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Ire of the Beholder

A white sun burned down on more than 350,000 sweat-speckled art fans; vivid colors painted the streets. Aromas from 26 restaurants rode the hot summer breeze, pushed by the sounds of musicians in the distance; more than 200 artists sat quietly while their works were examined with critical eyes.

Denver artist Alan Klemm watched as a few people looked at his creations and reached into their pockets or purses for money. Seen by most of this year's crowd at the Cherry Creek Arts Festival, the cherry-red cabinet-style boxes commanded attention, although they stand a mere 42 inches high. The boxes, 22 of them, were at every entrance and exit on the festival grounds, but they weren't for sale.

Struggling to raise money ever since a major corporate sponsor backed out, the nonprofit CCAF solicited public donations at the festival for the first time in its nine-year history. Since it has also lost money two years in a row, the board of directors hoped to raise $50,000 this way. Klemm was commissioned to build the donation boxes.

"I like to think I gave them a pretty good deal," Klemm says from his studio on South Santa Fe Drive, where he began working five years ago. A good deal indeed, considering that CCAF general manager Bruce Storey once told Klemm that the "Button Up for Art!" boxes had a budget of $50,000. Klemm, who had done work for the festival in the past, bid $8,525.

"They gave me a down payment for labor and materials" of $6,515, Klemm says. He and three employees spent two months building the boxes in between Klemm's regular gigs building scenic art for the Children's Museum, Country Dinner Playhouse and Elitch Gardens.

"I believe they were under the impression that the boxes were going to pay for themselves," Klemm says. "[Storey] was really excited about it, and I thought, great, more power to you. That was how good our relationship was. I was becoming friends with these people."

But when the boxes were emptied after the three-day festival, which took place over the July 4 weekend, the CCAF had raised only a dismal $3,500, and Klemm says the organization still owes him $2,800.

Although Klemm suspects that the CCAF is withholding payment because of the paltry revenue generated by the solicitations (the festival stands to lose $5,025 on the boxes if it pays Klemm the $2,010 balance plus another $790 he wants for additional work), several CCAF representatives insist the non-payment issue concerns contractual obligations that Klemm didn't fulfill.

A garrulous Storey wouldn't comment on the specifics of the disagreement except to say, "That's not a matter for me to discuss with a third party. We're negotiating with Alan now. The issue is that the contract has not been performed in full yet. I really and truly have no comment to anything that [Klemm] has said."

But Nick LeMasters, a CCAF boardmember and the general manager of the Cherry Creek Shopping Center, says, "It's certainly not our intention to walk away from any obligation we may have. We would prefer to resolve the issue in a fair and just manner. It's just a matter of sitting down at a table and moving forward."

Klemm paints a rosy picture of his relationship with the CCAF prior to the dispute. "The first project I did was a six-tent food-court facade in 1996," he says. "That was a pretty big project at the time. It went off without a hitch." The next year, Klemm designed a facade for the fruit-smoothie tent and designed and built the entrance decor. His work is still in use by the festival, in fact. "They're in pretty good condition. I saw them this last time, and I guess the quality of the work was pretty good if they have held up that long," Klemm says.

This year he was asked to make the boxes, but the CCAF attached a number of specific requirements to the design that made them very intricate, Klemm says. "Every single little bit of this box was custom-made according to their needs and specifications. It was an extremely complex design."

After the prototype was delivered, Klemm says the CCAF asked him to include hidden doors to take the money out, Plexiglas tops and donation slots on two sides of the boxes to make it easier for the public to donate. Klemm says he made the changes and even waived additional fees for the changes.

Klemm says Storey told him to deliver the boxes by 8 p.m. on July 2, the night before the festival began, but Klemm said the time of delivery wasn't written into his contract, which is actually a series of invoices. "I called him before 8 p.m., and we started delivery at midnight," Klemm says. "All of the boxes were there by two o'clock in the morning."

But Klemm says Storey was angry and began to point out things that were wrong with the boxes, including the absence of a laminate surface on the edge of the boxes, doors that didn't latch properly and brochure holders that kept falling off. Klemm says he fixed the problems before the festival began. Although Storey was supposed to pay Klemm the balance that night, Klemm says Storey instead told him, "You'll do everything I tell you to do, and you'll go to a meeting with my lawyer."

The two were in an alley at the festival site just after Klemm had delivered the boxes and had adjusted some of the doors and brochure holders. Klemm says that when he tried to speak, Storey threatened him by saying, "If you say anything, I'll have you removed from the area." Klemm says he didn't want to escalate the situation, so he left.

Klemm later called Storey to coordinate a time and date to pick up the boxes. He thought things would have cooled down, but once again, Storey told him that if he came near the festival, he would be removed. "Three times over the phone, I was told not to go," Klemm says. He went anyway, though, to see if Storey had used the boxes.

Klemm hasn't seen the boxes since, although he did meet with Storey and the CCAF's attorney in mid-July. Conveniently, two police officers--Denver bike cops--showed up at the meeting. "These guys were there until I left the offices," Klemm says. Klemm asked why Storey used the boxes if they were so bad; he says Storey replied that he accepted them under duress.

LeMasters says disputes like this happen all the time in the business world. "It's certainly not our first, and it won't be our last," he says. "The festival views it as a business matter that we hope to amicably resolve as professionals."

But it's not the only money problem that the festival still has to resolve. According to its federal tax records, the CCAF lost $36,165 in 1997 and $126,057 in 1998. In addition, AT&T ended its financial support for the festival in 1997. CCAF spokeswoman Guion Williams wouldn't say how much AT&T provided or why it pulled its sponsorship, but she did say that the donation boxes were an attempt to "broaden" the festival's base of support over the next five years.

"This project will have to be reviewed as we go through strategic planning," Williams says. "[It] was designed to emulate the museum programs where a person donates as they want."

The festival, which has an annual budget of $2.2 million, has collected $89,950 in donations so far this year. Of that, $22,450 came from art auctions, $64,000 from host patrons--another new sponsorship program--and, of course, $3,500 from Klemm's donation boxes.

Putting the festival's financial house in order will primarily be the job of the new CCAF general manager. David Pinson, who headed the organization for nearly three years, resigned abruptly in May, just two months prior to the start of what would have been his third festival; he cited family obligations as the cause. The board plans to name a new general manager after a retreat on Friday, says Williams. Storey has been the interim chief since Pinson's resignation.

For now, without the money, Klemm says he is losing bits and pieces of his business. "I am short the money to pay the lease on my shop space. I had to close my business account to pay off tool rentals and other expenses," he says. "I have three employees that I can't pay now. I suspect that I will go to court for this."

But Klemm, who paints homes on the side and occasionally breaks out his guitar to play street corners with his buddies, thinks it's strange that a large organization like the Cherry Creek Arts Festival would ask the public for money anyway.

"They're not helping art in any manner and only helping themselves," he says. "I've been to a lot of arts festivals all over the country, and this is the only one that I know of that asks for money.

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Steve Alvarez