Running an arts nonprofit during COVID-19 is not impossible. It just requires some creativity.The Nonprofit Journal Project

The Anton Art Center in downtown Mount Clemens, Michigan is a local arts and culture organization celebrating our 51st anniversary in 2020. The center was formed in 1969 by a group of local volunteers who saw a need for a community-based art center, both for art exhibits but also for art education opportunities for kids. In 1969, they were able to leverage the use of the Carnegie Library building in Mount Clemens, and it has been an art center since that time.

 

We've got one of the most professional gallery and exhibit spaces in Macomb County and a very robust educational program now with a variety of different classes, including a really strong ceramics program. In the last several years, we’ve started to do quite a bit of outreach and community and public art projects. We’re also working toward bringing an Art Space development to Mount Clemens as well.

 

We were very fortunate at the beginning of the pandemic that we didn't have to stop operating right away. We closed our facility and canceled all of our programming, but we were in a cash position that allowed us to continue paying staff and producing content, which really put us at an advantage in terms of shifting our service provision from an in-person model, where people would go to see an exhibit or take a class, to an entirely virtual model where we're mounting exhibits online and producing instructional videos so people can follow along at home.

 

That was definitely a big shift in our thinking, in terms of how to conceptualize and then bring to fruition virtual programming when what we've done for so long is rely on that in-person experience. I think we've done a really good job with that, though it hasn't been without its trial and error.

 

We've learned a lot about a lot of things over the last few months. Technology is often not going to work the way that you want it to. We've had to adjust course on a few different projects when something that we expected would work a particular way actually won't, and we've had to adjust to find different ways to accomplish things.

 

An example of that is with our SUPER SatARTDay program, which we launched for the very first time last year. It was a program that was meant to replace an art fair that we used to have in downtown Mount Clemens where we offered free art activities. Rather than cancel it or postpone it, we mounted the entire thing online. The original plan was to stream this program to our website, our Facebook, and our YouTube channels, but it did not work the way we needed it to. For example, we learned you can't live stream to your YouTube account when you don't have a certain number of subscribers.

 

We ended up pre-recording a lot of the content and posting it at a particular time. It ended up being a bit of a production, but it went really smoothly, and we've gotten really good feedback on that program. We had demonstrations of resin pouring, had toilet paper roll crafts, weaving, and origami. A lot of this was a follow-along-at-home style. We lined up performances as well with a flamenco group who ended up pre-recording this really cool “Postcards of flamenco” and they were able to have all of the dancers displayed remotely during the day at the same time.

 

Right now, we have essentially no revenue. The major revenue for summer is our classes, and without being able to run any of our classes, that's a big hole in our cash flow. We were able to obtain a Paycheck Protection Loan as well as three separate emergency relief grants that have really helped to fill in gaps in our budget. So, yes, there has been a financial impact. Because we were fortunate to have enough of a cushion we didn't have to pause.

 

We've been able to cobble together enough support that I expect that we're going to end the year cash flow positive. Our budgets are way off from what we initially anticipated but we're still going to be able to pay all of our bills, and so I'm really thankful for that. We are looking at restarting some of our programs, and classes we expect to start in early summer with appropriate modifications, reduced class sizes, and personal protective equipment requiring people to wear face coverings throughout the building.


Hopefully, we'll be able to proceed with our fall programming too but it's hard to tell what will be achievable that far in the future. One of the big things that we're looking at for the rest of the year is our annual fundraiser, which is usually in September. We are making plans to move forward with a virtual version of that fundraiser. And then we have the holiday season. Usually, we open it up in mid-November with our Holiday Market, which is a huge sales opportunity for artists. Last year we sold $65,000 worth of inventory on consignment, and it was about $43,000 of those dollars paid out to the artists who made that work, and so we are trying to wrap our minds around how we might manage that particular program this year and what it might look like.

Phil Gilchrist is the Executive Director of the Anton Community Arts Center in Mount Clemens, Michigan. Stay tuned for his next entry in our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19 is impacting the nonprofit sector--and how they are innovating. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.ACT.
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