When local economies slow down, the arts community is often the first to feel the pinch.
The Nicolaysen Art Museum is no exception.
Over the past couple of years the Nic has seen nearly all of its city and state funding evaporate. On top of that, some longtime donors have passed away while others are shifting their resources into other charitable organizations that also suffer during downturns.
“As you see a downturn in one sector of the nonprofit community, it impacts every single one,” said the Nic’s executive director Ann Ruble.
Nonprofits rely on the private sector more than ever as government funding dries up, according to Ruble, but “there are still finite resources in the private sector.”
As far as Ruble is concerned, government funding isn’t coming back. “We had to really think about if we want to be around for another 50 years, what does sustainability look like and what things do we have to do to be sustainable,” said Ruble.
Part of that sustainability involves the painful process of staff reorganization. Several positions have been closed with attrition, and the Nic relies on more contract and part-time labor.
In addition, the Nic is losing one of its respected curators, E.K. Wimmer. Wimmer, who Ruble says was involved in the decision, will transition out of his role over the next couple or few months and is looking to relocate. The chief curator position will be combined with the special collections, leaving the museum with one curator.
The Nic also loses Wimmer’s wife, Maria, who is a well-known Casper artist and an instructor with the Nic’s art class program.
Of all the difficult decisions that have been made, “this hurt the most,” said Ruble.
Convincing more people to support local arts is a challenge.
“I see it with the Art Walk,” said the Nic’s board chair Claire Marlow. “People really want it and participate in it, but when it comes to going a bit above and beyond financially they go ‘Hmm.'”
“We’ve had some great lucky breaks over the past couple of years to help us pull through this tough time, but we’re at the point where that luck’s run out,” said Marlow. “Now we’re really feeling that crunch to the point that bigger decisions need to be made.”
“We still have 27 exhibitions this year, we still have a collection of 8,000 pieces, education and therapeutic art workshops going practically every day…those things have to continue because that’s our mission,” said Ruble, “but now we have to ask can we do any of those things differently.”
The Nic has pursued other revenue streams over the year, such as doubling paid memberships and renting their venerable red brick building for events. Last year’s annual Nic Fest summer art festival was one of their most successful in history, according to Ruble, and she expects this year’s festival to do at least as well.
Ruble is confident that the Nic will continue as Casper’s leading art resource with smarter budgeting and resource management, but the next three years will be particularly challenging.
“That’s what we’re all here for is to see this organization stay afloat and flourish and bring a small community some big culture,” said Marlow.
“I want there to be a cultural anchor like the Nic that does cool programs like Chinese New Year this month, or the Bach and Brunch we’re doing with the symphony,” said Ruble. “We need to be the cultural institution that I think the founders wanted it to be. Not just a place where art hangs, but where people hang out to appreciate art.”