Multicultural Arts Center in dire need of cash

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comNovember 8, 2012 

Without a dramatic rescue, the Multicultural Arts Center in downtown Merced could close by the end of the year, according to its new top administrator.

The center's donations have been down significantly during this year's membership drive, which is held from July to December. Since July, the arts center raised about $17,000, compared with $37,000 last year.

However, Laura Phillips, who was hired in June as the Merced Arts Council executive director, said she's "optimistic" the community will step up and help save the building.

"I think there are enough people in the community who have faith in the arts, and who know we need the arts council to be in the Multicultural Arts Center," she said.

If the center closed it would let go its five-person staff, but the arts council would likely maintain operations. The enrichment center, a program for adults with developmental disabilities, which is housed in the building, likely would relocate.

Phillips said she's launched a campaign asking 100 people to pledge $1,000 a year for two years. So far she's come up with seven donors.

In return for community support, Phillips said, she is developing a plan to make the center's finances more stable -- which includes renting out more of the center's space, designing new fee-based programs and more aggressively seeking project grants.

"We have so much space that we could utilize to have classes for kids and adults," she said. "There's space for more performances. There are a lot of art forms in Merced that aren't accessible to the general public -- performances or classes."

The arts council established the Multicultural Arts Center in 1996, after the city agreed to rent the building to the group free of charge. It costs about $26,000 a month to operate the facility, including utilities, property taxes, upkeep and salaries, according to center staff.

However, the center is currently pulling in an average of about $20,000 a month, primarily in state funding for the enrichment program.

If the current economic situation continues, the center likely will close by January said Elizabeth Petty, office manager and bookkeeper.

"It's really that the membership has declined," she said. "I don't know if that's the economy, or if people have moved on to other philanthropic endeavors."

However, it's not just that membership is down this year.

Since the economic crisis hit, the center has been slowly gnawing away at its savings. In 2007, at the beginning of the crisis, the center had $80,000 in stocks and savings. As of November, that number was $27,000.

"Our backup is pretty much gone that we've been surviving on," Petty said. "I'm really concerned."

Kathy Hansen, who's been involved with the arts council for 20 years, and is working on fund-raising efforts, said she has a hard time imagining Merced without the center.

"I've seen some performances that touched me so much that I still get teary thinking about them," she said. "I would feel like there was a hole in downtown. I'd have a hole in my life."

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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