A month after the opening of George Mason University's state-supported $12 million concert hall, university staff members are complaining about fund-raising problems, particularly fund-raising related to the arts, that they blame on the school's administration and the role of Joanne Johnson, the wife of George Mason's President George Johnson.

Critics at GMU say they believe she influences too many decisions related to the arts -- from the desirability of concession stands in the new concert hall to who will contact potential donors, to the decision not to undertake a corporate-support program for the hall. Her husband disagrees.

"I make the decisions here, and I don't have Nancy Reagan for a wife," Johnson said last week. "Joanne has been a department chairman's wife, a dean's wife, a university president's wife. We're pretty used to each other, and she doesn't exert undue influence on my decisions."

Joanne Johnson declined to be interviewed for this story.

Staffers are also worried about the partial dismantling of the school's development office, reducing the staff from 24 to four. This action, which took place Oct. 16, comes at a time when GMU is revamping its entire fund-raising strategy because of state-mandated budget cuts and hard times in the real estate industry, which has supported the Fairfax County school from its inception.

Sources in the arts and administrative departments say that even though Joanne Johnson's position as chairman of the Fund for the Arts is separate from the university's development office, no one can undertake any fund-raising on behalf of the new arts programming without coordinating with the president's wife. Her position is a voluntary one, but she receives an annual $10,000 honorarium for her activities from the privately funded George Mason Foundation.

The current unrest has developed against the backdrop of preparations for the school's 10th annual arts gala Saturday. Run by Joanne Johnson, the gala, which has become an important social event in Northern Virginia, has raised $1.9 million since it began in 1981.

The sources, most of whom requested anonymity, citing concerns about their jobs, maintain that the Johnsons' desire to continue to have the arts gala be seen as the school's main fund-raising activity for the arts is the reason for the couple's reluctance to undertake any support program for the new Center for the Arts.

"The gala is Joanne's event," said one source. "Everything else is secondary to that."

Others at the school complain that George Mason lost an opportunity to raise as much as $500,000 in connection with a single evening, the concert hall's opening night, when George Johnson vetoed the kind of fund-raising activities commonly associated with gala events, such as staggered ticket prices, ads in the program and corporate underwriting. "We do things differently at George Mason. ... I don't want it to look like a commercial house, no searchlights, no glitz, no champagne. It's student-centered -- all the more reason not to have a fund-raiser," Johnson said.

On Oct. 16 George Mason and Barnes & Roche Inc., a Philadelphia-based consulting group, severed a relationship in which the firm was serving as a fund-raising consultant. A copy of a letter Barnes & Roche sent to GMU that day and which was made available to The Washington Post says at one point, "The fund-raising program at GMU has depended on too few people both as solicitors and donors. ... The level of support to which you aspire requires aggressive and systematic growth not retrenchment and down-sizing."

John P. Butler III, the firm's president, refused to comment, citing client privilege.

Critics also question the need for a commercial money-market account that has been set up in the name of the Fund for the Arts/Arts Gala at the First American Bank of Virginia when the money could go directly to the foundation. (The Fund for the Arts is one account within the foundation.)

George Johnson said he did not know why the money-market account was set up, that there were many such outside accounts, and that this one would be audited appropriately.

Helen Ackerman, the school's assistant vice president for public relations who attended last week's interview with Johnson, later explained that the account was used for deposits only. "It was set up so that Mrs. Johnson could acknowledge and generally cultivate the donors," said Ackerman. "The problem had been that the advancement office was and still is in the process of installing a sophisticated computer system. Money would come in from donors {without Mrs. Johnson's knowledge}; she would meet them at a party and wouldn't be able to acknowledge them. In this way, she would get immediate information because she would get immediate access to the checks."

John Toups, the president of the George Mason Foundation, said Monday he knew about and approved the account in advance and asked for a memo explaining the auditing procedures. "I was satisfied there was no problem," he said.

Agreeing that setting up a bank account was perhaps a more complicated way to keep track of donors than simply making a list, Toups said, "If I had to guess at an agenda behind it, I would probably say that it had to do with the Fund for the Arts office being able to present a big check for the foundation saying 'Here are the proceeds from the arts gala.' "

Regarding the $10,000 honoraria being paid to Joanne Johnson, George Johnson said that they had come at the suggestion of the foundation's board of trustees. "Neither she nor I had anything to do with that," he said. "I'm just appreciative of the foundation. She has been a superb volunteer in organizing the cultural climate at George Mason."

George Johnson also explained that he had undertaken the reorganization of the development office, in conjunction with the advice and support of the board of trustees of GMU, in light of the recent downturn in the real estate and defense industries.

"It's a redeployment," he said. "When it became clear we were not going to have this cash flow, we were going to have to shift, so that's what we've done. ... We don't see it as a dismantling or a halt; it's simply a shift in our ongoing and our immediate goals, and it will probably shift back."

Concurring, Toups added, "All of the members of the executive committee and the finance committee on the board of the foundation have been concerned in this economic climate about whether or not to proceed {with a capital campaign} at full tilt. We discussed it at some length over the last three months, and concluded, 'No, let's cut back on those expenses.' "

John T. "Til" Hazel, the chairman of the steering committee for the school's capital campaign, the start of which has been delayed, agreed. "I was the one who started the discussion when I saw what happened to university budgets and saw where any kind of surplus might be needed," he said Monday. "I didn't think we needed to spend it on a high-power giving program which at best would be a year or two before it began to pay off. ... Any reserves we might have in foundation accounts would be best needed to back up critical reductions in university budgets."

Joanne Johnson has said her active role in the arts at George Mason stems from her awareness soon after the couple came here in 1978 that the arts could draw attention to the university. "I said, 'I think we have to get something that would bring people here, and the arts would do it,' " she said in an interview in August. In 1980 she started the arts gala, a black-tie event that raised money to support arts programs at George Mason, which it continues to do today. As chairman of the Fund for the Arts, Joanne Johnson has put in countless hours in a role that has become synonymous with the arts at the school. But critics complain that her desire to control arts fund-raising has developed over that period of time as well.

Rex Wade, a professor of history at George Mason, was the dean of arts and sciences in 1986-87. Said Wade in an interview over the weekend, "I was frustrated by what they felt was appropriate in terms of total control of all fund-raising in any way related to the arts. People were complaining about it when I came here in '86. There were individuals who wanted to do things and were told 'No -- we want that person to support the gala.' Individuals in the arts were told not to approach certain companies because the school wanted that person to support the gala.

"One of my disappointments was that I had assumed that the funds raised would be at the disposal of the academic officers. I found them {the funds} controlled somewhere in the Johnsons."

As an example, Wade cited the appointment of Carlos Fuentes to an arts criticism chair in the mid-'80s. "I was not even told ahead of time that the funds were used for that purpose until I was told that oh, by the way, the funds were being used for this and Carlos Fuentes had already been appointed," he said.

Some observers suggest that the current turbulence in the arts and fund-raising communities at the school has come about as a direct result of the opening of the completed Center for the Arts and, in particular, its new concert hall, as well as the increased spotlight created by the state-of-the-art house and its successful program of concert series.

"George is suitably proud of all that Joanne has done over 10 years to elevate the arts at George Mason," said one observer. "But now we're taking a quantum leap, and we have to do things differently. The issue now is how to segue from that to something else. Bigger fund-raising is being kept away because it might conflict with her gala. It's this transition that is so difficult. We're no longer a small junior college with a small group of supporters we can invite to dinner at Mathy House {the Johnsons' residence}. Joanne is the reason we got here -- there's truth in that. But the question now is how we get beyond this point."