Carbondale Clay Center, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, is growing and handling the challenges faced by many small community art centers.
The Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado is known throughout the clay world as the home of the Anderson Ranch Arts Center. But nestled on the eastern edge of the town of Carbondale, about 30 minutes away, stands a small but mighty clay center.
Before Carbondale Clay Center founder and potter Diane Kenney opened the doors of her newly purchased building to the public back in 1997, she sat down for dinner with about 20 other people involved in the formation of the center at a long line of folding tables set up in the middle of the empty space.
“We sat there and had toasts, and we said, ‘We don’t know what’s going to happen here in this space, but something’s going to happen here, and it’s going to be good,’” Kenney remembers. “It was a really important ritual.”
It’s appropriate, then, that the Carbondale Clay Center’s 20th anniversary was celebrated on September 9, not with a fancy gala or glitzy party, but with a family-style dinner and an emphasis on local businesses and organizations. “It’s was a community event honoring those who helped us get here and who love the place,” says Executive Director Angela Bruno. “I think the really special thing was that we had a long banquet-style table that 200 people sat around all together, all eating off of handmade dishes. It was a nice little Clay Center family night.”
The center offers classes for children and adults; an artist-in-residence program that has attracted artists from as far as the UK; monthly gallery exhibitions featuring local, national, and international artists; and more.
A Time of Growth
The Clay Center celebrated its 20th anniversary amid an exciting growth spurt. In 2016, the center’s revenue increased by 19%, and its net income increased by 15.5%. This growth is thanks, in large part, to executive director Angela Bruno and studio manager and ceramic artist Matthew Eames, the center’s two full-time employees.
“Putting ourselves out there as a community center was really key,” says Bruno, whose involvement with the Clay Center began in 2014 when she became an executive board member. Bruno was appointed interim director in November 2015 and accepted the official title of executive director in February of this year.
Cutting Costs and Increasing Revenue
Bruno says her first step as director was to analyze the budget with fresh eyes. “As a board member, I was familiar with everything that was going on there, so I also had the opportunity to recognize what was lacking,” Bruno says. “It was really helpful to thoroughly analyze the budget because we could look at where we were making money and where we were not.”
When it came to cutting costs, she focused on updating the center by purchasing LED lighting, fixing some minor electrical issues, and installing a new garage door that was more energy efficient. She also secured regular wine and beer donors for the center’s monthly gallery openings.
Where Bruno and Eames truly shine is in increasing revenue. Some of that is immediate, like offering new programming. And some comes through investments in the center’s facilities improvements and facelifts, including a new website, a flashy exterior paint job, remodeling the office, and purchasing new, smaller potters wheels that allow for higher class enrollment.
Program increases came quickly. Bruno and Eames started a shelf rental program that allowed anyone who had completed an eight-week class to rent a shelf and continue using the studio. Bruno also focused on more outreach to schools and other local organizations that now either take classes at the Clay Center or pay for materials and firings. Additionally, grants were up by about $35,000 in 2016 when compared to 2014.
Investing in Staff
This growth allowed Eames to become a full-time studio manager in February, marking the first time in more than a decade that the Carbondale Clay Center has had two full-time staff members.
“The growth in that position has evolved so much, as well as the growth of the Clay Center; they go hand in hand,” Eames says. “That growth has enabled me to really take a predominant role in the Clay Center, which is what I’d always hoped for.”
Collette Spears, an artist-in-residence at the Clay Center from 2015–17, saw these improvements spearheaded by Bruno and Eames firsthand. “I feel like they have been such a great team and put their literal blood, sweat, and tears into this place,” Spears says. “Angela is really good at outreach and has gotten a lot of needed funding. And Eames brings so many ideas for development and improvement, and he’s always aiming to maximize efficiency. So both of them together are just transforming the center.”
In the near future, Eames and Bruno hope to hire a studio technician and an administrative assistant. They also plan to announce a capital campaign late next year for a brand new facility and resident housing. The more help they have, and the more space available to them, the more they can increase programming and revenue.
Meeting Community Needs
Bruno says each individual initiative or improvement plays a part in the Clay Center’s recent growth, but the big picture she encourages other clay centers to examine is how they can meet the needs of their communities.
“I think trying to figure out what people want from you that you can provide within your means will help sustain you as an organization,” Bruno says. “That’s really all there is to it: What do people want? And then figure out how to provide that for them. It’s hard work, but ultimately you just want to be a place where people want to go.”
For more information, visit www.carbondaleclay.org.
the author Jessica Cabe studied arts journalism at Syracuse University in New York and has been a clay hobbyist for two years. She lives in Chicago, Illinois, where she works as a reporter for DNAinfo.