By fall 2005 the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center was in a life and death struggle for survival. Mayor Potter had turned down a request for a one-time grant to haul the center out of debt. A possible merger with the up-and-coming music nonprofit Ethos had fallen apart. Staff left. Finally, with the prospect of insolvency looming, the board resigned.
Fast forward two years and IFCC looks better than ever. Filled with energy and life, the center is once again a key player at the hub of North and Northeast Portland's theater and arts community. Drop by and you'll find something going on any night of the week. And from next month the center will be booked through July 2009 – at least for Thursday through Sunday nights.
"Portland is beginning to be known on a national level as a place to produce new original work and IFCC is definitely a part of that," said Adrienne Flagg, the center's creative director and a key figure in the center's resurgence. "We're doing really well now. We're booked seven days a week solid and that's far better for the community."
In 2005 responsibility for reviving the ailing arts center fell to City Commissioner Sam Adams. The city agreed to give the center a one-time grant of $100,000 – on top of $100,000 the center already had received for that year. But if IFCC was to pull out of debt, it would have to bring in paying audiences and create a viable long-term business plan.
Adams' chief of staff, Jesse Beason, took on the job of board chair and put together an interim board: Sheila Holden, Regional Community Manager for PacifiCorp's Pacific Power; Sam Cole of Northwest Funding, award winning business consultant, Faye Burch; and performer and artist, Art Alexander.
To get the ball rolling, the board hired Flagg, a Drammy-award-winning actress and director. They offered her a three-month contract to be interim manager.
"It was in dire straits at that point," Flagg told The Skanner. "The mail hadn't been opened since April. And there was an outstanding line of credit due that we didn't know about for $50,000."
Flagg began booking productions and setting up shows to get bodies into the building and audiences into seats.
" I just rented the hell out of this building," she said. "And not just theater productions. I rented to birthday parties, weddings, yoga classes. I had to go out and find bookings. I didn't just sit here and wait for people to come."
As a stalwart of Portland's theater world, Flagg knows the value of a clean, affordable, well-kept, accessible venue. She also knew some hard choices loomed. In the past IFCC had offered up space for free to certain groups. But, if the center was to fulfill its mission of delivering high quality theater and art to the N/NE Portland community and also nurturing new talent – especially artists and performers of color, that would have to change.
"We can work to keep things affordable, but we just can't do this for free," she says. "It's not sustainable for us, and it doesn't help other groups become sustainable either. What we can do is to help with resources and with connections to the community and with networking so they can build a stronger support system."
Opened in 1982, as part of a Portland Parks and Recreation effort to create local accessible multicultural arts venues, the center had thrived under the former City Commissioner Charles Jordan. For years it succeeded in its aims of bringing affordable multicultural arts and theater to the North and Northeast community.
IFCC helped launch some of Portland's best-loved artists, such as Adriene Cruz and Lillian Pitt.
Art Alexander performed at the center early on and became a committed supporter. Alexander understood IFCC's unique role as a talent incubator for artists and performers of color.
"It's a valuable resource for the city overall and for the community," Alexander said. "At one time it was the only place in town where you were likely to find a production that was non-mainstream, non-majority culture."
But in 1998, when IFCC switched from being a city program to an independent nonprofit, it continued to operate much as it had before, although its new financial reality required a major effort to find new sources of funding.
"There probably wasn't a good recognition of how the marketplace had changed and where opportunities lay for improved viability," Alexander says.
With Flagg at the helm, the center began pulling in more bookings. Three companies: Stumptown Stages, 3rd Rail and Studio 20, made IFCC their home base, and Flagg forged links with others.
Six months later a new IFFC board, with business savvy as well as arts experience, was in place. Beason remains the chair. Vice-chair Colin Rowan is an investment banker. Portland housing administrator, Daniel Ledezma understands budgets. Architect Bill Hart is co-owner of a successful small business, Carleton Hart Architecture. Other members have experience with organizational diversity. Lisa Webb is associate dean at Lewis and Clark University. LeAnn Brown manages contract compliance for TriMet. Then there are the artists: Art Alexander and Charlie Tyndall, a set designer and builder.
The new board retained Flagg as creative director and hired Columbia University graduate Kimberly Howard as managing director. Howard is working to diversify the center's funding.
"In the past IFCC was very heavy on foundation funding or funding from the city," said Kimberly Howard, managing director of IFCC since Nov. 2006. "Ideally our earned income, the revenue we generate would be 40 percent of our operating budget. Right now it's 20 percent, but (in mid- 2005) it was nothing; there was no earned income. There wasn't anyone using the center – no-one was calling any more."
One option for the center was to ask for operating funds from the Regional Arts and Culture Council. But the council only distributes its grants every two years, and wouldn't be accepting applications in 2006. Nonprofits can't afford to depend on any one income source, Howard said.
"For any nonprofit to be successful, they need to have a certain percentage of their income coming from individual supporters, a certain percentage from foundations, a certain percentage that is corporate support – either through corporate gifts or corporate sponsorships – and a certain percentage that is earned."
This year, IFCC has achieved a balanced budget. The city supports the center to the tune of $100,000 a year, but individual and corporate donors too are contributing to the budget. More needs to be done, Howard said, but IFCC's finances are steadily improving.
The next challenge is to expand the board. So IFCC is on the lookout for arts enthusiasts who want to support its artistic vision and can bring skills in fundraising and development, law, accounting and finance.
"Our goal ideally is to be financially stable enough that we can continue to work with small, emerging groups and artists," Alexander said.