Arts Council Adjusts To Shifting Landscape, Turns To New Funding Models
For generations, the city of Winston-Salem has taken great pride in supporting the arts. So news of last year’s $350,000 fundraising shortfall by the Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County came as a jolt to many, especially the groups that rely on its support the most.
Given the relative strength of the economy, questions remain in the community. Did the council do all it could to meet its fundraising goals? Does the multi-million dollar Milton Rhodes Center for the Performing Arts built in 2010 continue to drain the council’s coffers?
Arts Council President and CEO Jim Sparrow says the days of local corporations giving big money to arts institutions are gone, forcing the council, artists, and the Milton Rhodes Center to develop new models. He spoke with WFDD’s David Ford.
On arts funding models changing:
The challenges we see today are on two levels. They’re unique to Winston, but they’re also part of a larger, national series of adaptations or evolutions. The model that we’ve been using since the 50s — the Arts Council and, more specifically, the United Arts Fund model (that sort of pass-through community fund) — has been challenged over a number of years because what’s predicated on that model is sort of a corporate philanthropy model that no longer exists. Large corporations or headquarters in various towns — every town had a series of one, two, or three corporations that were there, and legacy types of organizations— and this was a mechanism that allowed them to give to one organization that helped manage this for the community at large. That has changed over the years. And Winston has been one of the few towns that I’ve been in that still was operating very much like it was in the 80s and 90s based on that corporate model that many communities just no longer operate under. There’s a long list of companies that have merged and changed and if they haven’t merged or changed or left town, in many cases they’re not owned locally anymore.
On the financial implications of the Milton Rhodes Center for the Performing Arts:
I think this building was a really smart move towards the beginning of thinking about creation of place as opposed to just institutions. The Milton Rhodes Center and what it represents was not fully realized. Yes, we put a lot of money into this building and there was a lot of investment in that, but that money was in many cases stretch, one-time money. It didn’t take away from annual operating. The challenge we had when I got here was there was concern that we were operating it in a way that we were having to put a lot of contributing income [in] to break even. That’s no longer the case. We changed the operating model pretty significantly, and we’ve been working basically at a break even for the last year. What it doesn’t do yet is actually create a true cultural center [where] we have four or five groups here. We have performing arts center types of amenities in terms of having more than the Hanes Brands Theatre, but multiple theatres, flexible space, and then various other things that happen in and around this building all the time. That is really, I think, what the engine could be, and it’s also how we operate going forward in a sustainable manner.
On Arts Council funding cutbacks for large arts organizations and the path forward:
I think the model we talked about, was really created in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, around a series of larger traditional institutions. Those institutions were the bedrock at that particular time, and still are in many ways, the bedrock of what you see as a cultural community. The cutbacks have been of course difficult for them because a large portion of their reliance on operating support comes from these traditional models. But one of the things about this is [that] this is something that everyone to some degree has seen coming. Because it’s not just our challenges, but a lot of changes in terms of sponsorship, or the access question about bringing more to the community in nontraditional ways. There are three focus areas that we’ve talked about. One is sustainability, which we’ve talked about with traditional institutions. How do we sustain those? There are two others: education and access — how do we do more for more people? How do we get more people engaged? And other is, being a city that prides itself on being an artistic city, how do we look like that? One of the key ways of doing that is making sure that more people have access in ways that are not just a traditional dog and pony show, but a way that they really engage. We’ve had some great success with very small amounts of money, and taking it places and giving people opportunity that wouldn’t traditionally have had that opportunity. It’s really to say an infusion of $500 with a one-page, quick little application without a lot of bureaucracy can make really impressive things happen if they’re allowed to. And that’s one of the things that we sort of experiment with.