Front Row Center Newsletter from the Greater Columbus Arts Counsil

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By Sally Sugar

Entrepreneurs find fertile ground in Columbus, and nowhere is that more evident than the arts community. This capital city is home to numerous grassroots and small arts organizations that have a wide variety of missions and inspiring visions, but share a common bond—the ability to grow and prosper with limited resources.

The Columbus Gay Men’s Chorus (CGMC), Ohio Art League (OAL), Available Light Theatre (AVLT), Creative Arts of Women (CAW) and ROY G BIV Gallery are just five examples of organizations that have managed to leverage their resources to become dynamic players in the city’s arts scene.

These groups have ambitious dreams but limited funding. While a small budget generally means fewer options for staffing and marketing, through hard work and imaginative solutions, these groups manage to not only make ends meet but also have a significant impact on the cultural landscape of Columbus.

From CGMC Facebook page, Divas Dead or Alive

From CGMC Facebook page, Divas Dead or Alive

The mission of  the Columbus Gay Men’s Chorus is to encourage increased acceptance and understanding of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender community in central Ohio through music. The chorus not only performs several shows throughout the year but also does a great deal of outreach within the community through partnerships with organizations like the Boys and Girls Club of Columbus and Kaleidoscope Youth Center. While CGMC gets funding through ticket sales as well as public and private support, it still feels the constraints of a tight budget.

“The financial limits as a smaller arts organization impact the CGMC’s human resource capacity, marketing possibilities, and production capacity,” said Executive Director Patrick Roehrenbeck.

Many nonprofit organizations have employees or volunteers that take on multiple roles to make up for lack of personnel. For CGMC, this means that their small staff receives a great deal of help from the members of the chorus. Members generally join one of several committees that support serve the organization. Because of the strong engagement of its membership CGMC continues to thrive and  is celebrating its 25th anniversary this season with a variety of extraordinary projects including their “Divas: Dead or Alive” concert with Broadway star Christine Pedi, new original pieces, collaborations with men’s choruses from across the country and a special 25th anniversary documentary that premiered at the Gateway Film Center in July.

It is not uncommon for smaller organizations to be entirely member run and dependent on an active and dedicated membership that is willing to volunteer a significant number of hours to see their collective thrive. Creative Arts of Women, otherwise known as CAW, is an open-membership collective of creative women in central Ohio that aims to provide its members with networking, mentoring and exhibition opportunities. CAW operates through a steering committee of nine members who run various sub-committees. For example, mixed-media artist Lisa McLymont is a member of the steering committee and leads the marketing sub-committee.

With everyone invested in working together, the collective is able to produce several exhibitions a year, including, this year, a large group exhibition, Remnants, at the Ohio State University’s Urban Arts Space, which ran for six weeks.

ROY G BIV Gallery is in the heart of the Short North Arts District

ROY G BIV Gallery is in the heart of the Short North Arts District

ROY G BIV is a nonprofit gallery in the historic Short North Arts District that features work by two emerging artists each month, has long been dependent largely on member and board volunteers to operate. In February 2015 the gallery was able to create its first full-time position partially through the award of a BOOST grant from the Greater Columbus Arts Council. Ken Aschliman, who has been directing the gallery since 2013, has stepped into the role full time and sees it as an opportunity to expand the gallery’s impact with more exhibitions and programs.

“I juggle a lot of responsibilities,” said Aschliman. “I mange the gallery’s daily operations, exhibition installation, marketing, volunteer management sales, fundraising, grant writing, outreach, programming and research.

“I put in a lot of hours (and lattes). I occassionaly volunteer my time to keep everything running smoothly, but I’m happy to do it,” added Aschliman. “I am very fortunate to have great support from the board of trustees. They give me an enormous amount of guidance and happily lend a hand when needed. I also depend on my team of hard-working volunteers and interns who help with day-to-day operations.”

Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, ROY G BIV was recently awarded the Short North Alliance’s Business Beacon Award for its role in transforming the Short North into the thriving arts district and tourist attraction that it is today.

One way to gauge the level of passion and commitment the community has for an arts organization is to observe what happens when the organization faces significant challenges.

The Ohio Art League, a member-based organization for visual artists, has a long and distinguished history. Founded in 1909 OAL is the longest, continually running nonprofit in the state and has included distinguished artists such as Alice Schille, Roy Lichtenstein, Emerson Burkhart, Aminah Robinson and George Bellows among its members.

Though 600-members strong, OAL has faced its share of challenges in the last year including the loss of their gallery space and staffing changes that left the league without a director.

Despite these trials, and thanks to the dedication of their members and board of trustees, the OAL has managed to continue to serve its members with programs and exhibitions, while searching for a new director and new space.

In fact, according to board member Amy Tillinghast, the OAL board of trustees will announce the league’s new director in the next few weeks and the league is close to obtaining a new location.

“We have worked very hard to continue to provide valuable programming to our members and offer non-traditional exhibition spaces and opportunities,” said Tillinghast. “All while restructuring the organization and really, thoughtfully thinking through where we want to land with our gallery space.”

When it comes to running a small organization, flexibility and a willingness of staff and volunteers to jump in where needed is invaluable. Available Light Theatre has five staff members, 13 company members and 10 board members.

The members of AVLT are versatile in their roles. For example, since joining the company in 2009, Elena Perantoni has worked as a performer and stage manager while also serving on the AVLT Board.

“The organization is constantly re-inventing itself and rearranging itself to suit new opportunities and priorities,” said Artistic Director Matt Slaybaugh. “Each person’s role changes regularly as we learn.”

Small nonprofits find that they also need to be agile and inventive when it comes to funding.

A view from CAW's show Remnants at the Urban Arts Center

A view from CAW’s show Remnants at the Urban Arts Center

While AVTL’s funding is based primarily on individual donations, the theatre company has been inventive in their ticket pricing to reach new audiences. They implemented a Pay What You Want policy that suggests a price of $20 per ticket but allows people to purchase tickets for as little or as much money as they want. This policy aims to make new art experiences more accessible to people by eliminating the financial risk involved with trying something new. According to Slaybaugh many patrons have told him that the Pay What You Want program is what led them to try theatre for the first time. Since AVLT implemented the program in 2008, they’ve sold thousands of discounted tickets and given countless people opportunities to try something new.

AVLT’s commitment to removing financial barriers pays off. Many supporters pay more than the suggested price to help the theatre continue the program.

“They might pay $10 one time, when their budget is a bit tight, and pay $30 next time, when they’ve got more disposable income,” explains Slaybaugh. “Our flexibility encourages loyalty and we love them for it.”

They’ve thought outside the box in other ways as well; recently, AVLT held a Kickstarter campaign called “Don’t Wait, Columbus,” raising money for a celebratory 10 year anniversary show about the people of Columbus based on interviews with actual citizens. The proceeds will also help support the company as it begins its second decade.

“We imagined a project that would give back to our city in a big way,” said Slaybaugh. “It’s the people of Columbus who make this such an inspiring place to make art.”

According to Slaybaugh, the campaign raised more than $1,000 a day for 33 days. The support that the campaign received demonstrates how much the people of Columbus appreciate all that AVLT does. It’s this culture of giving that helps make our city such a great environment for these associations.

Not all organizations are as dependent on ticket sales. According to McLymont, CAW’s funding comes almost exclusively from the annual dues of its members. They use this money to pay for their website, promotional materials, general supplies and the awards they present at the Ohio State Fair. The division of labor amongst members also allows CAW to operate with a smaller budget.

“Our financial side is lean by design,” said Allison Buegner, a member of the steering committee. “The main resources driving the success of CAW are the time, experience and passion volunteered by the steering committee and our members.”

While CAW is essentially self-sufficient, most organizations rely heavily on outside support. OAL and ROY G BIV both rely on grant support from agencies such as the Greater Columbus Arts Council, Ohio Arts Council and the Columbus Foundation. Companies and individual donors also help to keep many of these associations afloat. Often, locals are more than happy to help support organizations that contribute to the vibrant arts scene in Columbus.

For nonprofit and for-profit organizations alike, marketing is crucial to success but can also be a drain on budgets as it requires a significant investment in  human and cash resources.

Most small nonprofits rely heavily on digital marketing, social media and word of mouth to promote shows  rather than traditional paid advertising. While these channels still require human resources, the passion and commitment of each groups’ members and volunteers can translate into marketing gold via these nontraditional tools.

“We have to be resourceful with our small operating budget,” said Aschliman, who considers word of mouth to be ROY G BIV’s most important form of promotion. “I always work hard to put on great exhibitions and make sure every visitor has a good experience.”

While these organizations can’t always control the conversation, they can give people something good to talk about. “Making good work is where the marketing begins,” said Slaybaugh.

With lots of hard work, multitasking, resourcefulness, outreach, creativity and passion, these small arts organizations continue to find the support that they need to thrive in the capital city. Through trials and triumphs, groups like these prove themselves to be an unstoppable force within the local arts scene. It’s clear that Columbus appreciates the arts and the arts appreciate Columbus.

Sally Sugar is an intern for the Greater Columbus Arts Council’s marketing, communications & events department. She is about to start her senior year at Ohio University in the Honors Tutorial College studying journalism and strategic communication with a specialization in marketing and a social media certificate. This year, Sally plans to complete a professional project creating a campaign for the Buckeye Trail as her senior thesis. When she isn’t working or studying, you can find her hiking, taking photographs, seeking out live music or reading Virginia Woolf.

Big Bugs at the Franklin Park Conservatory