Schenectady County

Arts center on the brink of going broke

The Hamilton Hill Arts Center is teetering on the edge of insolvency, its mission of free music clas

The Hamilton Hill Arts Center is teetering on the edge of insolvency, its mission of free music classes no longer a funding priority in the crush of needy schools, food pantries and health clinics desperately seeking grants.

“Grants that we count on have been reduced,” said Executive Director Miki Conn. “We have funding from all levels, and all levels have been reduced.”

Her $250,000 annual operation is now buckling under a $14,000 monthly deficit. Two weeks ago, the agency was able to make payroll only because a church sent a $2,000 donation just before the checks had to go out. This week, there have been no last-minute miracles.

“I told staff we’re good for this payday and I think we’re good for next payday,” Conn said. “After that, I don’t know.”

The last time Hamilton Hill Arts Center ran out of money, its staff went on unemployment and then came back as volunteers to finish teaching children how to drum, draw and dance.

That was five years ago. It took six months then for the center to win enough grants to return to solvency.

Conn is hoping that she can keep paying people this time, but this isn’t a matter of waiting for one grant to come in.

“No one really knows what will happen in 2010,” she said. “It’s scary, it really is, because we don’t know how far [the recession] will take us.”

She’s trying to see a “silver lining” in the problem — the center has finally started reusing the blank side of copier paper, and the board of directors has agreed to receive all reports by e-mail.

“So it’s pushing us to work more efficiently in some ways,” she said, adding jokingly that she ought to be used to fiscal crises by now.

“The arts center has always operated more on optimism than money,” she said.

As the bank accounts drain, she is feverishly searching for new grants. Another staffer is working full-time on grants as well, leaving only three to run the arts programs.

“Our other work had to be set aside,” she said, citing the storytelling demonstrations that she used to run. “That’s not going to happen.”

She did agree to speak at Schenectady County Community College during Women’s History Month — she’ll be talking about running a nonprofit as a woman — but even that is a strain.

“The time spent preparing for that is time I could have spent writing a grant. So my heart is divided,” she said.

For now, no one has been laid off. In that, her nonprofit is unusual. Other agencies have laid off huge swaths of their work force, including Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Capital Region, which laid off one-third of its workers last week.

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