“Part of NEMAA’s mission is to build access and create support for artists of all types and backgrounds. If you didn’t grow up in the art world, or aren’t from here originally, how do you get connected?” – Anna Becker, Executive Director, NEMAA
Above photo: NEMAA artist Louisa Podlich talks to visitors during Art-A-Whirl
Anna Becker joined the staff of the Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association (NEMAA) almost seven years ago. She had been an artist herself and one aspect of the job of office assistant at NEMAA that appealed to her was the opportunity to connect to a larger community of artists. She spent 10 years as a ceramics artist while often working 2-3 other jobs on the side, and so now in her role of executive director of NEMAA, she understands the value the nonprofit plays in Northeast Minneapolis’ thriving arts neighborhood.
Creating Access for Artists
“Part of NEMAA’s mission is to build access and create support for artists of all types and backgrounds,” said Anna. “If you didn’t grow up in the art world, or aren’t from here originally, how do you get connected? How do you know where the resources are? NEMAA works to make being an artist possible for anyone who has that inclination.” The value proposition of being a member of NEMAA – the organization has over 1,000 members, about 800 of whom are artists themselves – is largely about promotion. The organization uses its platforms, from its web directory to social media to connections with collectors and journalists to its 8,000-subscriber email list, to elevate the work of artists in Northeast Minneapolis.
NEMAA is most well-known as the organizer of Art-A-Whirl®, which is the largest open studio tour in the country and takes place annually throughout Northeast Minneapolis on the third weekend of May. It is a huge event, drawing an estimated 45,000 people into the neighborhood over one three-day weekend. “It’s a spectacle,” says Anna. “One that brings attention to the hundreds of artists working year-round in our community, and the vibrant surrounding area that has flourished in a large part due to their presence.”
While Art-A-Whirl is a major sales and marketing event for artists and businesses alike, there are smaller, more interpersonal aspects of it that reaffirm NEMAA’s importance in the community. “It felt really good when I had an artist tell me that because of a demo material stipend NEMAA gave her for Art-A-Whirl it encouraged her to go after a real grant. Our support helped her believe that she was worth it and could go after something bigger,” said Anna. “Members have told me about relationships they’ve made with journalists, collectors, and other artists that wouldn’t have happened if not for NEMAA. I love how we have built this web that connects people.”
In addition to connections and access, NEMAA offers resources to artists to help them turn their art into a viable business. For Anna, the business side of art didn’t come easily at first. “I was an artist for years and it brought me a lot of joy. But it was really hard to flip the switch and think about my work as a product; to focus on marketing, inventory, and pricing. It took working admin jobs and coming up through the ranks of NEMAA to get comfortable with those aspects of it,” admitted Anna. “But now I know it can be learned, that it is essential, and if I can figure it out, so can others. No matter if the goal is getting eyeballs on their work, making a social impact, or sales, artists need to cultivate business skills.”
Getting Back in the Black
Before Anna stepped into the role of executive director, NEMAA had back-to-back deficit years. However, given her many years at the nonprofit, she knew it was also possible to get to a place of stability and sustainability.
Anna’s first priority when she assumed the role of NEMAA’s interim executive director last fall was to take a close look at the finances and get rid of non-essentials. Support staff had already been laid off when payroll could not be met. So, as a staff of one, she next decided NEMAA’s rent payment was non-essential since she was willing to work from home. She also went to the membership and proposed a moderate membership dues hike, which hadn’t been raised in five years and came to an average dues increase of $10 per member.
In addition to reducing expenses, NEMAA has built new relationships and pursued new earned income streams. For example, at this past year’s Art-A-Whirl, NEMAA reached out for business sponsorships of specific Art-A-Whirl amenities, which was a first for the festival. “We’ve formed some really great new relationships that wouldn’t have happened otherwise,” said Anna.
Anna also noted part of the cause of the deficits was what she called “aspirational budgeting.” “The organization had been putting grants into the budget that we hadn’t yet received and spending based on those projections, as opposed to what we actually had in the bank,” said Anna. As the executive director (she accepted the full position in July), Anna has erred on the conservative side of budgeting. “I’m almost pessimistic when it comes to budgeting our income and very realistic with our expenses,” she noted. “We can scale up if more funding becomes available, but I need to know we can remain stable if something falls through or an income generator underperforms. And when the time comes to add staff again, I can’t be reckless when their payroll is on the line; this is their livelihood.”
To help with cash flow at the end of 2018, the organization opened a line of credit with Propel Nonprofits, which hadn’t been possible to approve until the organization worked through its budget forecast. “Janet [Ogden-Brackett] was very frank with us but also very encouraging,” Anna said of Propel’s Chief Program Officer, whom she worked with along with Koa Mirai, Financial Specialist at Propel.
Anna made an eight-month budget that got NEMAA to Art-A-Whirl with the most crucial debt paid off, but not all of it. “No extra staff, no extra marketing or programs, just barebones,” said Anna. “And at the end of it was a cliff in June where the organization would have to lay me off.” NEMAA had eight months to build a bridge to make it to the end of the year and a new income cycle. Every new sponsor, contribution, or earned income in 2019 extended that bridge farther out and gave the nonprofit more time.
Due to a dramatic reduction of expenses and added income generators (including the debut of the popular NEMAA 10×10 art fundraiser), NEMAA is now debt free and will end this year with a $50,000 surplus.
Engaging the Board through Change
As a staff of one and with the organization at a point of change, Anna knew having a strong, engaged board in place was critical for NEMAA’s short-term prospects. “People want to feel needed,” underscored Anna. “They need to know that they are not just expected to come and sit there for 90 minutes each month to look over financial reports they might not understand; we need them in the community having conversations, to be learning from stakeholders and advocating for our organization. They also need to feel safe enough to ask questions if they don’t understand something.”
To help board members understand their roles, Anna recommends new board members attend Propel’s Board Boot Camp training. She also seeks out folks with lived experience as both artists and administrators. “Great ideas are wonderful, but if you don’t understand the work involved and the capacity load, they’re not going to get executed successfully,” she said.
Through the past couple of years of change and realignment, NEMAA is in a strong position to keep powering an equitable and prosperous creative community that celebrates Northeast Minneapolis as a national arts destination.
To learn more about NEMAA and to sign-up for classes, stay posted about Art-A-Whirl, and meet new artists, visit its website: https://nemaa.org/.
Photos courtesy of NEMAA and Joe & Jen Photography.