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Sunday, 02 April 2017 16:10

Managing the unknown: Cultural arts nonprofits press on with projects amid mounting concerns

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Cultural arts leaders like George Bayard, executive director of the Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives, are concerned about potential cuts to support for the arts. The fear is that nonprofits, particularly foundations, will end up shouldering the burden of previously public services. Cultural arts leaders like George Bayard, executive director of the Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives, are concerned about potential cuts to support for the arts. The fear is that nonprofits, particularly foundations, will end up shouldering the burden of previously public services. MiBiz File Photo

The impact of possible budget cuts under the Trump administration is weighing on the minds of most nonprofit leaders in West Michigan, but it’s especially concerning for executives at arts and cultural organizations.

Many executives who lead arts groups said that during the 2008 recession, their funding took a hit because donors funneled their money to nonprofits that were providing basic needs, such as food or shelter. Now, they are bracing for pushback from lawmakers who don’t consider arts and culture a high funding priority.

“With the political climate we’re in now, there’s a lot of concern with those organizations deemed political — like Planned Parenthood — seeing cuts to their funding. The reality is that we may all lose government funding,” said Ricki Levine, managing director of the Frauenthal Center in Muskegon.

With years of fundraising experience, Levine said she is noticing requests for donations amplified from the organizations to which she gives.

Despite the unknowns, some arts organizations in Southwest Michigan are contemplating major fundraising campaigns. Others recently concluded campaigns, including the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre, which successfully raised $5 million.

George Bayard, executive director of the Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives, said the organization received its nonprofit status last year and is in the preliminary stages of preparing for a $5 million fundraising campaign. The funds would be used to construct a new building and cover one year of overhead, in addition to other initiatives.

“The challenges are the potential cutbacks in federal funding,” Bayard said. “I also expect that some of the foundations will get some of that overflow ask, as other asks might get shortchanged a bit.”

As competition for donors’ dollars ramps up, that poses a big concern for Susan Balbaugh, executive director of the Music Center of Battle Creek.

“Calhoun County has got over 1,000 registered nonprofits, so we’re in competition with many other organizations asking for donations from funders, individuals and organizations,” Balbaugh said. “Arts organizations are taking a back seat to human services.”

While this sentiment isn’t foreign to Bayard, he thinks the potential is there for his organization to have a successful fundraising campaign because it’s a new project unlike anything Grand Rapids has seen before.

“There aren’t many entities that are African American-owned, certainly nothing like a museum or performance center,” he said. “I feel that’s a big plus.”

As Bayard’s organization embarks on its campaign, representatives with more established nonprofit arts organizations are creating fresh approaches to retaining their current donor base while reaching out to new potential funders.

Balbaugh said she’s heard from her constituent base that her organization gravitates to the same pot of funds, which has pushed her to branch out. 

“We need to entice people to get to know us,” she said.

To that end, a board member will host a garden party that will take on more of an outdoor concert feel. Other board members have stepped up to help host the event and extend personal invitations to friends who are not current donors. On April 29, a Zombie 5K Run is planned as a way to reach out to families and a younger audience that doesn’t typically attend the symphony.

The Holland Area Arts Council is taking an internal and external approach to reaching that highly sought-after younger donor base. Executive Director Lorma Freestone said raising money is not more difficult than it’s always been. She said the real challenge is keeping up with rapidly changing technology and the way people communicate.

“What I have consciously done is bring on marketers from very vibrant marketing companies onto our board and bring on younger staff who are much more proficient in the marketing we’re trying to do so that we can keep up with technology and reach everyone equally,” Freestone said.

That next generation of donors wants to feel like they’re contributing and that what they’re doing is making something positive happen, said Lori Gramer, regranting coordinator for Region 4-A with the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs (MCACA). The Holland Arts Council is a conduit for MCACA grants.

Using a GoFundMe platform, the Arts Council is putting up 60 banners featuring the work of various artists. The banners will go up in June and people will be able to contribute to the cost of the project. Gramer said this funding method gives everybody ownership of a “great project benefitting the community.”

“We also partner with New Holland Brewing and have a five-year agreement to do a ‘Frozen’ fundraiser because that appeals to a younger crowd,” Freestone said. “We created an ice bar during a cold period. It’s a great opportunity in January when nobody else is fundraising.”

The second annual event raised $30,000, doubling what it generated in its inaugural year.

Levine at Frauenthal Center would like to find similar opportunities. She was hired less than one year ago to create a more proactive plan to secure outside funding sources. The Frauenthal is owned by the Community Foundation for Muskegon County, which has been providing the financial support to keep it going.

“We agreed that we need to be more robust in getting support from the community,” Levine said. “We need to figure out how to take advantage of the energy and talent that younger donors bring.”

In an ideal world, Freestone said organizations like the Holland Area Arts Council should be funded by their communities and businesses.

“We’re trying to get there,” she said. “The federal funding we receive is more of a seal of approval to let people know that your governmental agencies have an understanding and are showing that they care about vibrant arts and culture communities.”

MCACA’s Gramer said people need to step up and support organizations that they feel add value their lives.

“It’s not an ‘either/or’, but a ‘yes/and,’” she said. “I’m not saying that arts and culture organizations are more important than programs like Meals on Wheels. The arts provide nourishment to people’s souls, while Meals on Wheels provides nourishment to their bodies.” 

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