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Danforth Art in Framingham scambles to move

Debra Petke, executive director of Danforth Art.
Debra Petke, executive director of Danforth Art.(Suzanne Kreiter\Globe staff)

FRAMINGHAM — Just two months before losing its home, Danforth Art is in the fight of its life as staffers scramble to provide storage for the museum’s permanent collection and build new studio spaces for art classes.

The project — expected to cost roughly $500,000 — represents a distinct new direction for the museum and art school, which was ordered last spring to vacate its home in the municipally owned Danforth Building after a boiler failed to pass inspection.

“We never imagined we’d be in this situation,” said Mimi Macksoud, cochairwoman of Danforth Art’s board of directors. “It’s one of those scenarios that we didn’t include in any of our strategic planning.”

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The crisis has become a defining moment for the 40-year-old MetroWest institution, which annually provides roughly 400 studio art classes to area students, and whose permanent collection houses works by such American luminaries as Thomas Hart Benton, Gilbert Stuart, and James Abbott McNeill Whistler.

The abrupt move has already forced the museum to offer an abbreviated roster of classes this fall. Having scrapped its previously planned exhibition cycle for 2017, it is now working with area institutions on a series of off-site shows drawn from the permanent collection.

But the organization’s most pressing concern remains fund-raising: namely, coming up with the half-million dollars staffers say it will take to renovate portions of the nearby Jonathan Maynard Building, which they hope will be ready to house the museum’s 3,500-object permanent collection in the next few months and equipped to host classes by January.

“We don’t have the reserve funds and financial backup that prepares you for this,” said Debra Petke, executive director of Danforth Art. Petke added that the museum, whose annual budget is roughly $1.8 million, does not have an endowment fund. “We’re on a need-it-now schedule.”

The museum considered a range of temporary solutions before opting to move to the Maynard Building, which it purchased in 2014. Petke said that although the museum had always planned eventually to move to the Maynard, it had hoped to do so several years down the road — once it had completed a capital campaign and properly renovated the space.

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“The short time period really took us by surprise,” said Petke, who signed on as director last year. “You can’t just move a museum and a school into this building without a plan and raising money.”

Nevertheless, the Danforth’s recently hatched fund-raising campaign has struggled to reach its $500,000 goal. Launched soon after the museum received its notice to vacate last May, the #GoForthDanforth campaign has so far raised just $160,000.

Petke said the museum now plans to extend the campaign, which was originally set to expire at the end of August. She added that although the #GoForthDanforth campaign attracted two large donations early on, it then languished as the museum explored various options. She added that she hopes more donors will come forward now that the museum has a firm plan in view.

“It’s really hard as a director to go out and raise funds when you can’t tell donors what’s going to happen in six months,” Petke said as she walked through the Maynard’s maze-like warren of offices that must be demolished. “It’s difficult when donors don’t know what the end of the story is — and we haven’t had an end to the story.”

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The museum is now considering bids on architectural plans to convert the first floor of the Maynard Building into a storage facility for the collection and transform the third floor into studio space for classes. The building’s second floor is currently occupied by Framingham State University, which Petke said has offered to share some of its office space with museum administrators.

“The renovation of this space is a temporary solution,” said Petke, who added that she hoped the final build-out would include gallery space for the permanent collection and temporary exhibitions. “We wanted to get in as soon as possible to start classes, because we rely on that income, and to get the collection moved.”

But even if the Danforth manages to traverse the next six months, it’s unlikely that the museum will emerge unscathed. Following news of its impending eviction, the organization saw a dip in larger gifts, which typically make up much of the museum’s contributed revenue. It has since suspended its membership program, and the new arrangement at the Maynard means that — at least in the short term — the Danforth will have to scale back its class offerings by an estimated 40 percent.

“We saw a dramatic effect from the typical fund-raising. The proceeds were much, much less,” said Macksoud. “Why should I have a membership if there’s not going to be a museum? Those are tough questions.”

The Danforth hopes to keep its collection in the public eye by partnering with area cultural organizations to present off-site shows drawn from the permanent collection. The museum has lined up a two-part photography exhibit at the Griffin Museum of Photography in Winchester, and a show of artist Marion Pooke’s work at the Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natick.

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Matthias Waschek, director of the Worcester Art Museum, said he plans to meet with Petke soon about keeping “the spotlight on the organization.”

“Whatever Worcester Art Museum can do to support them, we will,” said Waschek, who described Danforth Art as an essential part of MetroWest’s cultural identity. “When you think about the art classes and exhibitions they are providing — that’s a big service.”

The Danforth’s current show ends Aug. 21, after which Petke said they would use the museum’s galleries to prepare for the move. Meanwhile, the school’s fall classes will last just four weeks, wrapping up on Oct. 7 as the museum hurries to prepare its new home.

“We have to move forward,” said Petke. “We’ve had every roadblock thrown at us you can imagine, but it’s not an insurmountable goal by any means.”


Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.