Harrison Center for the Arts, Joanna Taft

The first thing Joanna Taft did when she took over as director of the revamped Harrison Center for the Arts was walk through the then-dilapidated-and-half-empty church building at 16th and Delaware and decide she was going to do what it took to bring life to the place. Prior to the Harrison Center’s reorganization as a non-profit cultural and spiritual center, the building was a short-lived, for-profit arts venture.

Taft’s first big idea was to rent all of the building’s available studio spaces, regardless of “size or shape or smell” for $100 per month. The dozen or so vacant spots filled quickly. “Once we had all the artists here, the Harrison Center had a vibe because they were creating and building something together,” Taft says.

One of those artists, Kyle Ragsdale, was Taft’s right-hand man right from the start. A month after Taft came on board, Ragsdale’s paintings hung as the first show, Love in the Time of Football, in the brand-new gallery space. “We didn’t know what we were doing,” Taft says. “We had great ideas. But we were doing everything by the seat of our pants.”

The Harrison Center quickly became a vibrant home base for emerging artists as well as “emerging patrons,” people with a budding, if somewhat tentative, interest in supporting art. Taft, who isn’t an artist and was fairly new to the art scene when she took over, sympathized with these patrons. “We’ve realized there is a group of patrons who aren’t given an opportunity to enter the art world. So we try to do everything we can to disarm them and open the place up to anybody who wants to come,” she says. “We’ve had people come in and say, ‘I don’t like art.’ But, by the end of the evening, they are laughing and smiling and saying, ‘You’ve made art fun.’”

With Ragsdale and Pam Alee now working with Taft full-time and sharing the center’s laughter-filled communal office, the Harrison’s seat-of-the-pants approach has been supplemented with marketing strategies. But none of the fun has vanished from this place. At the April opening, a broad variety of art hung in the gallery and hallways, two Herron students projected video shorts and a band playing odd instruments and reading aloud from old books entertained in a room that serves as a nursery for the church that shares the Harrison space.

Like every Harrison opening, it was a great evening of entertainment for members of the city’s Creative Class, Taft’s target audience. “We try to fulfill everything they’d like within the four walls of the Harrison Center,” she says.

To do this, Taft, with cell phone in hand, rarely stops working on new ideas. “I love my job and I love what we’re doing here,” she says.

-Jim Walker

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