Q&A With Tom K.

For our column this week, we asked Tom Katzenmeyer, President and CEO of the Greater Columbus Arts Council, to talk with us about the importance of starting an endowment, celebrating GCAC’s 50th anniversary, and lessons learned during his decade of work at the helm of the organization.

MC: This year, GCAC is celebrating its 50th anniversary and this month marks ten years of service for you as the organization’sPresident and CEO. How has the organization evolved during your tenure?

TK: The biggest evolution has been the change in GCAC’s budget. When I first came to the organization, our budget was $6.3 million. Today, we are at $21 million. Public funders, elected officials, corporations, and so many others believe in our mission and the impact those dollars can have, and we’re so appreciative of this support. The amount of funding we have been able to give to arts organizations and artists is phenomenal. GCAC will provide record support for arts organizations and artists this year.

MC: What lessons have you learned along the way?

 TK: There’s a couple of things that bubble to the top. First, grantmaking must be equitable. Instead of an arts organization or artist getting funded because “they have always been funded,” GCAC created a scoring process. Of course, there was resistance at the beginning but now we have a fair and equitable process.

 Second, having a seat at the table is critical to advancing conversations throughout our community. GCAC has led our community through difficult times. During the pandemic, we went into “solutions mode” and created an emergency fund. When there was social unrest following the murder of George Floyd and others, we partnered with other arts organizations and paid artists to paint murals throughout the city, which is now a book located throughout our community and in libraries and schools. We strive to have a place at the table when we needed to be in order to lead the community through difficult times.

 Third, Columbus is a town for creatives and art ignites tourism. GCAC’s team works tirelessly behind the scenes to change the perception of the arts. Although Columbus isn’t New York or L.A., there is a multitude of creative jobs here, from retail to visual and performing arts. In 2015, we launched the Columbus Makes Art campaign and in 2019 we advocated relentlessly for the ticket fee. Our next project is to create a public art plan for Columbus and Franklin County.

Lastly, the community must be reflected in the staff, the board, and programming. We have been serious about our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. This year, we hired artist navigators who represent communities across Columbus in an effort to reach diverse audiences. Because of the hardworking team efforts, our conversations have changed and our focus is more clear.

MC: GCAC launched its endowment in 2021. Why is an endowment an important investment for nonprofits?

TK: Due to the level of public investment in GCAC’s mission, we know that our organizations and projects are cared for. We needed something that would define Columbus as a great place for artists to thrive, forever. With the board’s approval, and in working with The Columbus Foundation, we created the GCAC Community Endowment Fund, which funds our Artists Elevated Awards.

It has had a phenomenal response and we have awarded over $100,000 in individual artists awards in just two years. What captures and captivates people about the endowment is it is like scholarship money for artists. The artist is nominated, voted on by a national jury, and given an unrestricted award of $20,000.

I believe that organizations need to have something that lasts forever. Leaders will change, but the impact an endowment has on the future of the organization is long-lasting. In our case, we are helping artists, getting them to stay in Columbus, and defining our community as a place where artists can make money and are valued. This endowment redefines how Columbus looks at the arts.

MC: What advice do you have for other nonprofits that are considering starting an endowment?

TK: GCAC was hesitant to start an endowment. There is a belief among nonprofits of things that “have to” be done, such as there needs to be an annual fundraiser. But an endowment is also necessary for the stability of the organization and to build donor confidence.

We started small. At the time, we had a small amount of money that was not earmarked, and we had a board chair who was a progressive thinker. We worked closely with The Columbus Foundation to understand our options. We put it on pause to focus on other things but then we came back to it.

My advice is to start small and make strategic decisions that are discussed with board and staff leadership. There is always an excuse to get away from endowment work, but nonprofits simply need to start somewhere. Ask the board to give, ask people to consider a planned gift, get creative. If your organization is financially stable, turn your attention to raising funds for the endowment. Don’t just fill immediate needs — look to the organization’s legacy. It will eventually get to a size where you can start pulling money.

MC: What advice would you give to someone just starting out in the nonprofit sector?

 TK: Accept every $25 gift you get. The smallest gifts have the biggest potential. Say thank you and write thank you notes. That stewardship piece is often lacking and always begets another gift.

MC: What are the negative consequences if GCAC is unable to accomplish its mission?

TK: (laughing) It’s not going to happen. But if we do, we are an incredibly adaptable and nimble team with empathy and compassion. I’m not sure how you fail when you have those two things. And I’m not a fearful leader. The staff, board, and public are all rallied around the same purpose — that the arts matter.

MC: Why, then, do the arts matter?

TK: People are drawn to the arts. If you look closely, the arts are all around you. They are everything, everywhere, all at once, to use the title of the Oscar winning film. The arts provide an emotional connection. They are motivational, inspiring, and can be therapeutic.

If you think back to the era of Cleopatra, states were funding museums. Public support for the arts runs deep — it is a key part of society and makes you feel good. When you go to an arts event, you connect with the audience. There are no barriers to the arts. It truly is for everyone.

To learn more about GCAC, please visit: www.gcac.org

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