The Columbus Cultural Leadership Consortium was forged five years ago to highlight the importance of the arts. In reality, it has helped to keep local organizations solvent and forge a funding plan for the future.

It began six or so years ago, in the way many ideas--some inspired, others decidedly less so--do: over drinks. At occasional Friday get-togethers, a loosely associated group of arts and cultural leaders--the Merlot Club, as participants nicknamed themselves--gathered to talk shop, their conversations often augmented by like-minded guests.

The core group consisted of Nannette Maciejunes, director of the Columbus Museum of Art; Bill Conner, president and CEO of CAPA; Tina Guegold, then-vice president for marketing and development at COSI; Cheri Mitchell, executive director of BalletMet; and Paul Redman, then-executive director at Franklin Park Conservatory.

At the time, relationships among Central Ohio arts leaders were relatively narrow and shallow. "You would occasionally go to each other's events; you would tend to be closer to one [executive] than the others," says Maciejunes.

Through the Merlot Club, those relationships deepened. "It was a way to both share notes and figure out some strategies, things that we had in common in terms of our needs or what we looked like as an industry, or trends that cut across all of us," Conner says. "Back then, it was harder to talk about the arts and cultural community."

In 2006, arts leaders decided to formalize their efforts with the creation of the Columbus Cultural Leadership Consortium (CCLC). Sixteen organizations signed on: BalletMet, CAPA, CATCO, Columbus Children's Theatre, Columbus Museum of Art, the Columbus Symphony Orchestra (CSO), COSI, the Franklin Park Conservatory (FPC), the Greater Columbus Arts Council (GCAC), Jazz Arts Group (JAG), King Arts Complex, Opera Columbus, Phoenix Theatre for Children, ProMusica Chamber Orchestra, Thurber House and the Wexner Center for the Arts.

Although funding and economic issues would soon dominate the CCLC's agenda, they weren't the initial priority. "We were really looking to broaden the awareness of arts and culture in Columbus, to broaden the support base and also, you know, to try to work with public partnerships," says Bob Breithaupt, executive director of the Jazz Arts Group (JAG) and the CCLC's first president.

ProMusica Executive Director Janet Chen calls CCLC an important resource. "We struggle every day with just trying to run our own organizations, and often, we get so caught up in the daily grind of just trying to make things work. ... Having the CCLC available provides a chance to really know what each of us is doing," she says. "I think sometimes those conversations are hard when we're trying to sort things out as individuals, rather than collectively."

Thrive in Five

After the boom of the 1990s and the bust of the post-9/11 economy, the finances of arts and culture organizations in the mid-2000s were relatively solid. Thrive in Five, an initiative symbolically pegged to the city of Columbus's 2012 bicentennial, was intended to bridge to a long-term cultural plan and funding model.

The campaign, launched in 2007, aimed to raise $4 million in public-private funding annually from 2008 to 2010 ($1 million each from Columbus and Franklin County and $2 million from private funders.) CCLC would distribute the money according to each member organization's budget and need.

But then came the economic downturn, which was nearly the swan song for some arts groups. COSI was the first to founder; it was soon followed by CSO and Opera Columbus. "And then, of course, in 2008 all of us were hit with the recession," Breithaupt says.

In 2009, ProMusica had the first deficit in its 30-year history, coming up $110,000 short (about 10 percent of its budget), according to a story in the Columbus Dispatch. Likewise, BalletMet showed a $400,000 deficit at the end of its 2008-09 season, representing about 8 percent of its budget. JAG also reported a small deficit, as did other organizations.

Nonprofits across the country were experiencing what Conner calls "a little bit of a triple-witching. The market had dropped, so if you had an endowment, your endowment had dropped. Certainly ticket sales and memberships had dropped as our audiences were starting to experience the deeper part of the recession, and a lot of our corporate community were really going through a period of time when their profits were down."

The CCLC and Thrive in Five had became far more necessary than members ever envisioned.

Funding Forecast

The Great Recession took a great toll on arts funding. Instead of $12 million, Thrive in Five ultimately put a little less than $3.6 million into members' coffers over three years. (See "Dreams vs. Reality")

In light of Columbus's own financial troubles, the CCLC didn't request funding for the second year of Thrive in Five. The city gave $700,000 in 2008, nothing the next two years, and resumed funding in 2011 at $161,000. The county gave $600,000 in 2008 and 2009 and $161,000 in 2010.

"I thought it was critically important that we stabilize, at least for the short term, our arts community," says Franklin County Commissioner Marilyn Brown. "It's a source of strength in Central Ohio, it's a competitive thing we have here, because we have a great arts community, but we needed to stabilize some of the organizations."

"It was maybe not as much as we thought we might get," Breithaupt says of the overall funding. Still, it was something. "Without the Thrive in Five dollars, if we were to take those out of our 15 budgets, the results would have been devastating." After a deficit in 2010, JAG finished fiscal 2011 in the black.

Instead of being a bridge, Thrive in Five was, for many, a life preserver. "I don't know what we would have done without the dollars that Thrive in Five was able to allocate to our institution," says King Arts Complex (KAC) Executive Director Sheryle Powell. The money came as KAC was considering layoffs and shortened workweeks. The funds provided a buffer to save money through less extreme steps, such as attrition.

In fall 2009, the Columbus Foundation hosted an Arts Challenge that raised $600,000 to support the CCLC's member organizations--matching $500,000 committed by county commissioners earlier in the year. The challenge required participants to complete an eight-point progress report, including an agreement to collaborate, share services, prepare three-year budgets, consider enhanced funding models and complete a community cultural plan.

While most arts organizations are nonprofit, they're still big business. In Ohio, they generate more than $25 billion annually, according to a 2009 Bowling Green State University study, helping to produce almost $2.84 billion in federal, state and local tax revenue and supporting more than 231,000 jobs.

A recent CCLC study, "Initial Report on Arts and Culture in Central Ohio," backs that finding: "Arts and culture in greater Columbus are a powerhouse for the economy, generating a 22:1 return on investment, with $330 million expended annually by non-profit arts and culture organizations and their diverse audiences."

Arts proponents have long contended that a community's vitality plays a key role in business attraction and retention. "You can't have economic development without a stable, vibrant arts and cultural community, and you can't have a vibrant arts and cultural community without a strong economic base. So there's a natural relationship between the two," says Franklin Park Conservatory & Botanical Gardens Executive Director Bruce Harkey, who took over the CCLC reins as of July 1.

Evaluating the Arts

Central Ohio likes its arts, but it may like studying them even more. According to the Columbus Partnership, from 2003 to 2007 alone, 12 major studies or projects evaluated the city's position in arts and culture.

In January 2011, the Partnership, in support of the CCLC, released a sustainability analysis of the arts. Among the findings:

• Nationally, benchmark arts activities (classical music, opera, ballet and dramatic plays) were down as much as 30 percent from 1982 levels.

• Columbus arts organizations were "viable," but limited in their capacity to adapt and grow.

• Donor fatigue was a concern, but there was evidence that a well-planned and -executed campaign could gain philanthropic support.

• Strategies for supporting the arts and culture included making an investment in market research; advocating for dedicated tax revenue at both the local and state levels; communicating the alignment between the sector and Central Ohio's larger goals; driving private-sector support via improved and coordinated fundraising messaging; and building an endowment of between $50 million and $65 million.

Shortly thereafter, the Columbus Foundation published "A Community Report: The Arts." Also known as the "Arts Book," the publication, co-produced with the Columbus Partnership, asserted that the sector's future also must include earned income and expanded audiences, public- and private-sector leaders to advocate for the arts as part of the Columbus2020 economic development plan, and a stronger GCAC to lead a communitywide effort to invigorate the arts.

"I think at this juncture, there is ample evidence to show that the CCLC organizations have operated very responsively through difficult times, that they are impressively led, and that there's even a greater case for support," Columbus Foundation President and CEO Doug Kridler says.

Despite the downturn in the economy, arts, cultural and civic leaders are determined to press on with the reforms. "I think it's fair to say that a number of people are afraid of the déjà vu effect of all of this. We can't keep studying this, you know, and never doing anything about it," says Columbus Partnership President and CEO Alex Fischer. "I think the sentiment is ‘Now is the time to deal with these issues.' We shouldn't shirk away from them; they're not going to go away."

Columbus City Councilwoman Priscilla Tyson, a member of the Thrive in Five funding committee, agrees the time is right for change. "We have all the right entities talking about this, and everyone now has a good understanding of where we are and where we would like to be. I'm excited about it ... and I do believe now we're ready to take action."

"I think we have to see a path in the next six to nine months," says GCAC President Milt Baughman. "It may change based on different opportunities or challenges, but we have to start building a path toward a better funding base."

Partnerships

The affirmation of the GCAC was a significant endorsement, given questions that arose following the sudden, accidental death of GCAC President Ray Hanley in 2006. His successor, Bryan Knicely, served less than three years in a tenure marked by controversy over funding allocations. Baughman took the helm in September 2009.

When the CCLC formed, "There were some issues going on at the time surrounding the GCAC's leadership and how effective it was, and whether it should morph into another entity or whether it should exist at all," says Breithaupt.

Historically, the GCAC's primary task has been to distribute hotel-motel tax revenue earmarked for the arts (typically 1.5 percent of the 10 percent tax), as well as funding from Franklin County, the Ohio Arts Council and private arts funders. Moving forward? "The GCAC will have a much more critical role in being a representative body for the arts," Breithaupt says. "I would say CCLC members as a whole support that."

Baughman says the GCAC needs to "put more of a focus on arts advocacy; that could mean supporting the arts in any number of ways, one of which would be to help to find additional funding for arts organizations in the community." This year, GCAC will provide roughly $3 million in grants to arts organizations via bed-tax revenue, says Baughman, "But frankly, that's not enough to meet the needs of the really broad-based arts and cultural fabric in our community."

The Partnership believes the issue of arts funding is best tackled by the GCAC, says Fischer. "They live it, they breathe it, and they should own it and push forward with the work. Now we should support it, we should be involved in it, we should champion and advocate for the work, but we believe GCAC is the right organization to own this topic."

CAPA also plays a major role in the arts community. The association, which acts as landlord to many arts entities, has offered management support as well, rescuing more than one group from an untimely demise. For instance, in March 2010, it took on a five-year management agreement for the CSO, which had a $1.5 million deficit for the 2009-10 season. The agreement saved the CSO more than $750,000 in back-office operations costs; including a pay cut for musicians, the CSO's 2010-11 budget was reduced from $8.75 million to $7 million. CAPA's Conner was also tapped to be the CSO's managing director and CEO; he holds a similar role with Opera Columbus, after it, too, teetered on the brink of closure.

Not all cases are so extreme. CAPA has served a number of organizations by taking on back-office operations such as HR, marketing and ticketing. The partnership between CAPA and the other organizations "is a great thing, and we're very lucky to have CAPA and the infrastructure to be able to do that," says Baughman. "You don't need a half-dozen or a dozen arts organizations each with part-time accounting support."

The creation of the CCLC has encouraged informal partnerships, too. For example, the Thurber House has hosted ProMusica performers at its events; the art museum and COSI have worked together when hosting back-to-back exhibitions on Egypt.

"Crisis can be the mother of invention, but because of the quality of the people involved, they're coming to this collaboration honestly; it's not simply a survival technique. It's sort of a human commitment, a professional commitment," says Kridler. "It really is an unusually collaborative and positive group of professionals, even in the most daunting of operating environments."

Thurber House Executive Director Susanne Jaffe sees the CCLC's role as "very long-lasting." The more responsibility the GCAC takes on for funding, "the more that the CCLC can be presenters and help increase awareness. What we all want are butts in the seat, and I think that's where CCLC [members] can be tremendously good for each other," she says.

Creative City

At the time the CCLC was born, the environment for arts and culture in Central Ohio "was suspect," says Breithaupt. "Some have used the word ‘toxic'; I think there was a lack of confidence in terms of leadership and reality. ... I think what has happened in the interim is that, through a lot of work, there has been a greater appreciation for how our groups are managed and how we collaborate and how we are able to produce art-great art-with fewer and fewer resources."

The recession may have slowed the timetable for arts planning, but sector leaders are already seeing the fruits of their labor. In July, Columbus was ranked No. 8 on Creative Cities' Vitality Index-placing above even Los Angeles. "Columbus deserves more recognition for the cultural fabric we have," Baughman says. "There's a lot going on here; it's an exciting place for arts and culture. We're fortunate to get some notoriety, and I think that will continue."

Kridler says there's no question that arts and culture are of vital importance. "The arts are what civilizes us. Acrimony and disagreement in Washington over, you know, debt ceilings and other struggles in life aren't what enhances the human spirit in the way arts can, both to inspire, to celebrate and to articulate what is within us as humans," he says. "And because of that, they are recognized as a compelling aspect of quality of life, which is an important-an ever increasingly important-dimension to a community's attractiveness to both businesses and the talent that every city has to compete for. ... It is an imperative quality for building a competitive city and an enlightened one."

Jennifer Wray is a staff writer for Columbus C.E.O.

Reprinted from the September 2011 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.