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Path to prosperity is getting steeper for Western New York Book Arts Center

The Western New York Book Arts Center began its lifein 2008 as a beautiful contradiction in the heart of a hollowed-out city block.

The center, dedicated to preserving and teaching the art of traditional printing and book-making, was designed as an oasis of analog culture in an increasingly digital world. It also was a declaration of faith in the cultural renewal of downtown, which looked like a distant dream in 2008 but now seems well within reach.

But in the face of these mammoth challenges – of charging against the relentless wave of digital technology and of drawing an audience to an otherwise-downtrodden block – it thrived. Under the leadership of founders Richard Kegler and Carima El-Behairy and later with the help of studio director Christopher Fritton and many others, the center has had an outsized impact on the cultural community of Western New York.

But WNYBAC, as it is affectionately known, is now at a crossroads.

Kegler, the center’s founding executive director, has stepped away from the organization to focus on his career as a typeface designer. His replacement, the former Darwin Martin House curator Eric Jacskon-Forsberg, left after less than a year, during which he was unable to solve the center’s mounting financial struggles.

The center is now operating under a new management structure in which three part-time employees shoulder equal parts of its operational, programming and fundraising duties. Its board and staff are struggling to chart a new path in a funding environment that is anything but friendly.

WNYBAC has proven itself worthwhile to the community because of the breadth of its educational programs, which serve more than 1,000 students yearly, along with the dozens of yearly cross-cultural events and workshops that it hosts.

Its current struggles resulted in part from the increasing difficulty new organizations face in seeking public money from sources such as Erie County, whose antiquated arts funding formulas unfairly penalize young organizations.

That’s not the whole story. Part of WNYBAC’s struggles have to do with a lack of expertise and planning on the part of the organization’s rotating series of leaders and staffers, whose passion and hard work has been directed too much at programming and not enough at the thankless work of fundraising.

But studio director Christopher Fritton, a diligent and passionate champion for the Book Arts Center whose commitment to the organization is one of the main reasons it still exists, isn’t ready to give up yet.

It is difficult for him, he said, to square the outward vibrance of the center with its completely unbalanced revenue, which comes largely from poster sales and lacks the public or private subsidies that are vital for educational nonprofits.

“There’s days when the front end of the model feels so beautiful,” Fritton said in a recent conversation at Founding Fathers. “I’ll have 10, 20 people come into the shop, there’ll be three or four or five people printing things, I’ll have five interns there at the same time, and all I can think to myself is: This is really vibrant, this is really effective, this is really changing people’s lives. But then when I look at my pie chart, I’m just like, come on. Where is the money that’s gonna help substantiate this?”

Fritton is hoping – possibly against hope – that that money may come from national foundations inclined to support plucky, dedicated groups such as WNYBAC. It certainly seems unlikely that local foundations or other public funding sources, already spread across an ever-growing number of cultural groups, will magically materialize.

Paul Hogan, a vice president for the Oishei Foundation, Buffalo’s largest private foundation and a contributor to WNYBAC, said the group’s troubles are symptomatic of a wider problem in the nonprofit world. He attributed the organization’s problems to a lack of management expertise for dealing with scarcity of funding.

“That’s becoming more of a problem, especially for smaller nonprofits in general,” Hogan said. “The fact that it is getting harder and harder to find cash, that means that the level of expertise and confidence in managing what you do have becomes even more important.”

That management expertise, for a variety of reasons, was absent in WNYBAC’s case. And under the current structure, barring any unexpected influx of money from the national foundations Fritton and his fellow staffers intend to court, it’s not likely to appear any time soon.

That leaves one of two options: The center could simply dissolve and chalk its demise up to a beautiful failed experiment, a little puff of analog smoke sent up against the digital sky. Or, as Fritton and Hogan have both suggested, it could join forces with some other organization or existing cultural collaboration to keep its worthwhile mission afloat.

The difficult but rewarding work of forging a new collaboration, to my mind, is its best chance for success.

“It may be ultimately that they make it become an organization,” Hogan said. “But again, the deal is, do you want to survive, or do you want to thrive? If you want to survive, then you can be an organization and beat your head against the wall. Or, you can find some way of hooking up with others and making it go, and do really well.”