JoAnne Vernon, Sawtooth director, steps down

JoAnne Vernon, executive director of the Sawtooth Center for Visual Art for the past four years, has stepped down to focus on taking care of her health. Her last day was Oct. 11.

Vernon was diagnosed with leiomyosarcoma in 2012 and has been receiving chemotherapy and radiation for the past four years.

“With this last round of chemotherapy, they are making some progress, but it requires me to take really good care of myself,” she said. “I’m going to be getting treatment and working on my health and letting somebody else take a leadership role to take Sawtooth where it needs to go next.”

Kevin Mundy, who has most recently been assistant executive director and was previously director of sales and marketing, will be the Sawtooth’s interim executive director while a committee begins a search to fill the position.

When Vernon became executive director in August 2012, the Sawtooth was $8,000 in debt and owed the Arts Council of Winston-Salem $100,000 in back rent, according to Mundy.

Vernon and the arts council came up with a plan to pay off the back rent. Sawtooth is now current on its rent and has paid more than 30 percent of that debt.

“JoAnne has done a remarkable job of turning Sawtooth School around since she took the helm in 2012,” said Jim Sparrow, president and chief executive of the arts council. “She inherited a number of challenges that she turned into opportunities.”

The school ended its fiscal year in June with net revenues of $216,000. The Sawtooth’s annual budget is about $1 million, with a full-time staff of 16.

“I have never worked in an organization where every single person loved their boss and would be willing to walk through glass for her,” Mundy said.

Vernon increased revenues by broadening the school’s student base and found students to fill Sawtooth’s classes during daytime hours: seniors, pre-kindergarten students and home-schooled students.

Class registration revenues have increased 24 percent on Vernon’s watch, and memberships have increased 60 percent.

But increasing registration was just one part of Vernon’s strategy. She was also aggressive in the areas of grant writing, getting program sponsorships and working with businesses to get underwriting for specific programming.

Revenue from grants, foundations, individual donors and sponsorships have increased 106 percent.

“When JoAnne came on board, there were no corporate sponsorships,” Mundy said. “We now are able to underwrite all the operational expenses of Deck the Halls, our annual fundraiser, through sponsorship.”

Starting in 2015, Vernon has spearheaded an 18-month major-gift campaign — the first in about 10 years at Sawtooth — that has brought in more than $400,000.

“We are drawing down those funds from the major-gift campaign over a five-year period of time,” said Ross Pfeiffer, who is taking over the development piece of Vernon’s job on a voluntary basis. “It allows us to give scholarships and get into underserved populations — things that we do for the community.”

That money is earmarked for four things: 1) Expand innovative programming, 2) Invest in outstanding faculty and facilities, 3) Increase student access (scholarships) and 4) Broaden community partnerships.

Pfeiffer, a retired fund-raiser who moved to Winston-Salem from northern Ohio in 2011, has been on the board for two years. Before retiring he and his wife conducted a search for a retirement city for nearly two years from Washington, D.C., to Charleston, S.C.

“One of the major reasons we ended up in Winston-Salem was because of the Sawtooth School,” Pfeiffer said. “I’ve been an itinerant artist off and on. Here at Sawtooth, I’ve focused on the wood shop. I do quite a bit of wood-turning. I’ve even taught a few classes here.”

Elizabeth Repetti, a commercial lawyer at Bell, Davis and Pitt, has been on the Sawtooth board for four years, currently as board chair. She’s also a student, at various times taking ceramics, wood, drawing and painting classes.

“JoAnne has had significant impact on the current success of the school,” Repetti said.

“She is just such a kind and gentle soul. She is so calm and deliberate in all her remarks. She’s incredibly diplomatic and works very, very hard. She always had her finger on the pulse of everything that was going on there. She is well-loved by everybody — from students to department heads.

“She has built a very strong organization that’s on a positive trajectory. She has put a devoted and committed staff in place, and the board is committed, and the arts council wants it to succeed, and I think it will — due to the path that JoAnne has set it on.”

One of Vernon’s passions is the healing power of art, Mundy said.

“Under her leadership, we received a grant from the Greer Foundation to develop a ‘Healing and Wellness through the Arts’ program that works with cancer patients and their personal and professional caregivers. The program uses visual art activities and projects to reduce stress and promote healing and both physical and emotional well-being.”

Vernon said leaving her post was a difficult decision.

“I love that there’s an incredible team in place,” Vernon said.

“We would not be where we are without them. I’ve had a remarkable board of directors who have been incredibly supportive of me and the staff there.

“It’s been my honor and my privilege to work with all of them. Sawtooth is a remarkable place.”


By: Lynn Felder | Winston-Salem Journal | Nov 18, 2016 | Link


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