Alton arts center supporters take plight to community

Audience members listen at a recent public meeting about the Jacoby Arts Center.

Part 2 of 2

ALTON – Just last week, the Jacoby Arts Center was spending most of its time dark and locked up, a shadow looming over downtown.

This week, the center has returned to its regular hours, and representatives confirm that an upcoming high school art exhibit scheduled for May 5 through June 6 is definitely “a go.”

This comes in the midst of weeks of upheaval resulting in a recent public meeting where the JAC asked area residents for financial support to keep the cultural hub open.

“This is going to take a village,” artist and volunteer Dee Kilgo said during the meeting. “Jacoby can do things no other venue can do because we offer so many different kinds of fun, social and educational experiences. It is just too important to lose.”

Facing a series of exhibits that have not been profitable, a building in desperate need of repairs, and mounting debt including a mortgage loan and credit card payments, the remnants of staff, board members and volunteers of the JAC are reaching out to the community. With attempts at refinancing unsuccessful and grant money often scarce and earmarked for specific purposes, the center relies on people becoming “sustaining members” to keep what many see as an invaluable asset to the community alive.

Ten years ago, JAC membership stood at about 300. By 2013, that number had dropped to 140. Although that number has risen to 195, some of those are artist and senior memberships, bringing in just a few dollars a month.

Former executive director Ron Abraham says monthly expenses for the center to keep its doors open are approximately $6,000, and that if the center received a donation of $845 from 100 people, the center can start over essentially debt-free.

The history of the Jacoby Arts Center

The Jacoby Arts Center was founded in 1981 as the Madison County Arts Council, run by a small group of volunteers and its first artistic director, John Peacher, and was funded by grants from the state.

Since 1990, the center has served as a “re-granting agency,” with funding from the Illinois Arts Council. Through the Community Arts Access program, volunteers reviewed applications throughout 17 local counties, making recommendations to the JAC Board of Directors regarding awards.

“The Illinois Arts Council considers the JAC to be the artistic hub for the 17 counties in this area,” Abraham said.

In 2003, Arts in the Park, a partnership to provide free children’s classes, and the ARTEAST program both became JAC events. The following year, the Jacoby family donated the former site of their iconic furniture store to the organization for $1, and the JAC opened the doors of its new gallery in September 2004.

“A lot of people have a conception that there was some kind of (ongoing) endowment or gift, which is not true,” Abraham said. “We have no continuing operating expenses (covered). There was no endowment, and grant money is difficult to come by. There was a building, and that’s it.”

Susan Bostwick of Edwardsville, who served on the JAC Board of Directors from 2003 until 2012 (and again in 2013), says the building served a worthy purpose and was an integral asset.

“The location is ideal, just across from the Clark Bridge,” Bostwick said. “The building gave visibility to the organization.”

Air conditioning was installed in the building in 2007, and heat was installed the following year.

“There was a lot of discussion about whether to take on the responsibility of the building,” longtime supporter Jerry Wunderlich, who has been involved in various roles since the beginning, said. “Jacoby didn’t really have a home, and this was a great opportunity to have a wonderful gallery space.”

The split among leadership

By 2013, the upkeep on the building and other expenses had created a financial mess. With the cracks in the center (both literally and figuratively) starting to show, Ron Abraham came on board last May as executive director, along with some new faces, including Kilgo. Both sides confirm it didn’t take long to see the new management and the old guard had different ideas on how to fix the dilemma.

“For a long time, the center was governed by a group of well-intentioned people that had nothing but the best interests at heart, but their vision was that this was going to be a regionally renowned contemporary arts center,” Abraham said. “That was the vision and the focus. When I came in a year ago, several came on board with me, and we tried to convince the board that was not a viable business model. We saw the need for a community arts center.

“So we had a board of directors with two amazingly divergent visions of what this place should be, and I guess we were all equally stubborn.”

Some of the previous board members disagree with that assessment, saying some of the “old guard” was in fact open to compromise and communication.

Things came to a head in March, when Abraham, along with the newer board members, left. Three of the remaining board members also resigned soon after, leaving Cora Miller currently as the center’s only remaining member.

“We have no board of directors at this point,” Abraham, who has returned as a volunteer (with a small but fiercely dedicated group) to do what he can to save the JAC, said. “Everybody resigned. One person is still on the board, and thankfully, that allows us to reconstitute a new board without having to go through the courts and starting over as a new nonprofit organization, which would be lengthy and expensive.

“But that depends on if we are able to be financially solvent.”

Input from area artists

Over the past 30-plus years, scores of area artists from all walks of life have worked with or been in some way affected by the center. With its future uncertain, there are strong opinions within the creative community regarding the center’s legacy.

“I would like to see them become a serious hub for artists in our community by supporting all artists,” Eric Stauffer, founder of Dark Horse Art Works, said.

Matt McGibany of Alton, a musician who has performed at the center on several occasions, echoes Stauffer’s sentiment in terms of branching out.

“I would like to see JAC implement programs that reach a broader demographic, including a variety of age groups as well as artistic mediums,” McGibany said.

Linda Miller served as a member of the Board of Directors during the late 2000s, and again from 2012 until 2014.

“Jacoby has received so much support from the community of Alton, and has provided so much for the community at the same time,” Miller said. “However, in order to be truly sustainable, it must continue to be a part of the larger, regional community of artists and arts supporters.”

The plan to move forward

Abraham says the plan is to form a transitional board of directors, serving a six-month period to look at programs and finances and devise a design for the center to move forward.

Ideally, he said a board should have between 12 and 16 members.

The center employs two part-time employees, Jean King and Kathy Lewis, who serves as bookkeeper, and both plan to stay. The rest is made up of volunteers.

Dee Kilgo says a successful arts center needs to focus on the needs of the local community, offer family-friendly and educational activities and high-quality exhibits, develop partnerships with community sponsors, form an artist advisory group, and have a devoted core of workers and sustaining members.  

Abraham says the JAC plans to hold a second public meeting in the near future to keep the community updated on the state of affairs.

“This whole part of downtown should be an artist’s community, with yoga studios, retail shops, loft apartments, art studios, and bistros,” he said. “There is not a reason in the world that can’t happen, but JAC has to be the core.”

“I have been around to see the impact the arts can have on both the individual and the community, and not only the Alton community, but on a broad level,” Susan Bostwick says. “Before the organization moved into the Jacoby building, it was, and still is, an arts council.

“From here, how the JAC embraces the region is very important.”

To learn more about how to become a sustaining member or other ways to help, call (618) 462-5222 or visit the website at www.jacobyartscenter.org.

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