The Business of Running the Arts

Impacting the community through service

The Columbia Museum of Art has a tireless staff working under the direction of Karen Brosius (right) to give back to the community in a cost-effective manner.

Photography by Robert Clark

Arts organizations are pervasive in neighborhoods, beautifying and brightening public spaces and heightening the cultural appeal of the area, creating attractive places for new residents to put their talents to work. According to Norree Boyd-Wicks, executive director of the Cultural Council of Richland and Lexington Counties, there are 135 nonprofit arts organizations in the greater Columbia area with varying degrees of activity. These organizations include theaters, museums, dance companies, musical groups, and awareness and education groups, among others. They share a common goal of making the public aware that art is important to the identity of a city.

But behind the creativity that the public sees from plush theater seats or while browsing an art exhibit are real businesses with employees, building concerns, marketing challenges, daily financials, and a forward-marching vision that staff and volunteers bond over.

A nonprofit organization is run similarly to a for-profit business with one major difference: its goal is to end the fiscal year with a balanced budget rather than bringing in a profit. Nonprofits generally have a small staff of people who each wear multiple hats to efficiently make use of the funding available.

“The biggest thing is that in a nonprofit there is not generally a pipeline of people to promote,” says Karen Brosius, executive director of the Columbia Museum of Art. “It’s like you’re skating on thin ice all of the time since you might have a department of one or one and a half. You’re not in the business to make money, so you do things that are cost effective to give as much back to the community, and most of it is for free. Your bottom line isn’t about making money –– it’s about impact and service to the community.”

Nonprofits also include volunteers in their staffing structure. “Volunteers make the world of difference in terms of expanding our reach into the community,” Karen says.

Included in the ranks of volunteers are the boards of directors, groups of passionate people who give their time and expertise to oversee parts of a nonprofit organization. “When I was asked to sit on Workshop Theatre’s board of directors, I knew I could combine my love of the arts with my passion for public relations and to help it reach diverse audiences within the region,” says Jennifer Dowden.

Troy Fite, board president of the Lexington County Arts Association, fell into volunteering quite unexpectedly. “My children attend events at LCAA, and they found out that I am handy and can fix pretty much anything. After helping with several productions, they suggested that I consider taking a position on the board. I figured that if I was going to be there I might as well have some authority,” he says with a laugh.

Board members have varying degrees of control over given aspects of their organizations. At the Village Square Theatre, the LCAA board is tasked with choosing what shows will be performed that season, whereas at Trustus Theater, creative control falls to the staff. The board’s function at each theater is primarily to maintain financial stability. Workshop Theatre, on the other hand, has a working board, which means members assist with show productions through a variety of ways including producing, house managing and overseeing concessions.

One of the biggest challenges of operating a nonprofit is funding. Rhonda Hunsinger, executive director of the South Carolina Philharmonic, says, “Our biggest funding challenge is that we’ve already committed expenses to our upcoming season, but we don’t find out our private and government grants until the season is launched. We have to make a lot of budgetary assumptions when planning our season.”

Larry Hembree, managing director for Trustus, has found ways to handle funding throughout his years of working in the arts. “You raise funds by finding what you have to offer that turns the potential donor on. It’s always about finding the point of intersection with them. And our staff is always out in the community talking us up because if they aren’t helping raise money, they won’t have jobs,” he says. “The best business plan gets the most money. Donors want to know you can manage money and spend it in the right way.”

While funding is also a challenge for the Columbia Museum of Art, Karen says, “The number one challenge is engagement itself and having people come to the museum for an enlightening, fun, inspiring, provocative experience that is something that they will remember.”

Both paid staff and volunteers commit to an organization because of the highlights that they experience on a continual basis. Troy recalls a special moment when the reason that he puts his time into the Village Square Theatre hit home. “The mother of a young man came to us and said that her son never felt included, but that this theater has given him new life,” he says. “The whole idea of inclusion doesn’t just focus on kids; it’s for adults too.”

Larry has a similar heartwarming sentiment towards theater, and it keeps him excited about coming to work.  “As a director I can see how acting changes lives; you know, those moments where a child realizes he can excel in the arts and finds himself.”

Larry, Karen and Rhonda all say they have one thread in common: they worked their way to lead their groups by experiencing a variety of jobs over their careers and piecing the skills together to form the foundation for their current positions. Looking back over her career, Rhonda says, “It was love of the arts that led me to the Philharmonic. My first professional position was at a nonprofit, and by working in association work through the years I developed skills in fundraising and membership, and I realized that I was acquiring the right skills. This was meant to be.”

Karen has a background in museums with time spent on both the administrative and philanthropic sides, as well as for a Fortune 10 company. “This is my first time being involved in the nonprofit sector as a director making decisions that are going to affect how resources are being expended, how staff is allocating their time, to thinking about who is out there and having them enjoy the offerings that we have,” she says.

Known around town as the man of the arts, Larry’s reputation and deep knowledge stems from his life-long career advocating for the arts. Fresh out of the University of Georgia’s Master of Fine Arts program with a focus in theater directing, his first stop was the Camden Community Theater, then a position at the SC Arts Commission. Eventually he asked himself, “Why didn’t I just run an organization if I was doing it for all of these other people?” That led him to his first executive director position at the Nickelodeon Theatre.

Young people looking to make the greater Columbia area their homes are looking for a thriving arts community. “The museum plays a really important role in attracting the kind of people who want to live in a healthy, vibrant, smart community. If the museum weren’t here, it would be missed. Museums are places of ideas and creativity,” says Karen.

Larry says, “I think what’s happening in Columbia is a redefinition of what culture is, with Conundrum Music Hall and First Thursdays on Main. You’re starting to see what you’d consider ‘normal people’ liking the arts and you have to define who art appeals to. I think Columbia gets it now – people are more willing to explore what might have been uncomfortable at one time.”

Echoing this sentiment, Rhonda says, “In the past four or five years, there’s been a Renaissance of people loving the arts and thinking it’s the cool thing to do.”