‘A Sound Future’: An open letter from the Center for the Arts’ board

COLUMBIA Art Gallery draws a crowd at the July opening of the “Best of the Gorge” show. On now: “Wear It Well,” with the next poTENtial program on Aug. 13, on comics and graphic novels, in the theater.

Photo by Kirby Neumann-Rea
COLUMBIA Art Gallery draws a crowd at the July opening of the “Best of the Gorge” show. On now: “Wear It Well,” with the next poTENtial program on Aug. 13, on comics and graphic novels, in the theater.

The Columbia Center for the Arts (CCA) is a well-loved, cultural icon in the Gorge community. Last year as we approached our 2016 10th anniversary, CCA was looking not only at ending its fiscal year with a deficit, but there were other signs as well that we needed to effectively evolve our business model in order to ensure the CCA’s long-term viability. The Board of Directors and administrative staff had to think long and hard about what this all meant for the future of our community’s great art venue. Would we be here to celebrate our 25th anniversary? Our 50th? So we made some hard decisions with one goal in mind: presenting excellence in innovative, far-reaching, inclusive art programming that speaks to all the segments of our community from a sustainable financial foundation.

By the start of 2016, we balanced the budget, eliminated the deficit, opened up CCA to more artists and community members, and revamped our programming. We knew we were on the right track when Columbia Arts was recognized by the Kennedy Center’s Devos Institute of Arts Management in Washington, D.C., for excellence and innovation in programming over the past year — with special notice for our poTENtial program series and themed visual arts exhibitions in the gallery.

Some of the changes are visible. We hired a new executive director in February 2015, Kerry Cobb, who has strong marketing and administrative skills and is well acquainted with our community through her previous work as executive director of the Hood River County Chamber of Commerce. We made other staffing decisions that consolidated some positions, resulting in substantially reduced administrative costs, leaving more money for program needs. We also obtained grants in order to refurbish the physical space, which included painting the building, updating the studio, investing in AV equipment for the theater, making gallery improvements, and installing new carpet and painting the lobby.

Next we stepped into information-gathering by reaching out to our community. We conducted focus groups, met with and polled different age groups, civic groups, artists, and fraternal organizations to find out what community members liked and didn’t like about CCA, and what types of art experiences would move them to engage with us.

This outreach was immensely helpful in informing changes in both the programming and the way CCA is run. These groups consistently mentioned that we needed to be more inclusive and less redundant in our programming. For example, in the gallery we were encouraged to shift further in the direction of welcoming artists of all types and ages, eliminating the exclusivity of membership, opening our monthly exhibitions to all artists, and refreshing the exhibitions to appeal to a wider audience. Keeping an eye on diversity and a broadening demographic was also encouraged, nurturing emerging artists and expanding our offerings to include more dance, music, films, and lectures, all to truly bring impactful art experiences to the communities of the Gorge.

The most difficult change came when we addressed our internal structure. In 2006, CCA was born when two long-standing (theatre and visual arts) groups each dropped their independent nonprofit status to form a single nonprofit art center. Yet it proved difficult for those two groups to merge their (previously autonomous) decision-making, and then further integrate those decisions into the staff and board’s overall planning and programming. The reality was that after 10 years, this model was no longer working, and it was clear we had to make changes so that CCA could evolve into a fully integrated arts center.

To facilitate this evolution, the board implemented a universally recognized nonprofit structure recommended by the National Council of Nonprofits that calls for all groups within the organization to be represented by board-appointed committees that report to the board of directors. This facilitates two-way communication between the groups and the board and staff, and keeps decision-making of all aspects within the authority of the board of directors and the administrative staff, the people ultimately responsible for the life and health of the organization. These changes made some people unhappy — it meant evolving beyond the comfort zone of many who wanted CCA’s operations to stay the same — but as stewards of CCA we knew the changes were critical for keeping the art center open.

This is an exciting time at CCA as we look to the next 10 years. Admittedly, change can be hard, but with patience and vision, things can change for the better, and that is what has happened at CCA. You’re invited to come see for yourself what we’re up to, give us your suggestions for programs, and be an active part of this community collaboration.

Here’s a sampling of our exciting programming lineup:

• The poTENtial program series has thrilled our audiences so much that the program is being offered again in 2017.

• Our new Partnership Program pulled in enough underwriting donations for 16 local nonprofits to hold free events for their organizations at the center.

• 2016 Gallery exhibitions have featured artists who have been with us a long time, and also opened up the venue for more than 60 new local artists.

• In 2017, three center-wide programs will focus on diversity: The Art and Culture of Japan (May), Latino Art and Culture (September), and Native American Art and Culture (November). These month-long programs will incorporate a wide range of arts, from performances by Milagro Theatre to a major visual arts exhibition from a Seattle museum, films to poetry, basket-weaving to tattoo artists, and national speakers to slam poetry.

We welcome your questions and input. Please contact Board President Ron Cohen, taxsri@aol.com, or Executive Director Kerry Cobb, director@columbiaarts.org We also invite everyone to take our online survey at columbiaarts.org.

Board of Directors, Columbia Center for the Arts: Ron Cohen (chair), Dillon Borton (vice chair), Mary Haskins (secretary), Judie Hanel (treasurer), Lesley Haskell, Deanna Joyer, Maureen Higgins, Angel Reyes, Richard Schmuck, and Bonnie Taylor.

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