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Nonprofit: A Startup with a Soul

Have you heard the old saying that, if you want something done, assign it to a really busy person? I'm hoping that's true. Somehow, in addition to all of our work with creating fine art, marketing, selling, keeping open studio hours, maintaining social media, vlogging, blog writing, producing a podcast, doing paperwork and keeping the government happy, we've decided that we should do more. What could go wrong?

So, in addition to everything else, we've opened a new nonprofit company called Aripa Arte. Aripa is the Romanian word for wing, and the idea is that our NGO will help contemporary Romanian artists, as well as to promote Romanian art abroad. Our umbrella company is called Buburuza Productions, (Ladybug in Romanian), and the tie in is that ladybugs can fly, and the new foundation can help Romanian artists to soar into their international art careers. Don't that sound pretty!

Some time ago, Bogdan and I surmised that we would one day end up living and working in Romania, at least for part of the year. Now that my parents have passed, there is very little holding me to this part of the world. Bogdan's mom is getting older, and will eventually need help herself, and living in Romania can be exponentially less expensive than living here in the states. So we've been making short forays toward that goal. In doing our research, we began to notice a need that we had not anticipated.

Image by Free Photos from Pixabay

Romania has a very long history of art, thought, and innovation. Some remarkable artists and intellectuals like: Brancusi; Enescu; and Eliade leap to mind. And yet, if you ask most people about famous Romanians, they list only Nadia Comaneci and Dracula. There is a robust tradition of excellence in the arts, even during the communist era, and much of that talent has gone unnoticed outside the the border.

Romania is also still a very poor country. Things seem to be getting a bit better since they were included in the EU and NATO, but much of that development has been centered around infrastructure, technology, agriculture, and manufacturing. While these are all very important areas of advancement, there is still very little attention given to supporting struggling artists. Even with a growing middle class, there are not a lot of local art collectors offering their patronage to the emerging art market.

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

I think another issue is that, since the borders have opened for Romanians to work abroad throughout Europe, a whole lot of Romanians have left the country. Artists are no exception. They can earn so much more money abroad, find better conditions, enjoy expanded markets for their art, and secure better representation. That's great for them, but that huge exodus has consequences back home. The artists who are left behind, unable to relocate outside the country, find themselves with a further diminished collector base, a depressed economy in general, and the supporting institutions, galleries, museums, and funding sources suffer as well.

All of these observations made us question whether or not moving to Romania would be worth it for us. At the end of the day, we still need to make a living selling our art. How could we step away from the largest art market in the world, into an environment that was depressed, limited in size, and with shrinking resources? As much as we loved the idea, it seemed doomed for failure.

Now if you know me at all, you'll know that I almost never accept a negative response at face value. For me, a "no" is just an indicator that there are obstacles in the way of reaching a "yes". So, if those obstacles can be removed, or diminished, then perhaps a positive response is just around the corner. Although my cheerful optimism can be a bit annoying to some, it does afford me the luxury of knowing that if a plan or an idea is rejected, it has been thoroughly tested beforehand.

Our first attempt to solve the problem was to move to Romania, secure a place to work and live, and then drive all over Europe showing our work at fairs and galleries. While that could happen, it seems very expensive, and doesn't offer us a dependable income. When we met with Romanian artists on our last visit, they were not positive about that path. If the prohibitive cost of shipping and entrance fees weren't enough, those that did try to work the art fairs all concluded that it was not a sustainable business plan.

As I am beginning to make sense of it, it appears to me that government money earmarked for the arts is funneled into existing institutions and galleries. In turn, they use that money to promote Romanian artists abroad at the art fairs. While there's nothing wrong with that, it does mean that only a small slice of the artist community ever sees those opportunities. There aren't enough galleries. The expense of participating in the large art fairs is astronomical, so the select few artists who do make it over the border are lucky indeed. I still have so much more research to do to understand the current state of affairs.

Doing my homework becomes so important. No only do I want to have a clearer picture of how the art market works in Romania, but I also do not want to do anything to get in the way. If I swoop in, uninformed, and set up a competing gallery to represent contemporary artists, I could jeopardize complicating the current gallery structure already in place. If I start to compete for funding, that may mean that I hurt established institutions and galleries who depend upon that money. I believe that any NGO we create must augment and support the art establishment, while serving specific needs they leave unaddressed.

So our next plan was to actually create a nonprofit charitable organization that would attempt to expose contemporary Romanian artists to an international market, as well as to generally promote an understanding of Romanian art abroad. This would allow us to fundraise for specific programming for particular artists, as well as to bring attention to the rich artistic traditions of Romania. We could establish some sort of hybrid business model. We could live in both Romania and the USA for parts of each year, and double our attempts at reaching donors and securing grant funding. We wouldn't be funneling money away from the current institutions, but would be tapping into fundraising that they can't access. We could create bridges to actually make their jobs easier, and foster new relationships and resources in both countries. That would also mean that we would not have to "give up" our contacts here in the States. We could continue to grow our own art business on both continents, and become a force for good at the same time. Our ultimate hope is to be able to expand our reach to artists outside Romania, to offer help to suffering artists all over the globe.

So the initial paperwork is complete, and we have established a nonprofit company here in Texas. We will need to meet this next week to approve the bylaws, apply for a tax ID number, open a bank account, and start the more complicated process of applying for 501(c)3 tax free status. We have to set up emails, and a website, and a Patreon page, and social media accounts as well. I cannot begin to imagine how I will be able to keep up with the administrative requirements for a nonprofit, in addition to that our our businesses in the USA and Romania, but I am a busy person... so apparently I'm just the guy we're looking for.

“Art Life Blog with John & Bogdan” is a weekly blog/vlog/podcast that creates a community, a conversation, between creatives in all sorts of fields at all sorts of levels.  We want to discuss what we’re learning, what we’ve experienced, and whom we’ve met in our journey of running a freelance creative business. John Bishop is a visual artist living in Houston, Texas. His work is largely abstract, and explores how to turn mythic, archetypal symbols into individual experiences allowing us to see them in a new way, with fresh eyes. Bogdan is a videographer and fine art photographer who constantly seeks to stretch the boundaries of traditional photographic work, with the added flare of his artistic eye.  Both artists’ work can be seen online, or at their studios at Silver Street Studios, 2000 Edwards Street, in Houston.

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