“At MCBA, one of the things that excites me about the work we do is that we’re providing access to unique studio spaces, rare equipment, and specialized tools to the community.” – Amanda Kaler, Interim Executive Director
Photo: Minnesota Center for Book Arts Board Chair KC Foley (left) and Interim Executive Director Amanda Kaler next to one of the Center’s iron hand presses
The Endurance of Craft in the Screen Age
In the days when letterpress printing was the norm, you didn’t want to feel what was called the “printer’s kiss,” or the impression of the press on paper. In our current age of e-readers and rising screen time, that has changed. We seek signs of the handcrafted – the unique design of marbled paper, an exposed stitch on a handbound book, a deep impression on a letterpress printed invitation.
“There’s something really intimate about connecting with something physical,” said Amanda Kaler, Interim Executive Director of Minnesota Center for Book Arts (MCBA). “We’re seeing this boomerang effect, where people are engaging in virtual experiences, at the same time as increased demand for a return to the physical, to the handmade.” MCBA provides that opportunity for thousands of people annually; last year, MCBA served over 82,000 people of all ages and artistic abilities through educational and artistic programming in bookbinding, papermaking, letterpress printing, typography – all of the traditional and contemporary art of the book.
Access for All
Amanda, like many who come to MCBA, does not have a formal art background but she was hooked by the art of letterpress all the same. As a writer by training, she was taken with the process of letterpress printing the first time she saw the written word come to life off a press. “In grad school, I had to advocate for access to my school’s letterpress classes,” she recalls. “So at MCBA, one of the things that excites me about the work we do is that we’re providing access to unique studio spaces, rare equipment, and specialized tools to the community.”
MCBA Board Chair KC Foley agrees that access to book art resources – both classes and equipment – is what drives the work of the nonprofit. “When I first learned about MCBA, I thought this art was really unique and rarified. But, as I learned more – I love books, and I love art – I discovered how this organization mixes both for people of all ages, from non-artists all the way to fine artists. It’s really a center for everyone.”
MCBA is the largest book arts center of its kind, both in terms of footprint (be sure to check out their cavernous basement space!) and programming. It offers classes for preschoolers to adults and space for novices to fine artists.
The Need for a New Chapter
However, despite a diverse mix of revenues – class fees, memberships, grants, individual donations, space rental, and an art and gift shop – in the summer of 2017 during a leadership transition, the organization found itself in a cash crunch. “Many in the nonprofit arts world have generally lived grant to grant, which we’d done, and every now and then you come to the ‘perfect storm’ moment,” said KC. “We reached a point where we knew we needed additional help.” That’s when MCBA first reached out to Propel Nonprofits.
“Originally we were just seeking a loan,” said KC. “But that inquiry evolved into a really constructive relationship, where Allison [Wagstrom] advised us on how to qualify for a loan and remain a viable enterprise going forward.”
Beyond Capital: Capacity Investments in Staff, Board, & New Best Practices
Five months later, MCBA received a loan from Propel Nonprofits for a new server and to cover short-term working capital needs, but they also took the time to invest in a more sustainable path forward. Allison, MCBA’s loan officer at Propel Nonprofits, held a staff workshop to make their budgeting process more collaborative and transparent. “The only way you change the culture of an organization is to have everyone involved,” said Allison. “The leadership at Minnesota Center for Book Arts did that, and collectively we used budgeting as a tool to have some of those harder conversations. They also took immediate action when they realized they had a cash flow problem, made hard decisions, and now are back on track.”
Mario Hernandez, Strategic Service Director at Propel Nonprofits, led a board retreat to educate the board on best practices. KC has also participated in a Propel Nonprofits board chair cohort in the past, and from that learned the value of collaboration at a board level.
Changing Culture, Saving for Long-Term Mission
“Propel Nonprofits gave us permission to save, and to integrate that into the organization’s DNA and culture – ‘hoard cash’ is our new mantra!” – Amanda Kaler, Interim Executive Director
Through these investments beyond loan capital, MCBA is going through what they identify as a paradigm shift. “Propel Nonprofits gave us permission to save, and to integrate that into the organization’s DNA and culture – ‘hoard cash’ is our new mantra!” said Amanda. “We’ve been living a just getting by, grant-to-grant story. Now, we hope to be part of the shift where it is okay for nonprofits to have money in the bank and to pay staff well. We want to be able to get past this myth that working for a nonprofit means you’re not going to make a living wage, because the work is very important.”
In the end, MCBA knows they still have work to do. However, they’re already seeing the fruits of their investments. “I think about where we were last year, and where we are now, and I’m excited for where we’ll be a year from now,” said Amanda. “We’re making investments in board capacity, staff capacity, and in prioritizing the right relationships, including the one with Propel Nonprofits. That relationship provides additional security. It’s valuable to know we don’t have to do this alone.”
For more information on the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, including how to register for classes, visit their website: https://www.mnbookarts.org/.