Carbondale Clay Center: Harried potters and the deathly financials

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Courtesy Kelly McKibbenThe Carbondale Clay Center's salt-soda kiln is filled with ceramic cups. More than 20 local artists created the vessels to be given to attendees at La Dolce Vita, the organization's

CARBONDALE ” In terms of activity level, the Carbondale Clay Center is humming along nicely.

Attendance for classes has been great, according to Lauren Kearns, who has been executive director of the 12-year-old nonprofit organization for five years. The summer season, when the Clay Center gets into its busiest mode, is looking strong, with its usual offering of two kids classes per day.

The three ceramists in the residency program work away in their tight studio spaces, polishing their visions and techniques. Away from its home space, the Clay Center conducts outreach programs for such groups as the Aspen Camp for the Deaf, the Buddy Program, and the Youth Recovery Center at Valley View Hospital.

And the Main Street space will come fully to life Saturday at 5 p.m., when the Clay Center throws its annual fundraiser bash. La Dolce Vita ” replacing the Cajun Clay Night of years past ” will feature Italian cuisine served family style on long tables on the Clay Center’s front lawn. The event features a silent auction, music by Acoustic Mayhem and a children’s fair. Attendees will take home a cup created specially for the event.

A look at the organization’s financial books, however, yields a far less rosy picture. Kearns calls the Clay Center’s financial situation “dire.” Donations over the past year are down by half, as are the grants the center has received. Proceeds from last year’s Cajun Clay Night were less than 50 percent of what they had been in previous years. Kearns estimates that the organization needs to generate approximately $80,000 in grants, donations and fundraising to get back on solid financial ground and avoid a drastic restructuring.

Kearns is applying for a new grant from the Target retail chain. But she’s also asking all segments of the community to demonstrate their support for the Clay Center.

“We’re asking the community to value our existence,” she said. “People in the ceramic world are happy we’re here. The other arts organizations in the valley appreciate that we’re here. Now we’re asking the rest of the community to value us. If we could be like President Obama and get $10 from everybody, we’d be here for a long time.”

Especially troubling to Kearns is the effort she’s made to keep the Clay Center economically stable. When she came aboard, she said, the organization was in worse shape than it is now. She cut expenses dramatically, and raised earned income. Earned income from programs ” as opposed to grants and donations ” accounts for approximately three quarters of proceeds. The annual budget has climbed from $186,000 five years ago, when Kearns took over, to $210,000 this year.

Kearns said she and the board of directors will re-evaluate the situation at the end of the summer. Among the options will be focusing at least part of the Clay Center’s attention on a for-profit operation. But Kearns said that the most obvious business niche ” becoming a clay manufacturer ” doesn’t seem viable, due to established competition from businesses in Denver and Grand Junction. And such change in direction will be determined by the board, Kearns said.

Meanwhile, she is enthused about Saturday night’s party. The Cajun Clay Night was shelved not for reasons of finance, but fun. Kearns attended a sit-down dinner party recently, and was reminded of her first time in Italy, when she sat down for a family style dinner in Florence at a 30-foot-long table.

“It was a great experience, getting to talk to everyone. Even though I didn’t speak Italian,” she said.

Kearns had also wearied of asking local potters to make Louisiana-themed bowls for Cajun Clay Night. The cups created for La Dolce Vita are simpler designs.

“Hopefully if we’re still here, next year we can do a Greek night or a French night,” she said.