Monday, June 13, 2016


2016! The Dirt Palace is getting strategic (making a plan)! 
As part of this process we're visiting some organizations/space that we admire and hope to learn from. 

This post is part of a series of profiles of spaces that we have visited. This project is 
supported by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.

SPACE Gallery:
Interview with Executive Director, Nat May:
At a Glance
Founded: 2002 by Jon Courtney and Todd Bernard.
Budget: $600k (not including new studio rental activity)
Staff: 7 admin (3 full time 4 part time) as well as a 6 person events staff who may work as little as 1 night a month
Board of Directors: 10
Board of Advisors: 13
Committees: (include board as well as other community members with specific skills)
Ad-hoc Capital Campaign
Ad-hoc Committee for Building Purchase
Ad-hoc Committee for Facade Improvements

X: The origin story of Space is not too dissimilar to that of many Alternative or Artist Run Spaces and according to Executive Director Nat May it went something along the lines of: There was a lot of idealism and energy at the beginning and we were not smart enough to quit.

P: This was something that we totally related to. I’ve often said that I was too young and naive to know what we were getting ourselves into at the Dirt Palace. ( I’ll just speak for myself on the young and dumb tip)

X: Nat, who became the Executive Director, was not a founder. He came along about 6 months in to help out with bookkeeping and grant writing. Thirteen years later and a budget that’s increased over ten fold, it seems as though Nat is still doing a big chunk of the bookkeeping and grant writing. This also follows a frequent narrative path for Alternative Spaces, where the E.D. stays pretty connected to core tasks that are not always glamorous, but provide efficiencies for the organization. There are two factors that seem critical to Space making it out alive from the “chaotic and vulnerable” early days (that so many projects stagnate and eventually wither in). First, they developed a community support system that believed in their mission/vision and that felt a need for what Space sought to offer.  Second, they had a highly sympathetic landlord who actively wanted to see them succeed and was an active cheerleader, champion and advisor.  While Nat is not sure of how much the founders and early participants had an awareness of the 60’s & 70’s NY artist space movement, founder Jon Courtney had lived in Winston Salem and had been involved with The Warehouse.

Space’s mission and approach to programs are summarized below:

SPACE is a nonprofit organization that supports contemporary arts projects, champions artists, and encourages an open exchange of ideas.

Grounded in the belief that vital communities are activated by experimentation, conversation, and camaraderie, SPACE engages a wide audience with provocative arts programming and category-defying events. As a nexus for curious minds, we collaborate with original thinkers and invite the public to participate in the ongoing pursuit of adventurous ideas.

From our versatile arts space in downtown Portland, Maine, we:
●  Showcase music
●  Present film screenings
●  Curate visual art exhibitions
●  Facilitate lectures and discussions
●  Rent studios to artists with active practices
●  Oversee a statewide arts regranting program
●  Foster conversations about issues of social justice
●  Engage the public in community events and open forums
●  Collaborate with other nonprofits and performing arts organizations

X: This all sounds well & good, but to understand how awesome Space is, it’s useful to know HOW MUCH of all of those things Space actually does. They hold about 210 events a year, 10 full blown gallery exhibitions, produce a variety of off site public programs & now (as of 2015) rent studios to about 30 individual artists and a co-operative printmaking facility.  

P: What is also amazing about Space is the quality of their programing. They hold true to their vision of “provocative arts programming and category-defying events”. So much of the model that we are used to in regards to community arts spaces is providing the services of both space and opportunities for its artists constituents. Space and opportunities have been prioritized as the most needed resources for artists. Space Gallery offers both of these, however also actively curates exciting content from within and outside the Portland community. I think it is easy to forget how much an impact importing ideas, experimentation and dialogue can have on a the local dialogue. The intentional curation of these events is an important part of what Space does that sets it apart from many other artist run community spaces.

X: While we didn’t get super nosy as to ask for data about attendance at their events, I can offer anecdotally that people show up! A few years ago I had a gallery show at Space, this show included a display of masks that people were invited to try on and be photographed in at the opening. At the end of the night I had taken 500 pictures of people wearing masks! Not everybody participated, so the actual number of people who came through the doors over the course of the night was likely higher.  To put this in perspective, Portland has about a third of the population of Providence. I can not think of any opening that I’ve ever been to, especially for a relatively unknown out of towner, that 500 people showed up for! There was some kind of “First Friday” type coordination going on with art-spaces in the area...but still, that’s a VERY enthusiastic art going public. This enthusiasm translates into sustainability as well, as about 26% of their operating budget comes from income that is contributed, with contributed income growing between 10 and 15% in the last 5 years. The remaining 74% is split basically evenly between earned income from events (about 37%) and grants (about 37%).  Space also makes great use of community members who want to be involved. There is an active volunteer base of 30-40 people who plug in in a variety of ways.

X: One of the strategies that Space has employed in thinking about resources has to do with being frugal with grant writing time. They don’t chase down grant opportunities that are a stretch or not cost efficient to apply for and manage. That said, Nat credits some relationships with foundations as being super important to the development of Space in general. He specifically cited the Warhol foundation’s investment in Space as being a “Game Changer”, in terms of inspiring Space to build a strong Board that could support the work of Space as it developed, to do internal capacity building, and to connect with peer organizations across the country.  For me listening to Nat talk about the growth and development of their “awesome” board was really inspiring. I think that it is super common for young organizations to feel a tension around working with board members who really “get it” and can be trusted to understand the vision and support the strategy and decision making of leadership (for whom this is often a life’s work), and working with board members who have a ton to offer, but are outside of immediate circles. Nat talked about a board that NEVER mucks things up with staff by getting involved with programming issues and that it seems has a comfortable culture, and a strong mandate and has an incredible track record of getting things done.