WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Four-and-a-half years ago, when Sharon Nelson joined Associated Artists of Winston-Salem as executive director after serving as corporate sales coordinator at Borders, walk-in traffic to the nonprofit’s new home at Fourth and Cherry streets downtown was rare.
But the arrival of new businesses in the surrounding downtown business district, as well as efforts by the group to improve its marketing and operating capacity, has resulted in a boom in business for the organization.
“Things have really picked up,” Nelson says.
In the five years Associated Artists has occupied space at 301 West Fourth St., for example, sales at its gift shop have grown just over 400 percent.
That is a far cry from Nelson’s first summer, when the organization’s annual budget totaled roughly one-fourth of the annual revenue she had generated at Borders.
“The first summer I was here, I was sitting here for entire days with no one coming in the door and the phone not ringing,” she says. “We needed something to get people in here.”
In addition to a boost from new restaurants located nearby, Associated Artists took a series of steps to strengthen its organization and build its presence.
The group had even more modest roots.
After holding their first show on a Sunday afternoon in October 1955 on the lawn of Central Library downtown, a small group of artists looking for mutual support and places to show their work formed Associated Artists in 1956.
Operating with an annual budget of $172,000, the nonprofit now employs two people working full-time and two working part-time and counts nearly 500 visual artists as members.
The group receives one-sixth of its budget from the Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County, and the remainder from membership dues, contributions from donors and patrons, and entry fees for themed gallery shows.
Each year, Associated Artists host eight gallery shows, including six for members only and two that are national juried competitions.
It also holds two fundraising events each year.
Those include Fall for Arts, which this year was held at Flow BMW, netted $1,700 for Associated Artists and sold nearly $5,000 worth of art, and Spring for Arts, a ticketed gala event that will be held April 30 in the group’s gallery.
A big step for Associated Artists has been to enlist younger members, Nelson says.
“We had a reputation for being cliquish and closed,” she says.
And last spring, the group received a grant from the Winston-Salem Foundation to fund a full-time development and marketing director.
The focus of that position will be to expand Associated Artists’ donor base and “really catch the folks who are active downtown,” Nelson says.
“We’ve had a tendency to just speak to older, reliable donors in town,” she says. “If you don’t start talking to folks in their 40s, at some point you’re going to be sitting there with no one to look to and no one supporting your organization because you’ve forgotten there’s a whole new generation coming up.”
The group also has diversified its board, which had consisted only of artists and now has become a board of community leaders like Allen Smart, director of the health care division at the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, and Richard Gottlieb, president and CEO at Senior Services of Winston-Salem.
Associated Artists also partnered three years ago with Davidson Roth, at the time a brand-new advertising agency, which offered on a pro-bono basis to create a tagline – “The canvas of the community — and launch a print-advertising campaign.
And the Winston-Salem Foundation provided funds for Associated Artists to develop a new website that now includes online options for joining and making contributions and membership payments.
All those changes have helped the organization build on the momentum it has received from the growth of downtown, Nelson says.
“It’s a testament to where downtown Winston-Salem is,” she says, “and where we’re located.”