Until last year, leaders at the Nicolaysen Art Museum hadn’t gone out of their way to promote the museum as a wedding venue. But this season, the museum already has nine scheduled.
Not only will the weddings bring in money for the museum, but executive director Ann Ruble hopes the couples will become members, attend community events and eventually bring children to art classes and even donate to the museum.
Promoting the facility as an event space is one of several changes staff have made in the past year to survive in tough economic times. Funding has dropped significantly in the past five years, including the loss of energy industry backers and other donors during Wyoming’s economic downturn, she said.
The museum has found new revenue sources to replace others that disappeared, made changes to their staffing and broadened activities for various ages and demographics. The Nic has experienced many ups and downs since its start 50 years ago, Ruble said. This time, they’re trying some new strategies, though they may take a few years to pan out, she said.
“It’s kind of like one of those wild rides that you take at an amusement park,” she said. “I don’t think there ever was a coast period. Or if there was, it was right before another massive curve.”
Loss of funding
The Nic has lost funding from a number of sources in recent years, including government funding, grants, industry backing and private donations.
“I think it’s just a lot of factors have hit all at once,” Nicolysen Art Museum board chairwoman Claire Marlow said. “The Nic has struggled for a while to figure out how can we create a foundation where when we do hit these hard times we can keep going, because we have a strong foundation and procedures and process and approach. I think it’s been the time for the Nic to do this for years.”
The Nic’s funding comes from different sources, and the leaders always are looking for ways to further diversify, said Ruble, who became director of the museum in December 2016.
“But if we don’t change and adapt, we won’t survive,” she said. “We have to.”
Five years ago, the Nicolaysen received much more government funding, including more grants from the Wyoming Arts Council, the state and city of Casper, Ruble said. Private donations for nonprofits and charities are stretched thin with the tougher economy. Some foundations have sunsetted or no longer provide grants, Ruble said.
“Every time those government grants go away, in theory, the government thinks we can find it in the private sector,” Ruble said. “But the private sector is getting hit for every other charity in the region, so it’s hard to make up those funds.”
Other sources have decreased as well, including backing from extraction and energy support companies that no longer exist or no longer have a large employee base in Wyoming, Ruble said.
The Nic is fortunate to have an endowment it can draw a certain percentage from every year and is a predictable source of income.
“We can take a small percentage every year,” she said. “But it’s still not enough.”
One struggle many nonprofits face is that it’s easier to raise funds and find grants for programs and projects than day-to-day costs. Grants that fund operating costs — like payroll and utilities for a 30,000-square-foot facility — are few and far between, Ruble said.
“Writing a check for the utility bill isn’t very sexy,” she said.
A lot of the money, including operating costs, comes from the annual art auction gala fundraiser and Nic Fest.
“But we can’t and we don’t rely on any one particular source because at any given time that one source can go away,” Ruble said. “So if you look at the last year especially we’ve really tried to diversify our funding because we’ve seen the drop-off from the larger foundations and also the state.”
Strategies for stability
There are no easy answers or quick solutions when navigating a large nonprofit during tough financial times, board chairwoman Marlow said. The board and the director look at every part of the museum and, sometimes, have to make tough decision.
“We need to make big changes in order to be a cultural anchor not only in Casper but in Wyoming, because we want to stay around for a long, long time,” she said.
Part of the solution is creating more funding sources. The Nic is working to boost event rentals like weddings, gift shop sales and memberships as well as more fee-for-service workshops.
An internal shuffle of staff positions has also been part of the Nic’s response.
“That’s a direct result of the economy,” Ruble said. “We’ve changed positions. We’ve eliminated positions and created new ones.”
A grant through the Warhol Foundation that had covered exhibitions for five years ended this year. That’s when Ruble and chief curator Eric Wimmer made the decision to end his position and combine the duties with the current curator of collections. He’ll stay on until he finds another job, Ruble said.
Other staff changes included replacing the position of a building manager with a business operations manager, as well as an employee to focus on marketing, including social media, and one who works on creating memberships.
“This time last year we had a lot of eliminated positions and then created new positions,” Ruble said. “And every time something’s been vacated, we’ve thought differently about how to fill it.”
With the business operations manager, the Nic is keeping a tighter grip on finances, including ongoing monthly cash flow projections, Ruble said.
Bryant Hall’s job as the museum’s first business operations manager is to look at the overall financial picture and help the director and board plan for months and years ahead as well as manage revenue and budgets for events, he said.
It takes time to see the results of some efforts, like building memberships, he said.
“But then those people are more likely to come to the gala and more likely to support us at the end of the year, and it all works together in essentially a synergistic relationship,” Hall said.
Alexis Grieve started as manager of museum services last summer, and her duties include running the gift shop and event bookings. The museum lowered the cost of renting the facility for events including weddings, retirement celebrations and company parties, she said.
“It’s like they have to get more bang for their buck,” she said. “So we’ve changed our pricing structure a bit, and I think it’s made it a bit more accessible to people to be able to use this space.”
The Nic team has also added a variety of new events geared to different ages, interests and budgets, while dropping events — like its weekly summer concert series — that weren’t underwritten and cost the museum, Ruble said.
“Part of what we’ve had to really do is look at these different events and say, does it help our mission and does it forward our mission, or does it hurt it us?” she said.
Recent new events included a winter Brunch & Bach series and a Chinese New Year celebration, which drew 300 people. Both cost $5 and were free for members. The Nic has boosted the value of membership as well, with perks including steeper discounts for classes and workshops.
Adding events for a broader demographic has helped drive membership, which is up 400 percent over last year, Ruble said.
The loss in funding also means that the museum has focused on regional exhibitions, which are cheaper than national shows, and using works from their permanent collection, she said.
Despite the many changes over the past year, Ruble thinks they will help the museum be more stable for the next downturn.
“It’s going to take another couple of years until we completely figure it out,” Ruble said. “I think we’re on the right path.”