Ix Art Park in Charlottesville is offering free admission to its Looking Glass immersive art experience every Thursday. That would be the same Ix Art Park that said in September “operating expenses had gotten too massive,” stopped paying its full-time employees and cut back on operations. That would be the same Ix Art Park that then laid off four of those five full-time employees, including its executive director, last month.
“Free” is the sort of word struggling organizations use sparingly, if they use it at all.
“We are trying to restructure our entire organization and be more streamlined, but it is still very important for us to be out there for the community and available to the community,” Susan Krischel, the art park’s founder and its board president, told The Daily Progress. “We’re trying to sort of find that balance.”
It could be its resolute adherence to its founding mission to inspire and foster artistic creation that explains why the art park jumped at the chance to partner with car dealership Flow Toyota and open the popular Looking Glass exhibit, billed as the first of its kind in Virginia, for free on Thursdays. Those free “Community Days” began on Nov. 6 and are planned to last until November of 2024.
“Ix Art Park seeks to empower our community through curating welcoming spaces that allow everyone a safe place to exist creatively,” reads the nonprofit group’s mission statement. “The Foundation believes that everyone can express themselves creatively and deserves an inspiring space to do so.”
Flow Toyota was first introduced to the art park in August when it sponsored the Soul of Cville Fest held there. The car dealership’s management said it was inspired by the park’s expressions of creative ingenuity and community outreach, so discussions began on how to make the space as accessible as possible.
“We want to benefit the community,” Bennett Acuff, group president at Flow Automotive, told The Daily Progress. “We want to find those doing good and support them. It’s genuinely a privilege to be in the Charlottesville community, so we want to benefit and bless any community we’re in.”
According to Ix’s newly installed executive director, Ewa Harr, Flow is contributing roughly $13,000 for Ix to open for free on Thursdays.
But according to Krischel that doesn’t mean the park is breaking even on those days. The donation “does not come close” to covering the operating costs for the Looking Glass, she said.
When Ix began to cut back on its operations earlier this year, the Looking Glass was closed on all days but weekends; admission pegged at $15 per person.
Thanks to Flow, the exhibit is now open for free Thursdays from noon to 6 p.m.
Ix officials, still uneasy about operating costs, said they chose the time and day because they assumed traffic would be lighter on a weekday during work hours.
The reservations rolling in and the Thursdays booking up reveal they may have misjudged the powerful allure of one simple word: “free.”
Harr and Kirschel said Ix cannot make or take any more cuts to its operations.
“It was kind of heartbreaking that we had to downsize and lose an amazing team of people, but it’s also exciting to see what the future holds and bring back what we had,” Harr said.
That downsizing included Executive Director Lisa Capraro, who left after Ix said it had stopped paying all employees in September. Ix simply could not afford her, said Kirschel. When Harr, who had been with the organization as director of events since March 2022, stepped into Capraro’s role and the company’s payrolls, she was the only one.
“Harr understood Ix and what we’re trying to do here, so she was the perfect person for the job,” said Kirschel, who came to Ix’s board after spending more than 15 years as an assistant district attorney in New York City’s Special Narcotics Prosecutor’s Office.
Ix did retain a handful of hourly staff to run the Looking Glass — as well as a bar manager.
Like most businesses and nonprofit groups, the art park’s financial struggles were exaggerated with the arrival of the pandemic. In fact, Ix had just hired new staff members mere weeks before lockdowns were announced. But unlike most businesses and nonprofit groups, Ix chose not to let go of any staff.
“It didn’t feel good to us to lay people off during COVID,” said Krischel. “It wasn’t the best financial decision, but it felt like the best moral decision at the time.”
But when business and donations did not return as expected, some of the positions, like the full-time artist and educational director, were simply draining Ix’s bank account. Another contributing factor to its money woes was the amount of services and resources Ix Art Park was offering free of charge.
A 2022 “Impact Report” shows the extent of Ix’s free programming: art kit giveaways Thursday to Sunday, a free weekly event called “Arts from Underground” for adults to socialize while “exploring their inner creativity,” the free three-day Soul of Cville Fest, the “Ix Flix” free outdoor movie series over the summer. And while it did cost money to attend the six-week summer art camp at the park, Ix provided several free scholarships.
Alex Bryant was not yet 30 years old when he was named Ix’s executive director in January 2022. According to a report in C-ville Weekly, he spent $100,000 on a 20-by-70-foot pergola constructed with the original beams from the original silk mill at the site that predated the art park.
The takeaway: “Our goal moving forward is to have the funding ahead of the programming,” said Harr. “We got a little ahead of ourselves in the past. We’re now in a phase of transition and brainstorming how to continue inspiring creativity but in a more sustainable way.”
Krischel also acknowledged the organization has tended to be over eager when it came to programs that weren’t prefunded. She said employing a full-time staff “got onerous” on the group’s ability to function productively.
“The problem is simple,” said Krischel in the September statement announcing Ix’s “unsustainable funding gap.” “The cost of staff, overhead, and programming has eclipsed our ability to fund the operations. It is time for us to rethink our financial model and create something that is more financially sustainable.”
Some of those sustainable plans will include hiring contract labor when Ix is hosting events at the park, bringing on a temporary person to run summer camps instead of a yearlong educational director, and including more local artists on projects that were formally taken on by Ix’s personal artist.
“The thing is, people love Ix,” said Kirschel. “It’s a good product. We have something people want. We just have to be smarter about how we execute.”
Despite the recent monetary misfortunes, the board’s president is optimistic about the group’s ability to bounce back. She plans to be more aggressive with fundraising efforts in the future before committing to extensive programs or events, after Flow’s free Thursdays conclude. Acuff said he hopes Flow’s relationship with Ix will be one of continued support.
It’s an irony, but in order to continue embracing Charlottesville’s arts community with open arms, Ix will have to tighten its grip on its wallet.
“People get to come here and experience a different reality,” said Harr. “The arts need everyone’s support.”