Local arts non-profit organization recovering from COVID-19 impact

By Edward Gehlert, Staff Writer
Posted 5/12/21

BELLE — Osage Arts Community (OAC) is slowly recovering after being hit hard during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

OAC’s main campus is located on a 175-acre farm in Osage County …

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Local arts non-profit organization recovering from COVID-19 impact

Posted

BELLE — Osage Arts Community (OAC) is slowly recovering after being hit hard during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

OAC’s main campus is located on a 175-acre farm in Osage County bordered by close to a mile of the Gasconade River. This non-profit organization owns 10 properties to facilitate its mission to contribute to the Midwest cultural vitality by supporting artists through a diverse residency program. In addition to providing housing for emerging and established artists, OAC owns and operates an art center in downtown Belle.

As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, all of these endeavors rely on donations to keep programs running. Unfortunately, COVID had created an invisible barrier that prevented OAC from soliciting donations outside of the local area and contributions to the organization dwindled during the past year.

“Funding before COVID was starting to ramp up as we were reaching out to other resources outside the area; on a national perspective. When COVID happened and the lockdown occurred all that dried up,” said OAC Secretary Tony Hayden. “Essentially, because we couldn’t move around; we couldn't go to funders and sell the nonprofit in Belle to people down in Texas or out in California.”

These potential funders are still interested in contributing to OAC, but until more people feel safe enough to travel it is harder to showcase what the organization does without offering tours of their facilities and the local area.

“Even though states are starting to open up there's an element of risk for us to travel anywhere,” Hayden said. “Opening up is not consistent from location to location and it probably won't be until later on this year. Then things will start opening up and we could start going after funding outside the Belle area again.”

Travel restrictions, forced business closings and health concerns have played a part in the number of artists that are participating in what OAC offers. A once thriving arts community that housed more than a dozen residents is now home to only two. An art gallery that once held multiple exhibitions a year has remained empty during the COVID-19 crisis.

“At one time we provided room and board for 13 artists in residency,” said Hayden. “These artists stayed at locations on our farm in Osage County and some resided at our properties in Belle. Now we only have two staying at OAC.”

“COVID directly impacted our physical access to artists for them to participate in our exhibitions,” added OAC Executive Director Mark McClane. “They were not comfortable moving themselves or their work here, so we couldn’t have exhibitions. Then the shutdown occurred and we were obstructed from having our citizens come into the art center.”

Hayden stated that they have received a few applications over the last month, but not nearly what would be consistent with numbers from past years.

“This summer we're gonna have probably four artists staying with us,” Hayden said. “I suspect that as the summer comes along we’ll get more inquiries, but we will not accept as many people.”

Even though the last two stimulus bills included billions of dollars for the arts, nonprofits such as OAC were ineligible for those funds. All programming by OAC is free and open to the public, which causes issues when dealing with COVID relief.

“OAC is exclusively nonprofit; we don’t have employees, so we don’t qualify for any federal money, small business loans, or anything like that,” said McClane. “That money for the arts was principally going to performing arts venues. The performing arts venues are huge economic engines for cities and towns because of how they impact retail, restaurants, and hotels. Most of those (funds) are going to concert venues. We don't qualify for any of that either. Performance venues have employees. They have a product, the show, that they sell. So, because of the lack of audience they can measure what the loss is. All that money is based on employees or how much revenue you are losing. We don’t fit into that equation.”

 Local businesses have benefited by seeing a boost in customers when OAC has hosted events in Belle. Monthly open mic nights would generally see an audience between 40 and 50 people, most traveling from surrounding areas to attend. Opening and closing exhibitions at the art center would also see an influx of visitors to the local area. Many of these people returned to the area because they had found a new favorite place to eat or they had made friends in town.

“When talking to some of the restaurants or businesses that serve food you know they are positively impacted when we have programming,” said McClane. “Across the board they'll tell you the same thing. We are an economic engine for our community.”

Sherry Licklider, owner of Country Belle Cafe, can attest to the positive impact that OAC has had on her restaurant.

“When they (OAC) were having their open mic nights a lot of poets would eat here,” said Licklider. “They’d come in before the show and tell us how great our food was. We’d see a lot of new faces and some became regular customers.”

Another favorite local spot for visiting artists and performers was Padgett’s Place Bar and Grill, owned by members of the Padgett family. Not only did this business provide a place for relaxation before and after performances, this establishment directly supported the arts by offering a venue to hold a weekly open mic which was hosted by OAC resident Damian Rucci. Local writers, musicians and poets gathered every Monday to entertain each other and the crowd.

“They (artists) would come in every week,” said Alsea Padgett. “After they had their events we’d see new faces. Some of those new faces turned into regulars. We’ve felt what it’s like with them and without them. They are missed.”

Regular visitors to OAC looked forward to Sunday lunches at J and J’s. It was not uncommon for the location to have several tables filled with artists and their guests after a weekend exhibition.

“They help us,” said J and J’s owner Julie Stinnett. “It’s cut down on our business. I used to be able to recognize the ones that became regulars. We’d know them by name when they came in.”

With the coming months there are going to be changes made at OAC. New guidelines will be in place for incoming residents and a more limited number are going to be allowed.

“We're probably not gonna take 13 residents at one time because that was a bit much, even for us,” said Hayden. “I would suspect that we would at least require vaccinations for incoming residents. Even though a lot of people in town have different perspectives on vaccination versus non-vaccination; we don't wanna be responsible for bringing somebody in that would bring that into the community.”

 OAC made use of the downtime the pandemic brought by focusing on their infrastructure by making repairs and improving their properties.

“Between last year and this year we just essentially focused on maintenance of the facilities. Renovations, stuff like that,” said Hayden. “All of our funds were previously focused on room and board for people and not fixing stuff. We have several properties that need our attention.”

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