Working in the nonprofit arts world isn’t for the weak. Competition is stiff – for the limited amount of public and private funding, for audience members, season subscribers and individual donors. But Alison Huff says working together, not against one another, is what’s going to allow Louisville’s arts community to grow and thrive in the future.
“Resources are always limited and they’re always going to be limited. Arts groups by and large are nonprofit organizations, and we rely on public funding. That’s always going to be a challenge,” says Huff, managing director at Walden Theatre.
Huff is the first recipient of the Fund for the Arts’ Allan Cowan Innovation Fund for the Advancement of the Arts award. She will use her grant, which is named after the former Fund for the Arts president, to fund studies at Harvard Business School Executive Education’s Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Leadership program this summer.
The arts educator is calling for more partnerships between Louisville’s arts stakeholders in order to leverage those limited dollars in more efficient and effective ways.
“By working together, we can spread risk around a little bit, we can really maximize those resources and efficiently create the best outcomes possible,” she says.
It’s a philosophy she’s been living at Walden Theatre of late. Collaboration is a cornerstone of the philosophy behind the Slant Culture Theatre Festival, which Huff co-founded with Teresa Willis in 2012. Five theatre companies, including Walden (which also plays host), come together to produce one festival of plays running in repertory, along with a number of guest artists, too. Huff says it’s an experiment that has taught her a great deal about how to bring artists and companies with different goals and agendas around the same table to work together.
“How do we figure out how to get everyone to work together effectively and efficiently? How do we build those relationships not only for the immediate festival on the horizon but long-term?” says Huff. “We’re cross-pollinating our audiences, sharing marketing, and creating an environment that is more collaborative, more integrated.”
The spirit of intentional collaboration is building-wide at Walden this year as the youth theatre conservatory organization, where Huff has worked for seven years, and Blue Apple Players, a Louisville-based early childhood educational theatre program, have voted to merge. The new organization, which has yet to announce a new name or leadership structure, will serve about 75 percent of Jefferson County’s Title 1 schools with a newly-streamlined curriculum that takes students from pre-K through post-college internships and professional development.
“Of course it does create some efficiencies, which is great, because then we can be better stewards of those community dollars that are coming in, so we can have more of that money go to programming instead of overhead,” says Huff. “But what we’re really excited about is the opportunity to leverage those dollars and have a bigger impact on programming.”
Huff will bring the expertise and perspectives she gains at the Harvard seminar this summer back to Louisville to share with her peers. She has a dream for the arts landscape where arts education programs that are proven to work are integrated seamlessly throughout the K-12 school curricula, then ripple out to affect adult audiences as well. And tangible dreams, too: a community-wide arts pass, sold on a sliding income-based scale, that would encourage residents to sample local arts widely and deeply.
“We’re lucky that we have all of this stuff in our small town, but I think too often those audience members are in silos,” she says. “They have their one thing or two things they go to all the time and they don’t take chances on the other opportunities that are out there.”