From humble but strong beginnings
By Eileen Persike
(Photo gallery courtesy of ArtStart)
It was late fall, 2010 and city of Rhinelander officials were mulling over the idea of purchasing the Federal Building downtown. The purchase price, one dollar. The purpose? To house a regional arts and cultural center. Sure, why not?
A small group of local arts supporters, including Ken Juon, Debra Ehmann, Martin Rowe and Laura Ehmann researched, created and presented a proposal to the City Council to do just that.
“From the support we received at the presentation, it was clear that the community wanted it,” said Laura Ehmann. “But when the city actually voted to approve it, we all looked at each other and said, “What did we just do?””
What the group did was get to work. In 2011, ArtStart was born as a non-profit organization; July 2012 the gallery opened following the first phase of building remodeling. This month, the community arts center celebrates five years.
“Initially our very first dollars were from Downtown Rhinelander and Rotary,” ArtStart board President Ken Juon recalled. “They had an art walk on Brown Street, and gave the proceeds to us. That $1,200 was our initial seed money. We spent $800 of that to get our 501c3 status. And that’s pretty much how it goes today – we pay as we go.”
An initial mailing to the community raised a good deal of money, too, and Juon said, direct community support continues to be their main source of income.
It was that kind of community involvement, planning and financial management that has made ArtStart successful. Ehmann was involved since the beginning and currently volunteers as the program director. She said ArtStart is successful because, “while the core team doesn’t agree on everything, everything they do is in service to ArtStart and egos are not in the way.” It also attracted the attention of Melinda Childs, who later would be hired as the Development Director.
“I was so impressed by the sound thinking of the team and how well thought out the plan was,” Childs said. “Support of the community is a good testament to the strength of an organization. Often small town arts centers are created by someone with money who wants it. But to be grown in a grass roots way financially, and with sweat equity put into it increases the chance at longevity, because it’s wanted and loved and needed.”
Early on the team had to decide what kind of art and cultural center they wanted to be, Ehmann said. “We wanted to bring quality curated exhibits that folks wouldn’t normally see up here.” Since opening their doors, nearly 8,000 people have visited the galleries and participated in programs, and spent their money at local restaurants and shops.
It’s interesting to note that a large part of ArtStart has always been connected to economic development and revitalization to Rhinelander’s downtown. An arts center is becoming something job seekers are looking for when relocating.
“A strong economy is a diverse economy. ArtStart, by providing support and a forum for the visual and performing arts, helps to diversify Rhinelander’s recreation, education and entertainment economy,” Rhinelander Chamber Executive Director Bill Clow said. “Furthermore, through partnerships and cooperation, ArtStart is a catalyst for many types of growth in Rhinelander and the Northwoods.”
Bringing exhibits to the Northwoods was so important to the core team that it’s included in the mission statement, which uses words like inspire, challenge, educate and “strengthening and sustaining our community.”
In addition to bringing museum quality exhibits to the northwoods, ArtStart offers opportunities that are of particular local interest.
“We always try to say yes,” Ehmann said. “People bring these ideas to us, and we provide the space. We’ve had book discussions and talks on the deadlock in politics, children and immigration, methamphetamine in the Northwoods, music, films, children’s art classes–these are very popular and well attended because they come from the community.”
What does the future look like five years into ArtStart? Juon said one of the next steps is becoming more self sufficient.
“We don’t have much of a reserve,” he said. “Any kind of disaster like a boiler going out could significantly impact us. One of the downsides of being successful is that people start taking you for granted… but we still need support.”
Ehmann said they would also like to move from an almost all volunteer organization to having staff, which is part of the next level of organizational and community sustainability.
“Ken and I and others have been doing this [as volunteers] full on for five years,” she remarked. “What we are offering for programming is along the lines of a much bigger town than we are, and volunteers are limited.”
To learn more about ArtStart and how to volunteer or contribute, go to ArtStarRhinelander.org or call 715-362-4328.
ArtStart’s 5th anniversary gala
Friday, Feb. 12, 5 p.m.
Hodag Banquet Center (Formerly the Taj)
Appetizers, cash bar, Italian themed dinner
Central Wisconsin Jazz Ensemble
Silent and live auctions, raffles
$50 per person
Call 715-362-4328 or mchilds@ArtStartRhinelander.org