The people of Ojai have shared a one-of-a-kind insurance policy since 1939: a building at 113 S. Montgomery St. called the Ojai Art Center.

During the dedication ceremony for the Community Art Center of the Ojai Valley (the center’s original name) nearly 80 years ago, founding member Charles Butler told attendees, “You, who have made this center possible, must keep it alive, vital and a force for good. This is a permanent insurance policy you have written for yourselves — an insurance against the improper use of leisure time.”

The policy’s current steward is Teri Mettala, executive director of the Ojai Art Center. She has worked there for 37 years, starting as a part-time secretary. In conjunction with a 17-member volunteer board of trustees, Mettala oversees the center’s operations and its eight branches: art, dance, film, literary, music, photography, theater and youth.

The Ojai Art Center bills itself as California’s oldest multidisciplinary nonprofit center serving the arts. Pick a day on the calendar and you’re likely to find classes, concerts, plays (in the center’s 120-seat theater), dance recitals, author talks or poetry readings, plus ever-changing art exhibits.

The center not only oversees the octet of branches, but also acts as a community art space. The Ojai Music Festival, Ojai Film Festival, Ojai Storytelling Festival and Ojai Studio Artists Tour hold events there.

Gathering (and keeping) so many artistic interests together under the same roof and leadership takes both brains and heart. 

“Teri has really been the glue that’s held the whole place together,” said Cindy Frings, Ojai Art Center board president, “and she’s done it with kindness and grace.”

Mettala wanted to talk about anyone but herself, however, when asked about the Art Center’s longevity.

“It’s because of all the other people involved — the devoted volunteers — that the center is still around and doing so well,” she said.

Len Klaif, secretary and former president of the Ojai Art Center board (he’s also a sometime-actor with the theater branch), said that although the various Art Center branches get along, “each one is primarily interested in its own activities. Teri is interested in the entire Art Center.”

The center, which does not receive government funding, earns money through several sources: rentals for classes, organizations and special events; annual memberships; and event admission.

Mettala, who grew up in Seattle, said she came to California in 1969, seeking “wild adventure,” and decided to stay.

She first settled in Pasadena, then moved to Ventura County with her husband because he liked to surf on the Ventura coast. (They divorced, and Mettala is now married to Richard Carreon, who works at Nordhoff High School.)

Not an artist herself, Mettala initially joined the center as a secretary after her son Jonathan was born. She quit for a few years to become certified as a drug counselor, but returned when she was recruited to “office-sit” the center temporarily during a turbulent time. The board asked her to become director in the late 1980s.

“I was flattered they thought I was qualified,” she said.

Klaif, however, said Mettala has always been more than qualified. “I don’t know if there’s any one thing Teri has done that’s extraordinary — and that’s what is extraordinary,” he said. “For 30-plus years, she is the primary reason that the Ojai Art Center has kept its doors open. She hasn’t put out any fires; instead, she’s prevented any fires from happening.”

Mettala is a behind-the-scenes multitasker who gets paid for part-time work but works full time, Frings said. She schedules and coordinates events, handles accounting, writes newsletters, answers phones, talks to tourists who wander in off the street, and serves as a firm but kind referee among patrons, artists, volunteers and board members.

Her counseling and psychology skills, Mettala said, have come in handy at the Art Center.

“I don’t have a background in the arts, but I’m really good at listening to people,” she said.

Mettala is most proud of “maintaining a high level of service in everything we do for the Ojai community and beyond, especially the high quality of our theater productions.” She also is responsible for the growth of Art in the Park, a juried outdoor art festival at Libbey Park that just celebrated its 40th anniversary.

Jesse Phelps, a writer who serves on the board, said the center “has played a central role” in his life since he was 10, when he performed in his first stage play there, Annie Get Your Gun. He even got married at the center, in 2011.

“It’s always been this sanctuary, and just the embodiment of old Ojai’s soul,” he said. “Teri maintains that.”

The Ojai Art Center at 113 S. Montgomery St. offers a variety of classes, music and other events. For more information, call 646-0117 or visit www.ojaiartcenter.org.