Arts group gets serious: Harrison Center mounts its first-ever capital campaign

Perhaps you’d find a live “elf” directing visitors from inside an inflatable lawn Christmas decoration.

Maybe young women dressed in wedding gowns would be playing basketball in the gym. Or possibly, one of the featured works of art would be a 3-foot-tall crocheted cigar in a display case, made with yarn, wood, screws and “six cans of cheap beer,” according to its creator, Paul Baumgarten.

But behind the scenes of controlled mayhem, Harrison Center Executive Director Joanna Taft and the center’s board of directors have been planning how to become a serious not-for-profit with a major role in the city’s burgeoning arts community.

Founded in 2000 as a for-profit center, Harrison Center in 2003 converted to not-forprofit status. Late last year, the organization launched its first-ever fund-raising efforts, simultaneously mounting an annual campaign to fund operations and a capital campaign to raise money for new artist studios.

The arts center, which includes two galleries, 15 artist studios, a gymnasium and performance space in 65,000 square feet adjacent to Redeemer Presbyterian Church at 16th and Delaware, illustrates how tricky it can be for not-for-profits to “grow up,” as Taft puts it. Before this year, Harrison Center relied on grants, rental and program fees for its income. But faced with the loss of a major tenant in 2005, the center concluded its best bet for long-term survival was to seek funds from more sources, including individual donors.

For any volunteer-driven organization, making the transition from grass-roots to donor-assisted can be challenging. But for a not-for-profit like Harrison Center, which estimates 70 percent of its artists and patrons fall in the “low-to-moderate” income category, the prospect of raising seemingly modest amounts-$10,000 for the annual campaign and $260,000 for the capital project-was daunting.

“We had never asked anybody for money,” Taft said of the center’s patrons. “We never sold tickets. Our events are always free. … It took us up to two years to realize there are people who want to give but don’t know how.”

Both campaigns, to the delighted surprise of Taft and the center’s board, have been more successful than anticipated. The annual campaign has nearly reached its goal, and the effort to raise funds for construction has drawn major in-kind donations from Rolls-Royce plc, Home Depot and Porter Paints. With the initial $150,000 phase of construction due to start next month, the center has raised $115,000 toward its goal, Taft said.

More studio space

Although running initial annual and capital campaigns simultaneously is unusual, Taft conceded, the capital campaign was necessary for the center to make up for $50,000 lost when a tenant moved out.

Until mid-2005, Herron School of Art and Design was spending that much to rent 5,000 square feet in the sprawling Harrison Center. When the school moved to its new home on the IUPUI campus, the art center had to decide how to replace a significant chunk of its $354,000 operating budget. After a search for a new tenant met with little success, the center decided to turn the space into seven new artist studios.

Harrison Center’s 15 existing artist studios, scattered throughout the labyrinthine 65,000-square-foot facility, aren’t moneymakers. Harrison Center leases its building from Redeemer Presbyterian Church next door, then rents the studios at a loss to artists for $150 to $300 a month. Much of the shortfall is made up by VSA of Indiana and the Nature Conservancy, two not-for-profits that lease office space in the building.

But the artist studios are enormously popular-a vacancy never lasts long-and fit the center’s mission of catering to emerging artists and the community. So Harrison Center applied for and received $9,000 from the Allen Whitehall Clowes Foundation to hire an architect, and in 2005 began planning a construction project to convert the old Herron space to studios.

That’s when some of the city’s larger employers began to take notice. One Harrison Center patron heard about the impending construction project last fall and took it to a young professionals group at her employer, the local operation of Rolls-Royce plc.

The group and its counterparts at Rolls-Royce outposts throughout the world have a competition of sorts each year for the best community service projects, said Matthew S. Schaar, a Rolls-Royce engineer and a member of the group. The goal is to encourage the London-based company’s employees to become involved in their communities while developing themselves personally and professionally, Schaar said.

Making Harrison Center’s project the group’s 2006 effort wasn’t an entirely easy sell among the 100 or so members, he said.

“Some people were intrigued that we wanted to contribute to Harrison Center,” he said. “It’s not like it’s [the Indianapolis Museum of Art], which everyone’s heard of. It presented some challenges in regard to getting support for some people.”

Doubters were won over, however, and Rolls Royce now is coordinating efforts for construction-much of which will be done by employees of the company-as well as soliciting support and in-kind donations from other companies.

So far, the engine maker has enlisted four local Home Depot stores to provide construction materials, Porter Paints to donate paint, and locally based ACS Signs to allow the group to store its materials.

Emerging donors

For the center’s staff, volunteers and board members, the success of the annual campaign has been as gratifying as the capital campaign, although the money is much less, Taft said. Early in the process of raising money, organizers looked over their 3,000-person mailing list and found few names of people with a reputation for donating to arts organizations. Undeterred, they began inviting those few to small gatherings in the center’s galleries. Late last year, they sent solicitation letters to the rest.

The result was a few big checks and a lot of little ones-as small as $5, Taft said. Regardless of the amount, however, the checks contributed to the $10,000 goal and boosted morale at the center.

“There was a mind-set shift that had to happen,” she said. “For a long time, we felt we were really serving a community and not asking for money. It was a shift for us to understand how much people appreciated us and want to see us continue and want to be a part of it.”

Taft gives credit for the success of Harrison Center’s fund raising to the center’s patrons, staff and board of directors. For not-for-profits, moving beyond grass roots takes effective planning, committed board members and talented leadership, said Harry McFarland, vice president of the Indianapolis Foundation.

The foundation, a fund of the Central Indiana Community Foundation, last fall gave three grants of up to $50,000 over three years to young organizations in a position similar to the Harrison Center’s. In addition to operating funds, the grants also provide money to organizations for “capacity-building”-acquiring the staff and know-how to plan for growth and sustainability.

“A lot of times, you’ll hear groups say, ‘If we just had the money,'” McFarland said. “Really, a lot of times it’s, ‘If you had better planning.'”

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