Of Vision and Volunteers

In 1943, shortly before World War II ended, eight intrepid groups of volunteers, following the lead of one plucky Ross woman named Caroline Livermore, rallied around what is now the Marin Art and Garden Center (MAGC), an 11-acre former Ross estate, saving it from suburban development.

Now, nearly 70 years later, MAGC is once again in need of a savior, or more likely many, if it is to move forward — independent, solvent and open to the public.

Christopher Kelley, the center’s new CEO, is optimistic about the future of the place and is openly seeking community support to bolster the gardens, the buildings and the programs. “MAGC leadership sees tremendous opportunity for the center,” he says.

Kelley’s efforts recall those of the eight founding groups (Marin Conservation League, Marin Dance Council, Marin Music Chest, Marin Nature Group, Marin Society of Artists, Ross Valley Players, the Garden Society of Marin and the Marin Garden Club), who purchased the land for $25,000 all those years ago and left a lasting legacy to promote arts, horticulture, history and environmental conservation.

Their efforts are seen in the landscaped grounds dotted with heritage trees and a collection of structures that include small offices, meeting rooms, a playhouse theater, a former restaurant, a playground area called Pixie Park, an octagonal house and a cottage made of bottles. The volunteer efforts that spawned MAGC and the revenues it generated, however, are in decline.

The Glory Days

For decades, volunteers of both the founding groups and the subsequent affiliate groups — such as the Northgate Group and the now-defunct Center Pathfinders and the Decorations Guild — elevated friendship and fundraising to a profitable art form.

Beginning in 1967, the Center Pathfinders spent many years serving up food, fun and fashion to visitors. Volunteers paid a manager and a professional chef to run a restaurant and prepare dishes while the volunteers whipped up homemade desserts themselves and donned uniforms to wait on diners. They also informally modeled during the summer months and recruited their husbands for building repairs and their sons to help them cater weddings. “It was such a happy atmosphere,” recalls Kate Orsini of San Rafael, who was a member during the 1980s. “And so beautiful, especially outdoors. We had slipcovers and cushions for the chairs, and each table had umbrellas and always flowers.”

The Decorations Guild, loosely formed in 1945 to raise funds for machinery repair at MAGC, continued its fundraising efforts over the next six decades by holding teas in the fall, selling holiday greenery and handcrafting Christmas ornaments, dried floral arrangements, recycled-fur teddy bears and pinecone wreaths.

A few years after the guild formed, the Northgate Group organized and, over the years, held spring flea markets, an annual Table Decor event and hugely popular summer fashion shows. “The fashion shows were wonderful,” says Mary Grandin, a Northgate Group member since 1969. “It was just a lot of fun,” she recalls. “Everyone pulled together, and the camaraderie was fabulous.” More recently, consignment sales at the Laurel House Antiques Shop, set to close in December, have been the primary revenue generator.

Going StrongOf Visions and Volunteers

Today, only four original groups — the Ross Valley Players (RVP), the Marin Society of Artists, the Marin Garden Club and the Garden Society of Marin — and one affiliate group, Pixie Park, remain at MAGC.

The Ross Valley Players, which turned 80 in 2010 (making it the oldest continuously run community theater on the West Coast) is a great local resource for catching plays like Night of the Iguana or Greater Tuna. Its six productions and special events each season are presented in the estate’s former barn, which is outfitted with 150 red plush seats salvaged from the former Tamalpais Theater in San Anselmo, red walls, wood floors and a lobby decorated with vintage RVP posters. “The quality and variety of RVP’s productions and the warm ambience of the barn combine to make it a Marin gem,” says RVP actor and business manager Alex Ross.

Just as the RVP does, the 85-year-old Marin Society of Artists maintains its own MAGC space — an art gallery and sculpture garden — while reaching out to the community with art workshops for the visually impaired, art rental programs for the general public, monthly exhibitions and an annual benefit auction. “We have great patrons, so we are able to keep our heads above water,” explains executive director Jo Smith. “We want to be here for the next generation.”

The two original horticultural groups of MAGC were both formed in the 1930s and still meet regularly. The Marin Garden Club maintains a contemplative garden just behind the Octagon House, and the Garden Club of Marin raises funds by selling holiday greenery.
Pixie Park, organized in 1954, is a cooperative playground run by Pixie Parents, a group of about 450 parents and grandparents who maintain the Robert Royston–designed playground and raise funds through holiday bake sales, spring fairs and “teddy bear” teas.

San Rafael realtor Catherine Munson, a former Pixie parent who served as project director for the park’s construction during the 1950s, recalls volunteers raising money by selling stuffed animals and installing the park themselves. “We sometimes worked until 3 a.m., but it was such fun!” she says.

Envisioning MAGC’s future

More recently, other groups have become associated with MAGC, including the Marin Rose Society, Marin Bonsai Club, Jose Moya Del Pino Library/Ross Historical Society, Porchlight Theatre Company and Marin Master Gardeners.

Along with money from the various groups, MAGC’s current revenue stream of $575,000 is fed by donations, membership dues, monthly income from two office rentals and the income generated from the approximately 30 weddings and 200 events and meetings held onsite.

Kelley says the center currently operates on a shoestring budget of $700,000. A short-term annual budget of $3 million would allow for improvements, and an annual budget of up to $8 million — following the completion of a new master plan — will keep MAGC sustainable.

Now approaching its seventh decade, MAGC is at a crossroads. With declining revenues and volunteer rosters, deferred maintenance and looming repair costs, what does the future hold? As its board of trustees and CEO embark on two years of public meetings and a $1.5 million fundraising campaign to discern the answer, will the community once again pull together to keep MAGC going, or will help arrive in a different form of white knight? And will it arrive in time?

Kelley hopes so. “MAGC is a community gem, and we, as Marin residents, are being offered a unique, perhaps once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to develop a sustainable culturally and environmentally focused garden center that educates, inspires and entertains while meeting valuable community needs,” he says. “While we work to sustain the center’s finances, we look to the future and ask those interested to join us in developing our master plan.”

The Marin Art and Garden Center is located at 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Ross, 415.455.5260, magc.org. The next public master plan meeting will be held in spring 2012.