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Published in the Columbia Daily Tribune 12 November 2006

Strength in Unity

This past week, for family reasons, I resigned from the Board of Directors for Access Arts/School of Service.  This was a decision I very much regretted having to make, since Access Arts is going through a period of transition, and I wanted to be part of helping to see that Naoma Powell's legacy was preserved and projected well into the future.  It is a wonderful program and deserves no less.

However, with my resignation comes a certain freedom.  Now I can say some things in this column without others thinking that I have a conflict of interest or hidden agenda.

And the first thing I want to say may come as a bit of a surprise, may provoke some head-scratching and perhaps even a bit of outright hostility.  But I think that if those involved will set aside their preconceptions and think about it, they may well see that my idea has merit.

What idea?  This one:  the time has come for Access Arts to merge with the Columbia Art League.

OK, relax.  Take a deep breath.

There, better now?  I mean, really, you need to be more careful.  Think of your health.

With the recent departure of Jill Stedem from the Executive Director's post at the Art League, the League Board has been sorting through the issues that every not-for-profit arts organization constantly faces.  Budgetary pressures.  Mission.  Planning.

In recent years the CAL's classes have come under increasing pressure.  Their location has changed several times, and now they're looking at a big move in 2008 into the proposed Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts.  Participation in the community, and by the community, is good, but there are the inevitable stresses which confront every arts organization, including competition for funding, attracting members and volunteers, et cetera.

It should come as no surprise that Access Arts faces similar pressures.  I am not revealing any secrets when I say that competition for funding is always stiff, and sales from shows and special events aren't as good as they could be.  Class attendance is good, and the participation in the community, and by the community, is solid.

In many ways, the two organizations are complimentary to one another, almost two halves of a much greater whole.  Joining together could well be the best thing to happen to each of them.  Each organization could play to it's strength, without being at cross-purposes or competing for the same limited pool of funds.  It seems like a very natural fit to me, though of course would require both organizations to make some significant changes in order to pull it off.  Changes which wouldn't come easily to the mind of some.

With some trepidation, I contacted Karsten Ewald, interim Executive Director and President of the Board at the Art League, to sound him out on this.  And it turns out that not only was he receptive, that he had the same idea earlier, had already done some of the background research into the legal issues.  What he found was very encouraging:  that partnerships or mergers between not-for-profit organizations such as these are not only common but have a high degree of success.

But he had held off in approaching either his own Board or the Board at Access Arts for fear of offending people who were wedded to their own independent vision of what each organization was all about.  A lot of people have put years and years of hard work into creating and maintaining each of these organizations, and he didn't want anyone to think that all that effort would be lost in some new hybrid organization.

That's a risk.  Just proposing such an idea is, as Karsten said, "CRAZY!"  But it might also be the smartest thing which could happen to each organization.  Together, they would have resources neither organization would have alone, and draw on a combined pool of talent.  They would no longer be competing for the same grants.  They would not be asking the same people to make donations to two different programs.  Classes could be consolidated where there was redundancy, and expanded through the use of joint mailing and membership lists.  Volunteers could be coordinated.  They could be administered more efficiently, combining staff and office resources, avoiding duplication of effort.

This isn't a panacea - there would still be plenty of challenges for the new partnership.  The integration of the two different cultures would require time and a lot of hard work on the part of the two Boards, the administrators, even the members of each organization.  But I believe that people of good will could work through all of those issues.  Aspects of each organization would still be dominant in different contexts, and that would be appropriate.

A lot of people have worked damned hard for many years to establish these two organizations.  But each one has a constant struggle to survive.  United, I believe that they could thrive.  Most of all, the arts here would benefit, as would the people of Columbia.  And I can think of few better legacies for all that hard work.  I hope the people in each organization will give this suggestion serious consideration.

Feel free to come tell me what you think, and maybe to begin the dialogue, on the Trib Arts Forum.

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