose children and adults in other communities is really important to me and the school.”
The center already works directly with One Voice, a Santa Monica-based nonprofit that connects low-income individuals and families with resources they need to improve their quality of life.
Patricia Burris — a teacher at the art center and wife of Don Burris, one of the nonprofit’s board members — taught art classes at One Voice for almost 20 years, working with mainly retired social workers who wanted a taste of the arts, said Susan Silbert, executive director and founder of One Voice.
The classes changed the way the women related to the arts, said Susan Silbert, executive director and founder of One Voice.
“They’re in a prestigious art school and art center,” Silbert said. “There’s the surroundings, there’s room to do it and it adds legitimacy to their right to be part of the world of arts and music and everything.”
Now, the center is looking for other opportunities to expand and work with Los Angeles-based schools that have lost art instruction from budget cuts.
It’s a big departure from August of 2012, when, as Silbert put it, the center was “disappearing.”
Turmoil at the art center began when then-owner Sarkis Melkonian informed students and staff that the school would close, just as the center geared up for its annual show of student and staff artwork.
Melkonian said then that the cause was a zoning change, initiated by Buttwinick, that would allow the 6,370-square-foot school to become a commercial retail and office space with 11 on-site parking spaces.
Representatives of the Buttwinicks called the variance a “contingency plan” so that the retired couple could continue making money off of the building if the school were to close.
The lease on the building did not expire until Aug. 31, 2013, but Melkonian objected to the change and chose to close the center, saying in an e-mail to pupils and employees that the change had an “unforeseen negative impact on the (Brentwood Art Center) which has dealt a final blow from which the (center) will not be able to recover.”
It led to a massive effort by a group of 10 volunteers who met over a weekend at the Burris residence to devise a way to save the center. They took the assets of the school over from Melkonian and briefly closed until Oct. 1 of that year.
At that time, the center focused on getting back on stable ground, said Lloyd Bookman, a board member.
“Our next phase, as I see it, in our organization is to start moving in that direction and start doing more in the community, within the limits of our resources,” Bookman said.
The Brentwood Art Center will hold its annual student and faculty show in September. Last year, it was a mournful affair, a goodbye for many who believed that they had taken or taught their last class at the facility.
This year will be different, Ollstein said.
“It’s going to be a great event. We’re going to introduce ourselves again to the community,” she said.