Changes ‘re-energizing’ Collingwood Arts CenterWritten by Sarah Ottney | Editor in Chief | firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s been a year of growing pains for the Collingwood Arts Center (CAC) — with a long way yet to go — but the nonprofit’s leadership believes it’s headed in the right direction.
Since taking the helm last August, Interim Executive Director Sarah Kurfis has shepherded CAC through a period of transition, most notably from an artist residency program to a more community-focused arts center.
“We’re in the process right now of figuring out what we’re going to be when we grow up,” Kurfis said. “There’s still a lot of work to do, but we’ve come pretty far. People are getting re-energized. We have a lot of new energy and artists and people helping out at the building.”
Now, she says, it’s time to pass the job to someone new. Lexi Staples will take over as executive director Oct. 1.
Staples, who has served as CAC’s special events coordinator and office manager since March, has worked closely with Kurfis to organize dozens of events at the site, including a series of ghost hunts, two food truck festivals, monthly community art days and more. She is founder and executive director of Pride of Toledo Foundation and event director for Toledo Pride. She previously owned OUTSKiRTS, a bar that closed earlier this year.
“I’m excited to continue what Sarah started,” Staples said. “It’s been cool to see just how much the community does want to be involved with the space and with the idea there could be a different use for the building. It’s been really fun to watch people start to change their minds about the building and be more supportive of futuristic plans.”
Kurfis, an attorney, will transition to a job in Washington, D.C., with the Federal Labor Relations Authority, but will remain available to Staples to answer questions and help ease the transition.
“We’re stabilizing and Lexi is the perfect person to carry out this new vision,” Kurfis said. “We found an avenue and a niche the Collingwood can be successful at and developed a strategic plan that can help it get somewhere great and have an impact on our community. I turned the ship slightly and now I’m stepping out of the way to let the most capable people do it.”
CAC also recently hired former board treasurer Colleen Eldridge as office manager.
Kurfis said she is proud of the work she did at CAC, even her controversial decision to end the building’s longtime artist residency program in January. Faced with building conditions that included no heat or hot water, residents were given 30 days to move out.
“My original recommendation was a six-month transition, but then everything basically went to hell in a week,” Kurfis said. “It was the weather that made the decision to move quicker, but it was still the right decision to make. It just wasn’t safe.”
Kurfis worked with Children’s Theater Workshop and Community Shares of Northwest Ohio, both based at CAC, before taking the interim executive director position.
“When I graduated law school, two (CAC) board members asked if I would be willing to step in and get it on a better path,” Kurfis said. “I said yes because I’ve always loved it. It has such great potential and it’s such a great building. It just needed to be pointed in the right direction. So that’s been my goal for the past year.”
Kurfis spent her first few months getting acclimated and studying the nonprofit’s structure, and concluded the resident program wasn’t working.
“It was a great idea; it just didn’t work,” Kurfis said. “I spent lots of time managing resident issues. It was basically a dorm, with everyone so close and sharing things. It was a dysfunctional mess.
“I had said I’d come in, basically with a consultant mindset, and help make decisions and figure out how we can do this,” Kurfis said. “I came to the conclusion that this isn’t working at all and I think we could make it better, but it might go under.”
The center’s financial standing is still shaky.
“We’re in a lot better position than we were even a year ago or a few months ago, but we’re still digging ourselves out of a hole caused by mismanagement,” she said.
Kurfis said some past board members bristle at the term “mismanagement,” but that’s the best way she can describe it. Staples will be CAC’s seventh executive director in five years. Several previous directors have died since stepping down. One died in the position.
“Whoever was keeping the books didn’t know what they were doing. I’m still discovering bills we owe and I’ve been here for a year. We are still digging out. It’s a mess,” Kurfis said.
“I figured out the financials I need to move forward, but I haven’t gone back and done forensics as far as finding exactly where and how it derailed, but there’s clearly signs of gross negligence.
“There’s nothing you can point to and say, ‘That was the specific problem,’” Kurfis said. “It was just a bunch of bad decisions. My guess is a combination of negligent management, unreliable contractors, probably some theft somewhere.”
CAC lost its 501(c)3 nonprofit designation for about a year and a half, although Kurfis is quick to note donations remained tax deductible since reinstatement was pending. It’s designation was restored this summer.
“We do have a complicated history,” Staples said. “It’s really frustrating to not be able to fix all the past mistakes. But we need to go forward on a clean slate.”
Finished in 1905, the CAC is a registered historical site designed by prominent Toledo architect E.O. Fallis as a convent for the Ursuline Order of the Sacred Heart. It later housed Mary Manse College and St. Ursula Academy.
It was Pat Tansey’s idea to turn it into a community art center.
“The nuns told me in 1983 that they were going to move out of the building and they didn’t know what would happen to it. That’s when I came into the picture,” Tansey said. “In October 1984, they walked away from the building and gave me the keys and I walked in. In the early years I was pretty much alone trying to make things work here.”
With the end of the artist residency program, CAC lost its main source of funding, which now comes from studio rentals, event space rentals and proceeds from events, Kurfis said. All current funds are tied into basic operating costs, but the hope is to eventually shift to capital improvements.
Future needs will include a new roof, electrical upgrades, plumbing upgrades and more, Kurfis said.
“We’ve been chasing crises and plugging little holes and can’t get ahead of the big stuff yet,” she said. “Cleaning up after the residents has taken us a lot longer than we originally anticipated. It was one of those things where the culture had probably eroded over time and the building was not being treated respectfully. We’re still throwing out garbage every week that’s accumulated over years.”
A boiler donated by the local chapter of the National Electrical Contractors should help prevent heating situations like the one that led to the end of the residency program, Tansey said.
“We have a working bicycle, but we have training wheels and we’d like to take them off at some point,” Staples said.
CAC’s new mission statement is “to provide an outlet for creative community involvement while preserving a historic space.” Its new tagline is Creating Community Through Art.
Over the past few months, Kurfis, Staples and a host of volunteers have added fresh coats of paint and started landscaping projects. About 20 artists and organizations rent studio space in the building. Meeting rooms and event rentals are also available.
“The community didn’t know this building was worth saving because they hadn’t seen it and we weren’t doing anything to give back. There was no reason for outside people to support us,” Kurfis said. “I’m really excited about the progress.”
Pam Pullella of Sylvania Township and her husband John volunteer regularly at CAC.
“It’s a beautiful building, but it hasn’t gotten the love and attention it needed over the years,” Pullella said. “I would love to see it brought back to its original grandeur, to let it shine how it did, to become a magnet for the arts. It’s really great how [Kurfis and Staples] are trying to make it a community space and get people more involved.”
Many groups that rent studio space at CAC are also happy with the new direction.
Barry Aslinger started the T-Town Tassels burlesque troupe at CAC earlier this year. He and his partner are the only former residents still living at CAC. Aslinger stayed on doing maintenance work at the building, which he calls a “jewel” of Toledo.
“More has been done now since Lexi and Sarah have been in place than I’ve seen since I moved in,” Aslinger said. “It’s brighter, it’s cleaner, the energy that flows through the building is more welcoming. The whole vibe has changed and a lot of people are supporting the fact that it’s moving forward so progressively.”
The changes have been good for business, said Erin Garber-Pearson, who founded Bird’s Eye View Circus Space at CAC in 2011.
“The building is on the mend,” Garber-Pearson said. “The visual upkeep of the space has definitely changed and that’s really huge for me running a professional business there.
“It was a hard situation (with the former residents). It’s someone’s home but it’s also my business and my business has needs different from the needs of a living space. For me, I like having it as more of a professional organization now.
“If folks want to see the building prosper, grow and continue to evolve and be the center the community needs, it’s a good time to take some of the personal needs out of that and look at the larger picture, which I think Lexi and Sarah have both done.
“They are both really invested in the community and have the drive needed to make connections with other parts of the community, not just artists. We are really broadening the scope into a community center that’s related to the arts, but also services the community in ways not currently offered.”
Performing arts, in particular, have “really blossomed” at CAC, she said
“There have been more shows here in the last six months than in the past three years I’ve been here combined,” Garber-Pearson said. “It’s just been incredibly busy here, which is really exciting.”
Upcoming events at CAC include:
- Hardcore Crafters, 7:30-10 p.m. Oct. 2, featuring craft beer and two crafts: a pendant out of poker chips and a concrete coaster. Cost is $19 per person or $30 for two people.
- Ghost hunting lecture, 8 p.m. Oct. 3, presented by local paranormal investigator Chris Bores, featuring tips for novice ghost hunters and a 15-minute audio recording of a conversation with a ghost. Cost is $5 and attendees will get a coupon for $5 off one of CAC’s October ghost hunts. An optional ghost hunt will take place after the lecture from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Cost is $35.
- Ghost hunts led by Bores, 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. Oct. 4, 11, 12, 17, 18, 24 and 25. Following an hour-long tour of CAC, attendees are released to explore. Cost is $35. If available, tickets at the door are $45. Event is open to ages 18 and older.
- 6-9 p.m. Oct 22: Spooky Family Fun Night, featuring art projects and trick or treating inside CAC.
- Oct. 31: T-Town Tassels burlesque show.
- 6-10 p.m. Nov. 6: The Art of Craft, featuring craft beers from four breweries and two musical acts. Cost is $30 per person or $50 for two people.
- November: Bird’s Eye View Circus Space performance.
- February: Bird’s Eye View retelling of the Russian fairy tale “Baba Yaga” using circus acts.
“I’m just really excited about the Collingwood’s future,” Kurfis said. “It’s still going to be hard for a while, but I think it’s going to be awesome.”
For more information, visit the website collingwoodartscenter.org.