It's been almost a year since we last checked in with VSA arts of Indiana (VSAI), the statewide arts organization dedicated to facilitating arts experiences for people with disabilities. In November 2009, VSAI's situation was grim: After having served kids with special needs in Indiana schools for 30 years, the Indiana State Department of Education (DOE) suddenly informed the organization that it would no longer receive funding.
"I still have a hard time believing what's happened to us," Jim Nulty, former president of VSAI, told NUVO at that time.
The loss of funding threatened VSAI's very existence. DOE funds accounted for roughly 80 percent of the organization's total $1.3 million budget. In a sense, VSAI had allowed itself to become like an investor who puts all his money on a single stock. The large, annual education grants dominated VSAI's revenue stream. The result was a funding portfolio that wasn't sufficiently diversified.
The massive cut set a chain of events in motion. Nulty, who had spent his career at the organization's helm, receiving the Pauley Award for Lifetime Achievement in Advocacy for Disability Issues, retired. Local businesswoman Diane Seybert became chair of VSAI's board, which then set about hiring a new president and CEO, Gayle Holtman, to navigate a top-to-bottom renovation.
"I think there's been a silver lining – more than one," says Seybert on a sun-drenched Indian summer afternoon at VSAI's headquarters in the Harrison Center on Delaware St. For Seybert, the cut in funding amounted to a kind of shock therapy that has prompted VSAI to reexamine its mission to encourage lifelong learning and creative expression for all people, not just students.
"We have a demand and we know how to supply it," she says. "So that gives me a lot of optimism about our future."
A large measure of Seybert's optimism is due to the arrival of Holtman, a veteran arts administrator and educator, experienced in working with people with disabilities.
"We have an opportunity to think more strategically about how we're going to focus our efforts, given that we have less money," Holtman says. "Who are the people we want to serve? We no longer have the constraints of focusing so much of what we do on a school-age population."
New board member and artist Phil O'Malley is helping to invigorate VSAI's Urban Artisan program that puts people to work creating useful and decorative original ceramics that are sold in local shops and galleries. There is also renewed interest in further developing ArtsWORK Indiana, an award-winning statewide program focused on professional employment in the arts for people with disabilities, which VSAI founded several years ago.
"We planted that seed a long time ago," says Holtman. "Just because somebody turns 22, that doesn't mean their need for the arts stops."
While not as robust as before, the work in schools has also been sustained, a testament to VSAI's effectiveness in working with kids.
"Schools are finding sources of funding to continue some of our programming," says Holtman. This includes the perpetuation of VSAI's ten-year relationship with Indianapolis Public Schools. "Considering all the cuts they had to make, they did not cut the amount of money they set aside for programming and partnering with us."
VSAI's current budget is approximately one quarter of what it had when its pipeline with the State DOE was flowing. Now the group's national office is the local chapter's largest single funder. There has also been a $50,000 grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust, as well as funding from the Indiana Arts Commission and the Arts Council of Indianapolis. The Urban Artisans program recently received a City Crime Prevention Grant.
Joyce Sommers, former president of the Indianapolis Arts Center, has joined VSAI's board to help find new sources of funding. A new Friends Society has just been formed and VSAI is looking for individual contributors for the first time in its history.
"We have to do a better job of telling our story," says Holtman. She, Seybert and the rest of the VSAI board are actively soliciting ideas and assistance from the larger community – in Indianapolis and across the state.
"We're going to be more proactive in doing that, not only because we have to, but because it makes sense," says Holtman. "We can do more if we partner with people and not try to think of everything on our own."
What gives Holtman confidence is the knowledge that, as she puts it: "Nobody does what we do." Indeed, the prospect that people with disabilities might be deprived of the kinds of arts experiences provided by VSAI felt like a death in the family in some quarters.
"It sustains people, it wards off depression and is life-affirming," says Seybert of VSAI's arts programming. "It's the one thing they look forward to and, I imagine, their caregivers look forward to it, too.
"One of the things that's key about what we do is to say that your disability doesn't matter," continues Seybert. "You're still a human being with a need and a desire to be creative. How can we make that happen? It's helping to develop each person, and that contributes to community development."
Holtman says that, while still not entirely out of the woods, VSAI has found its footing.
"We've gotten past the jaw-dropping amazement at what happened to us and we're moving on to what we're going to do and how we're going to do it," she says. "A year ago we were wondering, 'is there going to be anybody here come July 1?' We are here. We are not going anywhere. We are rebuilding. It was good before, but we can make it better."
VSAI is teaming up with Primary Colours, a local, nonprofit arts organization, to collect new or very gently used art supplies in conjunction with its eighth annual holiday art exhibit, TOYS. The exhibit features art by multiple artists, fashioned around the theme of toys. Donations will be accepted on opening night, Friday Dec. 3, from 6-9 p.m. – part of the city's First Friday Art Tour (see p. 15).
VSAI will pass donated supplies along to Riley Hospital for Children, Peyton Manning Children's Hospital and community arts classes around Indiana.Opening night festivities will include wine from New Day Meadery, craft beer from Brugge Brasserie and free appetizers from the Bar at the Ambassador. Gallery 924 is located at the Arts Council of Indianapolis, 924 N. Pennsylvania Ave. For more information, see www.primarycolours.org or call 317-721-ARTS (2787).Editor's note: Because of an editing error, the photo caption for this story misspelled the name of VSAI's president and CEO, Gayle Holtman. It also misidentified her: She is the one sitting, not standing.