Business Lends a Hand to the Arts

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

AS director of Anchor Graphics, a small print shop and gallery in Chicago, David Jones wanted to get the word out about his budding nonprofit arts organization and its activities. But he didn't have the resources and expertise to do it himself or a coffer of cash to pay a professional.

So, several months ago Mr. Jones turned to Business Volunteers for the Arts (BVA).

A New York-based organization with affiliates in 30 cities around the United States, BVA places business professionals who work in fields such as marketing, financial planning, and public relations with struggling nonprofit arts groups.

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For Jones, the program worked like this: After meeting with BVA staff in Chicago to determine his goals for Anchor Graphics - a shop that works with artists to create hand-painted limited-edition prints and gives free print-making classes to inner-city kids - BVA matched him with two volunteers from the business community. One is creating a brochure showcasing Jones's shop; the other is developing press releases. Jones estimates the volunteers have saved him at least $4,000 so far.

"It's such a gift to be able to have someone come in here who has the knowledge and expertise in an area that I don't have and then to be willing to give of her or himself to help an organization," Jones says. "Right away I can see the benefits in terms of getting our name out there."

As government funding for the arts shrivels and as many arts groups struggle with diminished resources and endowment funds, supporters of BVA see the business/arts partnership as a way to help some arts groups stay afloat and remain viable. Moreover, both sides reap benefits.

"Volunteerism is an important response because it does two things," says Martin Cominsky, director of BVA/USA in New York. "It helps arts groups in some critical management areas where staff has been cut back.... But more importantly, we're building advocates for the arts, and what happens is that our volunteers go in there, they address a specific problem, but they have a much better understanding of how the arts operate and how important they are to a community."

BVA volunteers also draw support from businesses. Because many companies tie their contributions to their employees' volunteer involvement, volunteerism often brings equipment and dollars to arts organizations, Mr. Cominsky says. "We're seeing in general that the business sector is more interested in volunteerism. They're willing to encourage their employees to be involved with us and to make these connections."

BVA's 4,000 volunteers represent more than 1,700 companies and assist more than 3,000 arts organizations. Since it started in 1975, BVA has provided $30 million in volunteer services.

VOLUNTEERS generally spend about three hours per week on a project, which can last from several months to a couple of years.

BVA staff say the enthusiasm volunteers generate is part of the reason BVA is successful.

"For me it's really wonderful fun to go into an organization that is sitting on the precipice of wanting to create in writing a plan that will allow them to take perhaps a large step forward in broadening their success," says Cathe Russe, a business manager at Clintec Nutrition Company north of Chicago. Ms. Russe is helping Mordine & Company, a 23-year-old Chicago contemporary dance company, develop a five-year strategic plan.

Joan Gunzberg, executive director of BVA/Chicago, says many business professionals are motivated to become volunteers because they were active in the arts when they were younger.

"I was involved in plays and art when I was in high school, but I didn't get an opportunity to pursue that in college," says BVA/Boston volunteer Aaron Clayton, a senior management consultant at Coopers & Lybrand, an accounting firm. "This is a way to get involved and get closer to what the arts community provides." Mr. Clayton is helping La Alianza Hispana, an organization involved in social work in Boston's Hispanic community, to develop a business enterprise that would export recycled paper products t o Latin American companies. Profits from the venture would support cultural programs at La Alianza.

Volunteers come from corporate giants such as IBM and AT&T as well as smaller community businesses. While BVA attracts volunteers by presenting seminars at companies, Cominsky says most business professionals hear of it through word of mouth.

Although the recession has curtailed efforts to expand the program to other cities, Cominsky says the number of volunteers and projects is growing.

Richard MacMillan, executive director of BVA/Boston, says that "the need is so great ... because the level of support for arts and culture has diminished so much." He adds, with BVA, "We're creating a new generation of advocates for the arts."

Gunzberg says the need for arts organizations to be more savvy in management is a relatively new concept. "I think a lot of them just felt those things weren't necessary or they weren't part of the artistic vision," she says. "And of course now ... the survival issue is a serious one."

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