3 up and coming arts nonprofits that deserve your support

Being an arts nonprofit in Ann Arbor is harder than you might think. While the town is frequently noted for being "arty," there's still an uncommonly high number of arts organizations struggling to compete for a limited amount of donor dollars. According to the nonprofit Americans For the Arts' Arts Index in 2010 Washtenaw County sported a whopping 26.68 arts nonprofits per 100,000 residents. That's far higher than other culturally attuned Michigan counties like Wayne, Kent and Kalamazoo, and it's neck and neck with Grand Traverse County. 

Ann Arbor Arts Center curator of public programs Omari Rush says that can present challenges for a new nonprofit in "a field that has those long-time, well-established organizations seeing lots of donors supporting them." 

A quick survey of the better-known local arts venues reveals that legacy organizations dominate. The Ann Arbor Arts Center recently celebrated its 106th year. UMS is on its 136th season, The Ann Arbor Symphony has been around for 85 years, and The Ark hit 50 this year. The Ann Arbor Film Festival is 52, and even the community-based Ann Arbor Civic Theatre is a venerable 86. Among the signature arts nonprofits, The Purple Rose Theatre is the youngster in the group, celebrating its 24th season.

On the other hand, it's hard to find more than a hand-full of local arts organizations that have made it past the five year mark. The Dancing Dog Gallery closed up shop last month, and upstarts like New Theater Project have moved on. Plucky Penny Seats Theatre Company, the Three Corpse Circus Film Festival and Ypsilanti's Dreamland Theater seem to be on stable footing, though none yet has paid staff. That's a big predictor of success for organizations like these, the ability to compensate staff as professionals in their field.

"It just gets to be hard because the donor base ends up being, for a startup organization, pretty limited and narrow, so you're already at a disadvantage there," Rush explains.

So, how does the Ann Arbor area evolve its arts and culture scene to accommodate the next generation of creators and audiences? How does it seed the ground with new ideas and new talent? Although the local game may be slanted against fledgling organizations, that doesn't stop many from dreaming big. Concentrate took a look at three promising up-and-comers who may have a shot at longevity... and could use some support to get there.

FLY Children's Art Center: The new school of art
Linette Lao has been a board member at FLY Children's Art Center for nearly three years, but before that she remembers being impressed with the center's work when she was taking her own daughter there for classes. Lao recalls her then five-year-old daughter creating "really elaborate paper tacos" for an art project that "wasn't about making fake food, but it turned into making fake food for her." 

"In school, you might get an idea to do something like that but if it's not the same idea that the teacher had in mind it gets shut down," Lao says.

That's one of the basic problems that inspired former Willow Run School District teacher Ruth Marks to found FLY in 2009. FLY's art programs, offered for free in schools and for varying fees in the center's downtown Ypsilanti "Creativity Lab," emphasize a spirit of creativity unhindered by grades, lesson plans or budgetary restrictions. The center served 800-900 kids last year, and is aiming to increase that by 30 to 40 percent this year. Lao says FLY's mission has only become more important since the organization's inception.

"Everything that Ruth was seeing over six years ago is twice as intense," she says. "There's shorter periods for art, less funding and every art teacher seeing so many more kids in a day."

How to help: FLY welcomes donations through its website. If you're looking to get involved in a more hands-on way, the center is constantly seeking volunteer teachers and it will host its second annual sausage-eating fundraiser at Wurst Bar on March 29.

Kickshaw Theatre: Curiosity over comfort
Making theater in the Ann Arbor area can be difficult, especially for companies trying to stage more unconventional works. But Ann Arborite Julia Glander, executive director of the recently founded nonprofit Kickshaw Theatre, is out to change that. Glander says she and Kickshaw artistic director Lynn Lammers started hatching an idea for a new kind of theater company about two years ago, based on the idea of asking audiences to "bring curiosity instead of feeling comfortable."

"There's tons of opportunities to see the plays that we love," Glander says. "Believe me, I go and see pretty much all of them. But this is just a different take. We're trying to find some of those artists who maybe are marginalized."

Glander and Lammers named their company, which will mount its first production this fall, after an archaic synonym for "curiosity." They plan to include a broad variety of works under the company's umbrella, spotlighting unusual narrative structures, little-known playwrights and unconventional subject matter. 

The company will skirt one of the biggest challenges facing local theater companies–securing and maintaining a performance space –by not having one. Although Glander says the company is open to settling in a permanent space if it can find one flexible enough, Kickshaw's variety of shows will call for a variety of venues, and the company will take that show by show.

"We think it's a great time to be starting yet another theater company, believe it or not," Glander says. "I think we need to create Ann Arbor as a little hub of the arts. Yes, we have the university, but there's possibilities for more venues and things for people to see and do in our very busy lives."

How to help: Visit Kickshaw's Facebook to donate or to track details on a May 18 kickoff fundraiser event, which will feature excerpts from several plays the company is considering producing. 

The Yellow Barn: A fresh coat of paint
Although the underground music venue known as the Yellow Barn has been around over a decade, it struggled after former resident and event organizer Bill Gross departed in 2013. But a brand-new organizing team is stepping in with an ambitious–and thusfar successful–plan to boost the barn's profile. The barn's events manager, Karl Diez, says a lean new organizing team formed last year after the previous organizers departed in September. Through a public meeting about the barn's future, Diez and the new barn board formed a partnership with the new theater company Theatre Nova.

"Basically, they can put shows in when we're not profitable," Diez says. "And when they're not profitable, or in between their shows, that's when I can come in to do other shows. Between the two of us, it will make it a much more profitable venue, or at least we can both pay the rent."

The barn has also benefited from an anonymous donor who offered to assist the barn in covering expenses for one year. But given the limited duration of the backer's contribution, Diez and his fellow organizers are working hard to make sure they can continue operating after that support runs out. Diez, who ran sound for shows at the barn last year, is booking a much fuller schedule of shows these days and publicizing them more heavily through Facebook and local media. In just two months since the barn's reopening, the new approach seems to be paying off.

"We're not losing money on the shows anymore, and that's the big thing," Diez says.

The barn has incorporated as an L3C, or low-profit limited liability corporation, and will apply for nonprofit status before the end of the year. Rather than creating another venue just for profit's sake, Diez says he's interested primarily in resurrecting the robust local music scene he recalls from his own youth in the ‘70s. He says he's aiming to boost genres that are underrepresented in town, like jazz, and hoping to bring in a national act or two starting this fall. 

"It's more just to give Ann Arbor a music scene that's inspirational, to give local bands a chance to play and to give national bands a chance to play," he says.

How to help: Donate through the barn's website or join the YellowCard membership program

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and a senior writer at Concentrate and Metromode.

All photos by Doug Coombe .

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