Thursday, January 14, 2010

Bloomington loves the Waldron, but do we trust the BAAC?

By Kim Evans

The Herald-Times, Bloomington, IN

OK. The cat’s out of the bag. The Bloomington Area Arts Council has been operating on a deficit averaging $183,000 for the past six years.

It’s strange how this has been kept relatively quiet, until the latter part of 2009 at least, when the red flags began flying as the arts council suddenly announced a drastic increase to rental rates for performance spaces at the Waldron Arts Center.

And now we have the sudden announcement that $120,000 must be raised by March 1 or the Waldron’s doors will close.

One thing that can be surmised with certainty is the current BAAC is great at making big, jarring, sudden announcements with regards to finances. As a result, they have created a public relations nightmare.

The people of Bloomington may be hard-pressed to find anyone who is willing to step forward and help bail out an organization that has failed to maintain consistent leadership, adequately manage the Waldron or make efforts to forge good relations and transparency with the people and arts groups it serves.

The current BAAC board members insist they inherited the management troubles. In their recent seven-page press release, they reveal that they have been doing some homework and have mapped out a viable action plan. They are correct in their statement that “.it is therefore essential that opportunities to generate more income from building sources are leveraged at the same time the fundraising activities are pursued.” But do we trust this particular organization to follow through on this mission, while maintaining good will with the public? At this point I would say no, unless some serious bridge-building takes place. Fast.

Arts and business make strange bedfellows. It’s in our biology: Creativity and analytics reside in opposite sides of the brain. This separation is precisely what is being played out in this scenario. And the creative side — in our culture, anyway — is undervalued, which leads to a perceived imbalance of power.

Perhaps this imbalance is what led the BAAC to feel justified in laying the hammer down on the arts community, only offering an explanation in hindsight. And perhaps this imbalance is why the realities of the finances have been swept under the rug for so long (“it’s just for those crazy artists, anyway .”).

We are definitely in a new era of accountability.

It does makes sense that the rates for arts education and space rental at the Waldron need to be raised. It also makes sense that some serious fundraising efforts need to occur — pronto — so that patrons don’t have to completely foot the bill.

People do need to realize that the city subsidization of the building ended when they gifted it to the BAAC. The space needs to be self-sustaining. And it is not cheap to deliver arts education and services. I know this from my own experience in shared leadership of an emerging writing program in our community.

Whatever entity ends up managing the Waldron after March 1 needs to understand how crucial it is to develop and maintain solid relationships with the public. If this occurs, my sense is that while people may not be eating out of the palm of the organization’s hand, they will make an effort to understand and do their part in sustaining the gem we know as the Waldron.

And I won’t even enter into the debate about the necessity of the arts in society. They are necessary. Period.

Kim Evans is a Bloomington native and IU graduate who moved back to Bloomington in 2005 to open her graphic design studio, raise her family and circle back to her writing. She can be reached at .