AIKEN - Don Edmunds, executive director of the Aiken Center for the Arts, sits hunched over the desk that has been his for all of three weeks and two days. Telephone pressed firmly to his ear, he is renegotiating stationery and business-card prices.
Mr. Edmunds has spent less than a month on the job full time, and already he's pinching pennies, fully aware that it will take more than enthusiasm to fuel an arts renaissance in Aiken.
Mr. Edmunds has big plans for the Aiken Center for the Arts, a nonprofit organization that began 26 years ago as a kind of artists' commune. Although now used primarily as a visual arts gallery, Mr. Edmunds said he wants the Laurens Street venue to become a clearinghouse for all Aiken arts organizations.
"Because we call ourself the Aiken Center for the Arts, and aren't limiting ourselves to the visual arts, we're very rapidly making arrangements and agreements with the other arts groups," he said. "We want to have other arts groups use the center, and maybe even enter into some reciprocal membership agreements between their groups and ours. Ideally, we would like to serve as a kind of focal point for the arts in Aiken."
Mr. Edmunds, who has been a high school teacher and worked for the Augusta Opera, has already begun posting a calender of events at the center, promoting events all over town.
"If somebody comes and calls into the center and wants to find a piano teacher, I want to be able to help them," he said. "We need to be more than a gallery. We need to be a repository for information in the community."
Already the improvements have begun. Over the past two years, the center has been transformed from a dark, wood-paneled storefront to a bright, airy gallery.
Aiding and abetting Mr. Edmunds in his artistic mission is the art center's board of directors, headed by board president Susan Victor. Mr. Edmunds, an Augusta resident, readily admits that he was not very familiar with the center, but Ms. Victor said that his ideas for what a center for the arts should accomplish and his eagerness won him his new post.
"We see this as a great move for us," she said. "We believe that in the long term, for an arts community to serve as a boost to the local community, it should be a destination point for people. One entity usually can't do that on its own. But when a community develops its arts as a whole, tourism will increase."
Mr. Edmunds and Ms. Victor realize that the best-laid plans never make it off the drawing board without money, so a fund-raising campaign looms large on the center's to-do list.
"Last year was the first time in 26 years that we could call ourselves financially sound and responsible," Ms. Victor said, explaining the fiscal challenges the center faces. "That's great, but there isn't a long history of it."
Among the projects requiring attention are the restoration and redesign of the front and rear facades and extensive work on the center's 11,000-square-foot second floor. The space can't be used because it's not up to fire code. Tentative plans for the second floor include a small performance space, classrooms and offices.
"I am very money-conscious," Mr. Edmunds said. "Especially because this is a nonprofit organization. The last thing I want to do is throw money away. It's too hard to come by in this business. With that in mind, I am very carefully watching the nickels and dimes that come in and the nickels and dimes that go out."
While finding funds could take some real effort, Mr. Edmunds said that he has no fear about attracting people to help him develop the center.
"I have been nothing but profoundly impressed by the people I have met in this community," he said. "This center is on the cusp of a lot of changes and challenges, and the people of Aiken seem willing to give us the kind of support we need. There seems to be a sense of ownership, by the people of Aiken, of what goes on in Aiken. I have not seen a pass-the-buck mentality. Everybody wants to be involved."
While much of their time and energy will be siphoned into expanding the Aiken Center for the Arts and the economics of those plans, Mr. Edmunds and Ms. Victor said it is important that they not lose sight of the center's primary mission - exposing people to the arts.
"We want to teach and learn and see people of all ages enjoying the arts," Ms. Victor said. "We can't be just one thing. We have to be many things, many things available to the whole community."
"People don't know that they are going to have an appreciation for something until they see it," Mr. Edmunds added. "There are so many people, of all ages and at all economic levels that have not experienced the arts. They just have never been exposed to it. That's what we want to do. We want to bring people to the arts and the arts to people."
What: The Aiken Center for the Arts' current exhibits are iconographic works by MaryAnn MacManus Fulton, through Saturday; sketches and paintings by Laura Glenn Douglas, through Saturday; art by students from South Aiken High School, through Saturday; and works by Leslie Alexander and Liviio Orazio
When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Friday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday
Where: 122 Laurens St. S.W., Aiken
Admission: Free. Call (803) 641-9094.
Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or email@example.com.
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