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Keeping Fort Wayne's thriving arts community strong

Arts United kicks off Annual Fund Drive

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


If you’ve ever enjoyed a Philharmonic performance or Youtheater production, or checked out a “hot buzz” independent film at the Cinema Center, just to name a few examples, you have Arts United to partially thank for that. The third oldest arts fund in the United States, Arts United is a private, non-profit organization that helps fund various arts organizations in Fort Wayne. They provide partial funding for 10 member groups — including the Fort Wayne Ballet, the Fort Wayne Philharmonic, and the Fort Wayne Museum of Art — and additional support for dozens of other associate and affiliate members. Fort Wayne boasts a lot of arts institutions for a community its size, and one of the reasons it’s able to do so is the support of Arts United.

Anyone unclear of why a thriving arts community is essential to the health and welfare of a city should spend five minutes talking to Geoff Gephardt, the President of Arts United. He’s refreshingly specific on how Fort Wayne benefits from the arts, and why, as the slogan of Arts United fund drive says, “Art Matters.” “You have to have something that makes the place a lively community, a place where’s there’s more than just the bare essentials,” he says. “That’s what the arts does for Fort Wayne.”

But Gephardt is just getting warmed up. He goes on to cite studies that show how exposure to the arts improves the quality of education in a community. “The organizations Arts United supports by taking their programs into the schools and bringing the schools to their facilities actually augment education in a way that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.” Economic development? He mentions a 1997 study that shows how the non-profit organizations who are members of Arts United contributed over 16 million dollars annually to the local economy and supported 864 full-time jobs. The arts are bringing money to town, too. “People are much more likely to come to Fort Wayne, buy tickets, eat at a restaurant, stay in a hotel… if there are arts activities that they can take advantage of. So, the arts bring people to town, help inject money into the local economy, and we’re a better community for it.”

Gephardt says the organization’s primary mission is to raise money to support non-profit arts groups in Northeast Indiana, and further sums up what Arts United offers. “We give grants, provide technical assistance for arts organizations, own and manage four buildings for use by non-profit arts groups, convene a community arts council that brings people together to network, and we do some training seminars for arts groups in things like grant writing.”
Arts United relies on contributio
ns from several different sources, including individuals, corporations, trusts/foundations, and workplace campaigns. Gephardt describes Fort Wayne as a generous community when it comes to the arts. “We like to think that’s partly because Arts United has been around since 1955, it’s established a climate for giving to the arts,” he says. “People understand how important it is to have a strong arts community, so they step forward when the time comes to support the fund drive.”

However, the money Arts United is able to raise during their annual fund drive took a hit in recent years with changes within the corporate community. The loss of companies like Tolkheim and Central Soya, and changes at Lincoln and GTE, meant that corporate contribution decisions are no longer done in Fort Wayne.

When Arts United kicks off their fund drive on February 4th with a party and silent auction, the organization will be hoping to reverse a decline in donations they’ve seen in the last couple years. “The last two or three years have been particularly difficult,” says Jim Sparrow, Director of Development for Arts United. “Three years ago we raised a little over $1.4 million. Last year we only raised around $1.2 million. The initial indications right now are that things seem to be a bit better than in the last two years.”

Arts United has taken steps to make up for the loss of some of the larger companies, and Sparrow is confident that the 2004 fund drive will meet its goals. “Every year we assess what happened the year before, and we try to be realistic about what we think we can raise. We also try to keep in mind that whatever we raised the year previous we wouldn’t like to do anything less than that because it would require us to decrease our funding to our groups.”

Arts institutions across the country, from philharmonics to museums, have been forced to close their doors in recent years. Fort Wayne is lucky not only in the number and quality of arts institutions we have, but in the fact that we haven’t seen a lot of that here. One of the reasons is the support in funding and services that Arts United is able to provide. With the upcoming fund drive, Arts United seeks to increase public awareness of what they do. “Hopefully, we can continue to oversee these organizations and help them to focus on their mission without being constantly burdened with the prospect of having to close,” says Sparrow.

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