Changing Models of Sustainability for Art Centers

Sharon and Peterborough, NH

Contact Name
Keri Wiederspahn
Project Dates
January 2012 to present
Workshop Leader
Creative Communities Exchange (CCX) 2013
Business Planning, Networking
For over 65 years, Sharon Arts Center has promoted the arts community by supporting local artists through its education, exhibitions, and retail programs. However, during the economic downturn, our organization found it could not grow and it began to struggle with sustainability. While we were financially stable, we lacked the resources to take the organization in new directions. In 2012, we began conversations with the New Hampshire Institute of Art to discuss the development of a creative partnership. Our collaboration began with shared marketing resources and evolved into a formal merger that allowed for the creation of several low-residency MFA programs held at Sharon Arts. By joining forces, the NHIA and Sharon Arts is supporting artists and craftspeople in all phases of their lives.
Project Goals
What were the project goals?
1) To fulfill our mission to serve artists and craftspeople in all stages of their careers.
2) Seek financial sustainability through the development of new resources of revenue.
3) To take the Sharon Arts Center to a new level by becoming involved in higher education and offer accredited MFA programs on our premises.
Have they changed over time?
Our initial conversations with the New Hampshire Institute of Art focused on the development of a new, creative partnership that would allow us to share marketing and promotional resources. However, as President Roger Williams and I began talking, we found that the Institute shared our vision to support educators, emerging artists, and professional artists through continuing education and exhibitions. We realized that the studios at the Sharon Arts Center could be filled during our “slow” period of the year if we offered low-residency MFA programs on site. Given this new idea, the NHIA, which only offered undergraduate courses, sought and received accreditation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) the National Association of Art and Design Schools (NASAD) in Studio Art, Photography, Creative Writing and Scriptwriting for Stage and Screen. Low-residency master's programs in these disciplines are rare, providing Sharon Arts with the chance to bring professional development opportunities for established artists to our campus.
Who are the project partners and stakeholders?
Sharon Arts Center and the New Hampshire Institute of Art
Project Specifics
How was the project implemented? What were the steps taken?
Although Sharon Arts could have sustained its organization in its current state, we took a “leap of faith” and merged with the New Hampshire Institute of Art. We didn’t sell our assets, change our identity, or give up control of our organization. Indeed, we knew we were a cultural asset in the Monadnock region, which is home to the MacDowell Colony, Peterborough Players and Mariposa Museum, and that we had much to offer the NHIA in terms of increasing its enrollment and providing visibility in one of the largest art communities in the state. Instead, we placed four Sharon Arts Center Board members on the NHIA’s Board of Trustees and the rest of our Board members joined an advisory committee. With the merge, the NHIA took on many of Sharon Art’s administrative functions as a cost effective measure, but we retained all of our permanent full and part-time staff who received improved health care and educational benefits.
Have they been refined over time?
We are constantly engaged in refining our goals allowing us to envision a new and sustainable future for the Sharon Arts Center.
What were your major obstacles?
1) One major obstacle was the issue of how Sharon Arts would be perceived in the community once we merged with the New Hampshire Institute of Art. While there were many questions regarding the merge, we knew we were working with a good team of Board members both at the NHIA and at Sharon Arts who wanted what was best for Sharon Arts.
2) Sharon Arts has a strong brand and identity that goes back 65 years. The merger raised questions as to whether we would lose our identity. However, we retained our brand and found we became stronger in the public's eyes given the NHIA’s reputation, combined resources, and shared faculty and students.
3) All of our stakeholders—faculty, staff, members and donors--wondered how our new organization would operate after the merger. The operations piece is constantly evolving as we develop new processes and procedures for working with the New Hampshire Institute of Art. Remarkably, our faculty and students have adapted to the changes, and we’ve received positive feedback from everyone including our donors and nonprofit peers in the art community.
Who or what was instrumental in overcoming these obstacles?
Sharon Arts has a strong Board of Trustees who worked tirelessly to communicate the changes with full transparency to the community.
What top three suggestions would you give to others attempting a similar project?
1)To find ways to sustain your organization by “thinking out of the box.”
2)Do not be afraid to approach another organization that has a similar mission to discuss potential synergy. Put all your ideas on the table.
3)Clear and constant communications with all of your constituents whether they are your students, members, faculty.
Project Impact
How has this project contributed to creative community building?
Sharon Arts is a stronger organization backed by the academic and financial resources of a small college. Artists can count on us in every stage of their learning experience whether they are a child attending our summer camps, a teenager taking classes, a young adult taking college courses, or an older adult rediscovering the joys of art! The Sharon Art Center is viewed as a leader in the New Hampshire art community, having recently become the co-recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Our Town Grant, working in collaboration with the Town of Peterborough and other nonprofits in the area, aimed at bringing together all of the cultural organizations in the Monadnock region together in the area of creative placemaking.
Why do you consider the project successful, as related to your project goals above?
Given our ability to envision a new future and adapt to change, we expect the Sharon Arts Center will be sustained long into the future.
Were there unexpected impacts?
We are a part of a new and larger art community, the New Hampshire Institute of Art, which brings a young and innovative faculty, talented students, and outstanding alumni to all that we do at Sharon Arts.
CCX Workshop Handout

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