Dear Arts Nonprofits: Please Kindly Check Your Egos at the Door

What's the most common problem facing nonprofits looking to build a community art center?

Money, of course.

But money, so we're told, won't solve every problem. In fact, this perception—the idea that "if we could only get the money, we'll be fine"—frequently obscures the thinking of many nonprofits and community leaders. Money, of course, is great, but it's one piece of a larger puzzle.

For further consideration, let's turn our attention to Virginia, where the Chesterfield Center for the Arts recently added new members to its board, and more importantly, received a major $150,000 challenge grant from the Richmond, Virginia-based Mary Morton Parsons Foundation, which will help built a 20,000-square foot arts center in the heart of town.

To help contextualize this grant, let's put ourselves in the shoes of the Mary Morton Parsons Foundation

If we're the foundation, one of our first questions is, "Can the county sustain an arts center?" (Or in business-speak, "Is there a market?") The answer is a resounding yes. Chesterfield County is home to some 316,236 residents as of the 2010 census, making it the third-largest county in Virginia. Furthermore, the county's median household income was $58,537, and the median family income was $65,058, according to that very same census. So far so good.

Second, is the proposal itself practical? The answer, again, is yes. The center will include a 350-seat performing arts theater, a multipurpose room that can accommodate about 75 people, a lobby/ art gallery, multiple classrooms, a catering kitchen and support areas. 

Third, what's the funding plan? According to planners, the center will cost approximately $8.5 million. The county is covering a significant portion of these costs — $6.9 million — with private donations accounting for the additional $2 million to cover the remaining construction costs and establish an operations fund. 

The Chesterfield Center for the Arts is in good shape. It's more than halfway towards its $2 million goal, having raised $1.3 million to date, and anticipates reaching the threshold within a year.

Lastly, who's going to run the place? This is not an insignificant question. Nonprofits, quite reasonably, would generally like to own their own arts center. In this instance, however, the center will be owned and maintained by Chesterfield County, and leased to the foundation.

A recurring pet peeve of ours is over-controlling, micromanaging foundations. We're specifically irked by foundations with an aversion to general operating support. These folks, while certainly well-intentioned, often attempt to exert influence by earmarking funds for specific initiatives, programs, or pet projects.

But this desire for total control works both ways. Sometimes we run across arts organizations which, quite understandably, want to keep a tight grip on the reigns themselves, often to the detriment of their long-term self-interest. It takes two to tango, in other words.

Fortunately, the Chesterfield Center for the Arts has no such hangups. Members wisely realized that the best way forward was to lean heavily on the county, which, as noted, is paying for most of the center. Furthermore, the foundation seems perfectly fine with renting the county-owned center rather than owning it outright.

In total, the Parson Foundation's grant signifies an elegant confluence of a private-public partnership buttressed by effective planning and arts-friendly demographics.