Arts groups get funding boost

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 14, 2011

By Emily Ford
SALISBURY — While the “big three” will have less money, a proposed reshuffling of the Rowan Arts Council would mean almost twice as much funding for smaller community arts groups.
Waterworks Visual Arts Center, Piedmont Players Theatre and Salisbury Symphony Orchestra will receive 10 percent less from the arts council this year, due to city and county budget cuts.
But if elected officials and others move ahead with a plan to eliminate the arts council’s executive director position and overhead expenses by merging with the county’s tourism agency, smaller groups such as Carolina Artists and Salisbury-Rowan Choral Society would see their checks nearly double.
“We are pleased as punch, because we deserve more,” said Eleanor Qadirah, president for the Rowan Blues and Jazz Society.
Qadirah said she would put the extra cash toward the society’s youth music program.
The Rowan County Concert Association would attract some bigger names in entertainment, President Floyd Walcher said.
The Concert Choir would buy new music and hire more musicians to accompany the 40-member volunteer choir, said Diane Cooker, past president.
“This is certainly very welcome news,” she said.
Up from $7,500 last year, the revamped arts council budget would give $15,750 to the “little seven” — five longtime affiliates and two new members, Center for Faith and the Arts and Looking Glass Artist Collective. Each group would receive $2,250, one thousand dollars more than last year.
The windfall comes from state funds awarded every year to the arts council. Previously, the council used half the state money to pay the executive director and overhead costs.
Now, local artists will receive all N.C. Arts Council Grassroots funding allocated to the arts council.
“Every penny,” said James Meacham, executive director of the Rowan County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Meacham’s group already has taken over some operations for the arts council.
The reorganization is based on a recommendation made in the city’s 2008 Cultural Action Plan, and Meacham said it makes sense.
“One of the biggest beneficiaries of this is the smaller arts groups,” he said.
For Sue McHugh, the change can’t come soon enough.
Meacham and city officials first suggested the reorganization in February, after the arts council lost its paid staff.
“We were in turmoil frankly, based on our executive director’s departure, and we embraced it,” said Sue McHugh, president of the arts council board of directors. “It’s gone more slowly than we had hoped, but I know about the slow wheels of government.”
The additional money will allow the arts council to reach out beyond Salisbury and truly be a county-wide agency in support of the arts, she said.
Operating without an executive director has hurt the arts council, McHugh said.
“A perception that the arts council was not being managed properly surfaced, but we had a board of directors and volunteers trying to keep it afloat,” she said. “We were still functioning, despite the challenges.”
City Council decided to withhold Salisbury’s $40,500 annual allocation until the arts council had a plan to reorganize. Based on the new proposal, elected officials recently agreed to release a quarterly payment of $10,125 for the arts council to the Rowan County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Even without an executive director, McHugh said the arts council successfully hosted Art on Easy Street and several Rhythm Nights poetry and music sessions, as well as raising $6,000 at Light Up the Night for the Arts, a holiday gala.
“We put all that money in local grants for arts and education,” she said. “Elected officials don’t know about all the programs the arts council did.”
Merging with the Rowan County Convention and Visitors Bureau will elevate the arts council’s profile and give access to more marketing tools, McHugh said. The council will continue to operate as an independent, autonomous agency.
The model calls for a 13-person board consisting of five appointees from the arts community and four each from the Salisbury and Rowan County tourism development authorities.
Free from operating and overhead concerns, the arts council will take a new direction and fulfill a longtime goal to boost arts education in the community, said McHugh, who has volunteered about 20 hours a week to keep the group running since February.
Meacham said moving administration of the arts council to the Rowan County Convention and Visitors Bureau has happened as quickly as possible, with time for all players to “process this and think it through.”
Restructuring the umbrella organization for arts and culture in the community is a big step, one that’s been well-received, Meacham said. The arts council’s good reputation is intact, he said.
“What happened in the interim, when there was no executive director, no one is worried about that,” he said. “We are focused on moving forward.”
After paying some remaining bills and rent, the arts council eventually will save $27,000 by eliminating salary and other expenses, Meacham said.
Cathy Matthews, president of Looking Glass Artist Collective, said she’s thrilled to become an arts council recipient just as payouts to smaller groups will jump by a thousand dollars.
“I am excited that we are going to have some help,” she said.
The money will help pay rent and general overhead on the collective’s gift shop and theater at 405 N. Lee St.
“We’ve been here over three years, and we are one of the most varied venues in the county,” Matthews said. “We are trying to get the word out and want to stay in business for a long time.”
Coming under the umbrella of the arts council and Rowan County Convention and Visitors Bureau will help market the collective, she said.
No one said they were worried about the arts council doing without an executive director.
The tourism agency plans to change a part-time position to full-time job to oversee the administration of the council.
Meacham has a good handle on what’s required to maintain state funding, said Qadirah, with the Rowan Blues and Jazz Society. Qadirah once had the “privilege or misfortune” of running the arts council as a volunteer years ago, during another term without an executive director.
“It’s definitely hard work,” she said. “The visitors center has qualified staff, and I’m confident they can do it.
“It’s the busy people who get the job done.”Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.