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Art center steps back, retools

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Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — On June 13, everyone at the Winston-Salem Dash baseball game was given a scorecard that challenged them to identify nine actors in the ballpark that evening whose descriptions were included in the scorecard.

The exercise was one of seven public-art projects the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art is sponsoring in 2009 to reengage the community while its facilities are closed for renovations and it rethinks its business strategy and retools its fundraising in the face of the economic recession and state budget crisis.

“We find ourselves in a downturn in the economy with ambitions to reestablish the kind of credible program that SECCA has been known for, and at the same time, we have some building renovations that are in the offing to enable the program,” says Mark Leach, executive director.

Founded in 1956 as the Winston-Salem Gallery of Fine Arts, the center in November 2007 became an affiliate of the North Carolina Museum of Art, an agency of the state Department of Cultural Resources.

The center operates with an annual budget of $1.2 million and is funded by the state, the James G. Hanes Foundation and the Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County.

The center, which consists of a 1920s-style home, along with several additions and a 300-seat theater, has been closed since January for renovations and is scheduled to reopen in January 2010.

Renovations initially were to have cost $1.8 million and included replacement of the roof, air-conditioning and mechanical systems, including a boiler.

But the renovations have been on hold while state lawmakers wrestle with the state budget in the face of the state’s budget crisis, says Leach, who joined the center in January 2008 after working for 17 years at the Mint Museums in Charlotte, most recently as founding director of the Museum of Craft + Design.

“It’s uncertain when the renovation will resume and at what scale,” Leach says.

The budget crisis also has taken its toll on the center.

Salaries have been cut half a percentage point for its 12 employees, each of whom also will be required to take a 10-hour furlough over the course of a year that began June 1.

And the state has reduced its portion of the center’s annual operating budget by 15 percent.

Leach says it is not clear what, if any, impact the budget crisis will have on the center’s budget for renovations.

The center also has dismantled its shop so it can change the focus of its mission and the merchandise it sells and “align it more closely with the mission of the center,” Leach says.

The center in June also launched a process to develop a new strategic plan that should be completed by the end of 2009.

 And it is working to rebuild and expand its fundraising efforts.

That includes building its membership program and connections with corporate supporters and foundations.

“We are constantly evaluating our programs for fit between corporations and foundations,” Leach says.

The center also has tried to be more realistic about what it can accomplish in the economic downturn, although it continues to develop programs for the future.

“While we have dreams of really high-impact, high-profile exhibitions and also education programs which deliver high value because they are curriculum-based and improve classroom instruction, we have had to take a step back and be a little less ambitious because resources aren’t as great as we had hoped,” Leach says.

The center, for example, is working to build an interdisciplinary arts curriculum and relationships with the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools and with private schools that eventually could serve as a model for the state public schools.

Whatever steps it takes as part of its strategic planning process, Leach says, the center will be “presenting contemporary art of the highest quality and producing commensurate education programs that impact the widest audience possible and improve the quality of content in the curriculum in private and public schools.”

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