'Over the Edge...' for Local Arts
By Brad McEwen
While it might seem somewhat cliché, imagine the Vatican without the Sistine Chapel, or the Louvre without the Mona Lisa or New York City without the Met or the Museum of Modern Art, or the Guggenheim.
Think about Atlanta without the masterfully wrought statues in Centennial Park, or about Albany Georgia without the Museum of Art.
Kind of glum to think about if you ask me.
Now tell me, would you climb over the edge of one of Albany’s tallest buildings to help ensure there’s another symphony performance at our beautiful downtown auditorium, or to make sure the annual Dougherty County School System student art show once again graces the downtown Carnegie Library?
It might sound crazy for me to even ask that question, but that’s exactly what many of our arts and culture loving community members will be doing May 2, as part of “Over the Edge for the Albany Area Arts Council” fundraising event which will see participants rappel down the side of the Flats at 249.
And I for one thing it’s a pretty cool, and I believe necessary, idea, as community-based arts and cultural programming has been important part of my life.
While I certainly don’t have the acting chops of a certain other Brad who recently took home an Oscar, without experiencing a summer acting class back in middle school at what was then Albany Little Theater, I’m not sure I’d be where I am today—confident enough to share my creativity with the world or to stand in front of a group of my colleagues and deliver a presentation about things like checking account churn or effective coaching techniques.
Even though the overwhelming majority of the artistic talent within the McEwen camp resides squarely with my beautiful wife and my oldest son Bear (both of whom possess a natural gift for conceptualizing and drawing the images that float through their heads), I can honestly say that the one time (literally) something I painted in school art class at Oriole Beach Elementary made it into a local elementary school art exhibit, it was one of the highlights of my formative years, and it helped me grow to the point where I can now gamely and bravely share my Beyond the Bank creations today without fear of ridicule.
But while one of those life-affirming events happened way over in Gulf Breeze, Florida and the other went down right here in Albany, they share one important thing. They were made possible by the generosity of local residents who understood the inherent value of having an arts scene in their communities and weren’t afraid to go over the edge to make that happen for the betterment of all.
I firmly believe, and there are countless studies to back this up, that arts and cultural programming are powerful tools in the development of future talent (be it artistic or otherwise) and in creating a dynamic and diverse community.
I challenge anyone to find folks involved in economic development anywhere in this country who will tell them a thriving arts and culture scene doesn’t have any impact on company’s decision to locate in a new community.
And were I to call my friend Rashelle Beasley at the Albany Convention and Visitors Bureau (or any of her many colleagues managing tourism for communities of all sizes from coast to coast), there is absolutely no doubt they would all inform me that things like museums, art galleries, symphony performances and local theaters are critical draws for any community looking to bolster its economy with outside dollars.
There’s really just no arguing that arts and cultural programming play important roles in the health and stability of cities and towns across Georgia and beyond.
Albany, Georgia included.
Unfortunately, despite data that supports the importance of a thriving arts scene, funding to support the arts as been under increased pressure in recent years, meaning those life-changing experiences like I had are at risk of disappearing. And our community has not been immune.
According to Nicole Williams, executive director of the Albany Area Arts Council, which serves as a conduit (and at its inception as a funding source) between the community and its member organizations—which include the Albany Civil Rights Institute, Albany Museum of Art, the Albany Symphony Orchestra, the Georgia Artists Guild of Albany, The Albany Chorale, Theatre Albany, Thronateeska Heritage Center, Albany State University and the Dougherty County School System—as federal and state dollars historically allocated to support artistic and cultural programming have all but dried up in recent years, it has made it increasingly difficult for the Arts Council and its member organizations to generate the funding needed to continue providing dynamic programming to our community. A fact that has driven the Arts Council Board to look for new ways to generate much-needed dollars.
“State and federal funding of the arts has, at best, been flat over time and this trend exists in the face of, and does not keep pace with, inflation and the explosion of arts agencies seeking funding,” Nicole explained to me recently. “In the latest update from Americans for the Arts, local government funding has increased somewhat over the past half-decade. And while the Arts Council is partially funded by the city of Albany, that contribution has not increased over time.
“Still, we consider ourselves very fortunate to receive the funding that we do. I am only pointing out that the reality of government funding in an economically impoverished region is that there is limited growth in the tax base, which results in no surplus of income to allocate increases in funding.”
Further exacerbating the problem, Nicole said, is that while the Arts Council does have support from the city, it’s been private donations that have long been the most crucial funding source for area arts programming, and those dollars are becoming scarcer.
“The additional reality is private sector dollars are also much harder to come by,” she said. “Really, with the number of non-profits seeking funding in Albany, the Arts Council has done very well to sustain itself over time.”
So, in much the same way it was the patronage of families like the Medicis—whose funding enabled masters like Michelangelo to create some of the world’s most powerful and inspirational works—helped draw Western society out of the Dark Ages into the Renaissance, it’s been the patronage of area residents and businesses that have fueled our local arts programming and helped develop the deep bed of talent that resides not only in Albany but across Southwest Georgia. However there’s a risk that patronage won’t always be there in the future, if something isn’t done.
“We need to raise money on a relatively large scale that doesn’t necessarily cannibalize our existing revenue streams, and, in order to maintain good will, not cannibalize the revenue streams of our member organizations,” Nicole continued. “Which means the way to raise money is not to go ask the 200 people in this town that give money to the arts, for more money. You know what I mean? We’ve got to find a way to reach out to people who aren’t already supporting the arts.”
While she was just joking about there only being 200 people regularly donating to the arts in the community, the truth of the matter is, the relatively small population that has traditionally supported the arts is aging, and as Arts Council board member Bill Swan pointed out, there has heretofore not been a rush of younger patrons to emerge to fill the void.
“The Albany area, and in most small and medium sized cities, are losing population, or their population is greying,” Bill said. “So, the 200 people who give, they are grey heads and they are dying out and younger people aren’t stepping up as much.”
Additionally, Bill also touched on the importance of having artistic and cultural programming in the community as being necessary to the future success of the community as a whole, and by extension to the sustained success of the entities that provide the programming.
“Anything you read about the top places to live or retire, they always lead off with something like “plenty of park space, plenty of amenities, and cultural things—symphonies and those kinds of things,” Bill said matter-of-factly. “And unfortunately, those are the kinds of things that are the first to get cut. You’ve got to have that or you’re sort of Nowhere, USA.
“So, the thing for us is raising money for the arts. The Chorale struggles, the Symphony struggles some, they all struggle to a certain extent, and if we can get them firmly situated with a yearly income producer, you’ve got that draw and it’s sustainable.”
So to meet that challenge, the organization has conceived the upcoming and highly unique “Over the Edge for the Albany Area Arts Council” fundraiser May 2 that will feature multiple area residents rappelling down the side of the Flats at 249 at the corner of Pine Avenue and Jackson Street, across from the Arts Council’s Carnegie Library home.
While at first blush the idea of having a fundraiser where people raise money for the privilege of descending a multi-story building on a rope might seem a little whacky, it just might be the thing that could draw new patrons to support the local arts.
Basically, the way it works is, anyone who wants to rappel would be responsible for raising $1,000 for the Arts Council. Those individuals are given resources, including their own fundraising page, to help them raise money, hopefully from a broader geographic area and from a non-traditional donor pool.
“It seemed like something that was so different and so interesting that perhaps we could get people involved and supportive and wanting to do it, just because they wanted to do the thing,” Nicole said. “And because a person that rappels, or signs up to participate, has their own online fundraising platform, then ideally they can fundraise not just from their friends and family here, but from their friends and family across the country or out of the country. So hopefully we’re finding a way to pull money into the community that doesn’t have to come out of it. That’s the goal.
“And we thought it would target a younger demographic that not just us, but everyone, is having trouble reaching in terms of fundraising. Now if you run a little league team you can get money from the younger generation. But not so much for a museum.”
“We thought something like this might grab their attention,” added Bill. “We talked about a golf tournament, Well, there are plenty of those. We talked about a run; there are plenty of those. This looked like something new and different.”
New and different it is.
“Over the Edge for the Albany Area Arts Council” is possible thanks to an organization called Over the Edge that helps nonprofits organize rappelling fundraisers by handling all the technical aspects and working out liability issues with the organizations and the municipalities where the rappelling events are held.
And because so much effort goes into setting up an Over the Edge event, once an organization contracts with them, and Over the Edge handles all the logistical aspects, the company won’t host another similar event for a different organization in that same municipality, which was an aspect that really appealed to the Arts Council board.
“What I’d love to see us do over time is build real partners and people who see how this is a great way to fund something that’s worthwhile, but doesn’t necessarily tax our community to do.”
Additionally, event will help the Arts Council get back to a place where it can continue to provide the programming it does today (youth art shows, emerging artist events, and juried art shows at the Carnegie to name a few), while also providing more support, for not only its member organizations, but other groups in the community who are trying to promote arts and culture.
“I would really love for us to create a way that annually we could raise enough money that we can actually reinstitute a true granting program,” said Nicole. “Obviously, that would be skewed toward our member organizations, there would be a point system or something like that, but I’d like to see us be able to grant money for arts or cultural events to school groups, or churches, or any group that wants to increase the arts culture in Albany that we think is worthwhile.”
“And we need to educate about what we do, like the 8 or 9 showings we have here every year,” Bill continued. “Not a lot of people know anything about that. I mean we’ve tried and tried. But something with a cache to it will help.”
Most importantly, however, whether the Arts Council can reach beyond its original mission or not, something like this gaining traction will surely go a long way toward preserving the arts and cultural programming already having an important impact on the community.
And, quite frankly, without attracting a new generation of patrons, those opportunities will only continue to wither away.
“At the end of the day, I like the things that we do,” Nicole said. “I don’t want to cut any programs. But unless we grow exponentially—we’re a one-person show with a volunteer board that works very hard—there’s only a certain amount of programs or things we can do. But what we can do is write checks. So if as a group we can find enough money where we can fund projects, then that’s a much more sustainable scheme for the governance of the arts council.
“Our member groups are doing incredible programming, so we don’t need any more programming. We just need a way to support what’s already happening and keep it going.”
And of course, as a side benefit to having the event at the Flats, “Over the Edge for the Albany Area Arts Council” is also another event that will hopefully draw more people to downtown Albany, where many of the member organizations are located.
“We’re going to make an event out of it,” Nicole said. “We’ll have folks rappelling throughout the day, because only a couple of folks can go at once due to the size of the building and what goes into doing it safely, and there will be things going on outside as well. We’ll have live music, probably on the front porch of the Flats since it’s covered, and then we’ll have vendors and activities going on outside on Jackson Street and at the Carnegie.”
There will also be a public school art show on display and other fun stuff planned that day as well.
“It really has the potential of being something really cool and different,” Bill said. “I’ll be there. I’m going to rappel too. It should be fun.”
Well Bill, you won’t be alone, as this intrepid writer has decided to go over the edge for a good cause too.
Even though I haven’t rappelled down anything since one summer at Camp Grandview in Alabama, I’m going to do what I can to make sure my children, and my children’s children, have a chance to find their creative voice and discover the confidence to share it through local arts programming.
And I firmly believe for our community, or any community for that matter, arts and cultural programming are just as important to our future success as quality infrastructure and public safety.
Folks like to say life is about the journey and not the destination. I concur, but I’ll also add that were it not for the arts, it would be a pretty boring journey.
To learn more about how you can support “Over the Edge for the Albany Area Arts Council,” or to learn more about the incredible arts and cultural programming the Arts Council provides and supports, visit the organization’s Facebook page or go to www.albanyartscouncil.org.
Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - firstname.lastname@example.org - @BradGMcEwen