Last year, the Light Factory nearly kicked the bucket. The obit had been written, and the funeral planned. But much like the crazy stories you hear — where the deceased is on a slab in the back room of the funeral home, about to be embalmed, and suddenly sits straight up and yells, "Wait! I'm still alive!" as the mortician screams in terror — The Light Factory has returned from the dead.
It's a second chance the 21 people who comprise TLF's new board of directors (which includes three members from the previous board) are making the most of, at a time when arts fundraising is lacking on all fronts. According to a yearlong study from the Arts & Science Council's (ASC) Cultural Life Task Force released last week, contributions to the ASC, which helped fund TLF in 2012 and 2013, have decreased by 45 percent since 2007.
But in less than a year, TLF has turned itself around, and is on the way to financial independence. After moving to the Midwood International and Cultural Center on Central Avenue and resuming its classes, the group launched a Kickstarter campaign on April 21 to raise $20,000 to outfit the new space with an office, two galleries and a new darkroom with capacity for six students. By the time the campaign concluded at the end of May, it had taken in $32,525 from 321 contributors.
The board, which is so personally invested in TLF's success that its members are doing all the work on a volunteer basis, is also working with a consultant (Carla Hanzal, a former curator at the Mint Museum) on a new strategic plan that will, they hope, eliminate or reduce the need for emergency fundraising measures.
Linda Foard Roberts, TLF's executive director in the early '90s who returned as a new board member and led the campaign, says the Kickstarter worked because "The Light Factory is, simply put, worth saving."
"It has been around for over 40 years, has a national and local following and an outstanding trademark name that can't be easily replaced," she says. TLF's mission has always been to educate kids and adults about the power of still photography and film through outreach, exhibitions and hands-on instruction. It's not a museum, and it's more than a gallery. Classes for novices and pros are part of the draw.
The brand remained strong during the recession; it was the financial situation that grew weak.
WHAT WENT WRONG?
The news came last October by way of The Light Factory's website. Jeff Wise, the board chairman at the time, wrote in a statement, "we just didn't have the cash flow necessary to keep the operations going while we ... determine a viable, sustainable solution." The remaining three employees were laid off and the Spirit Square space was vacated.
The code blue was probably necessary. Byron Baldwin, one of TLF's original founders who returned to the board last fall, calls it a "blessing in disguise" and says the state of emergency got the attention of former supporters who hadn't been involved in years. "People came out of the woodwork," he says. "When we needed to reconstitute a board of directors, people stepped up to say, 'I can help.'"
Photographer Deborah Triplett was among them. "I saw the Facebook post about The Light Factory being in trouble, and my heart sank," she says. "It threw a lot of people into fear. I know I had gotten sort of blasé, and this brought me back." Triplett cites life and work as getting in the way of her involvement, adding that she has "nothing — zero — against the old board," but felt there was a "disconnect" between TLF and the photography community, as well as with the community at large. (That sentiment echoes one of the key findings in the Cultural Life Task Force report: the need to strengthen the connections between people and arts organizations.)
TLF's resuscitation began when about 75 people came to a meeting at Spirit Square last October to discuss, at times heatedly, the organization's dire condition. By Nov. 4, a new board, comprised of a few well-regarded photographers like Mitchell Kearney and Linda Foard Roberts, was chosen, and plans to stabilize TLF were underway. The goal? Return to being a smaller, grassroots organization.
But not everyone would be brought along. Linnea Beyer, who worked at TLF as director of film, was the first employee to be let go in October 2012 after the film department she ran was put on hold. Beyer says she joined TLF in 2007 "just after one of its most successful fundraising years ever. The organization was doing very well, but then the recession of 2008 hit. Bit by bit, funding was cut for the arts here and there, and our budget slowly shrank."
"We were a scrappy group," Beyer continues, "and we worked well trying to find ways to do more with less. I dare say we excelled at it. The truth is: There was no one thing that went wrong. We did the best we could with the lot we had. It's very difficult being an arts organization, and it's very difficult being a nonprofit. Being both is asking for a fight."
A CHRISTMAS MIRACLE
There was little time to mourn the defunct Light Factory, as a new model quickly emerged. The flurry of board activity during the holiday season was something of a Christmas miracle. During a time of year when most people are already overcommitted, these folks set up shop in Plaza Midwood (a working darkroom and classroom space were ready by January); started "First Film Fridays," showcasing independent, fine art films (hosted by filmmaker Ross Wilbanks at the beginning of the month); and got the organization back in the black financially.
While TLF, in its old form, went under, interim president Phil Moody says, "We still had the name and nonprofit status, so we were able to revive it and assume the debt. But [we] had no staff and no money, obviously, with which to pay staff."
To let the group fold or merge with another group would not only have been a black eye for Charlotte, but would have also been "a shame on a national level," says Triplett, who now volunteers her time in leading TLF's marketing and social media efforts. TLF is one of just four centers in the country dedicated to photography and film.
"Having an organization devoted to the very best of the two most relevant media of our age ... means the cultural landscape of Charlotte is enriched immeasurably," Moody says. "I would draw a parallel to pro sports. When you have the very best that can be offered, it's a measure of the region's status."
TLF is the only organization in Charlotte showcasing one of the most democratic art forms, says Eleanor Brawley, a photographer and former television news writer and producer who has long been a TLF fan, having attended workshops and donated some of her own photography to auctions. That both locations of the Mint Museum currently have photography shows on exhibit shows Charlotte's level of interest in the medium, Brawley says. "Photography is a universal language. It's not abstract. It immediately gets you between the eyes."
TLF lends a certain cultural prestige to Charlotte, but its outreach efforts — to low-income and ESL students, for example — may be even more important. "They put cameras in the hands of kids who can't necessarily write a beautiful sentence but who can document their world and the problems they see," Brawley says.
Classes, ranging from black-and-white photography to developing animations, taught by professional photographers are an important part of the mission, and they've been back in session since the beginning of the year.
Dustin Shores teaches two courses at TLF. "I always talk about how to use perspective," he says. "There is the perspective of the camera in relation to the subject matter. Even more important is the perspective on what the photographer is visually communicating.
"The Light Factory itself acts as a hub for bringing various perspectives to the Charlotte area ... both creatively and socially."
Triplett agrees. "Photography plays an integral part of everyone's life — more than any other medium. Photography ... is always thought of as the 'bastard child' of art, and it is up to organizations such as TLF to dispel this myth."
Seems like the organization is doing just that. A recent digital photography class was supposed to be capped at 12 students. Nineteen signed up.
In addition, since December, TLF has grown from 250 to 400 members. (A basic membership costs $35 for students and educators, $50 for individuals and $75 for households.)
THE NEW "TLF"
The Light Factory's mission to bring photographers together remains the same one the organization has had for more than 40 years. It's still free to get in and always will be, board members say. It also remains a space to showcase both established and emerging photographers. TLF's first exhibition in the new space is planned for late August, when the new gallery is ready. Still untitled as of press time, the show will focus on the beginnings of documentary photography.
But much is new, and mostly because some old pros decided to get the band back together. Other than two part-time paid staffers, the board is manning all operations. "Currently, the board pays the rent for the facility," says Kay Tuttle, a photographer and board member who sat on the previous board. "Memberships, workshops and grants pay for programming." (Monthly rent is $907. Moody says the board has prepaid for the main space through 2014. The extra classroom TLF took on, at $725 a month, has been paid from the Kickstarter funds.)
Moody, a fine arts photographer who is on sabbatical from his teaching job at Winthrop University, has been able to devote time, temporarily, to leading TLF, but finding a new executive director is one of the group's priorities. Although he's not being paid, Moody treats his interim position like a full-time job.
"The new board is a working board more so than the past one," Tuttle says.
Moody says the board understands they must remain vigilant to remain relevant. "We have to think about what's new and emerging," he says. Video wasn't a part of TLF's original mission, but TLF has added it as a focus. There's even a class for high school students called "Awesome iPhone Photos" and another class for all ages on making a movie for YouTube. That's keeping up with the times.
All arts organizations — and all nonprofits, really — have to change in response to new financial realities, or risk closing. Still, TLF's old model died to make room for something new in its place, and there were people impacted by that death. "It was a unique and wonderful place that I put my heart and soul into," former employee Beyer says. "I grieve the loss of the place I once knew."
Yet, there is a lot of joy surrounding TLF's rebirth. One can almost picture — to borrow a cinematic metaphor — George Bailey, after Clarence's intervention, running through the snowy streets of Bedford Falls, happily yelling, "I want to live again!"