'Give people a creative, personal experience' The Abington Art Center, turning 70, deals with recession.

Posted: April 25, 2009

A skunk ran amok.

Members of the Abington Art Center performed damage control two weeks ago after artist Winifred Lutz's outdoor nature sculpture was altered by a delinquent skunk. Assistant director Heather Rutledge tracked down fox urine (to ward off further skunk depredations), while Lutz reconstructed the circular moss design on the center of a former tennis court. Crisis averted.

The art center in Jenkintown handles crises well, from skunk punks to dealing with a struggling financial landscape.

As a small nonprofit with a budget of less than $1 million, its finances are always in flux. "We don't have an endowment," says executive director Laura Burnham. "Like most Americans, we have to live on what we earn."

The 27-acre center, celebrating its 70th anniversary, has a gallery, six studios, classrooms, and a sculpture park, and stages outdoor events year-round. Forty teachers and six full-time employees manage the complex.

Maintaining the center during the amid the current financial woes is tough, but the organization has kept an even keel.

"It's funny, because we keep offering new classes, and they're doing well," Burnham says.

The center gets about 30,000 visitors a year. In 2007-08, about 28,000 visited, down from 35,000 the previous year, Rutledge says.

Donations this year have dipped a little, with fewer people contributing, Burnham says. So far in fiscal 2008-09, 197 people have made donations, compared with 218 last year.

"We're hearing 'we can't do it now' from companies," she says. "We understand."

Tom Kaiden from the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance says the Abington Art Center is not an anomaly.

"What we're seeing is arts participation is pretty strong personally, and attendance-based," he says. "It's on contributions where they're hurting."

Many nonprofits make only half of their budgets from earned income, he says, but arts groups are "used to making do with less. . . . This experience is familiar to them."

The art center's income breaks down into roughly five categories: 38 percent is earned from classes, workshops, and facility rentals for weddings and other affairs; 24 percent comes from foundations; 11 percent from memberships; 9 percent from corporate and government support; and 18 percent from the gift shop, fund-raisers and other sources.

Recently, it received a $300,000 audience-development grant from the William Penn Foundation. Also, it applied for money from the federal stimulus package through the National Endowment for the Arts.

To raise money for a free summer-concert series, the center will host a benefit show May 16 with local acts Animus, Ultra Kings, and Hank's Cadillac, among others.

Sculptor Leora Brecher, who taught ceramics at the center for 18 years, recognizes the extra things it does.

"It's different here compared to other art centers I've seen. As well as a studio school, it has the sculpture garden and outreach to the community. Other places," says Brecher, now a full-time artist, "are more about teaching than the public."

Currently, she is participating in "Forever Young," an exhibition running through July 26 of works by artists who have displayed at the gallery over its 70 years.

The many ongoing events are an example of the center's growth.

In her 22 years with the art center, Burnham has turned a small gallery with a $200,000 budget into a thriving center.

"Before, if you didn't take a watercolor class, there really wasn't a reason to be here," she says. "But in 1995, when we took on more space, we became a place for the general public to come."

The centerpiece of that growth is the sculpture park: innumerable pieces of bronze, wood, steel, and earth, made by more than 20 artists and strategically placed on the center's grounds.

For now, it seems as if the center is safe. Kaiden says the organization is doing what it should be.

"The trend is to give people a personal, creative experience, and the Abington Art Center is well-positioned to go along with the evolution," he says.

"We don't have to cut programs or lose people," says Rutledge, and that's just fine.

She could do without the skunks, though.

Contact staff writer Sam Fran Scavuzzo at 215-854-5523 or sscavuzzo@phillynews.com.

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