ArtsAltoona suspends programs

Staff furloughed as group changes focus

ArtsAltoona, a non-profit group born last year to put Altoona on the map as a center for the arts, has suspended its art education program and furloughed

some employees.

The move, ArtsAltoona leaders said, will help them focus on the centerpiece of cultural and economic development plans — transforming the former Kress Department store at 1406 11th Ave. into a studio arts center and tourist attraction.

“We felt a very strong commitment in the private sector to that block downtown,” ArtsAltoona Treasurer George Sackandy said. “Developers are doing things in that block, and our building is sitting there, not looking very nice. We just felt that we really needed to concentrate our effort and resources for the near-term on doing what needs to be done to bring that building to life.”

The building was donated to the organization last year but has long been offline. Once renovated, it is envisioned to include areas for artists to work, sell their wares and interact — perhaps along with a restaurant and a beer garden.

But those designs need to meet reality, Sackandy said.

Sackandy added that he met Friday with an architect to determine what designs can realistically be achieved. He is in the process of gathering more information for the architect, he said.

With no regular source of income, ArtsAltoona has relied on donations, and Sackandy is concerned about the competition for state grants and other funds.

“There are more projects going on in this community in the last year than probably the decade before that,” he said. “Most of them are going after the same state funding opportunities. There’s only so much realistically that the state and other funders are going to take on.”

The building’s current condition is unknown by city codes officials.

City Codes and Inspections Director Rebecca Brown said the last time the property was evaluated was three years ago when there was an illegal occupancy issue.

Brown said there were electrical violations at that time but nothing else.

“We have not gone through the building (lately). It’s been at least three years since the last time. We don’t know the condition,” she said. “We are eager to receive ArtsAltoona’s plan submission for the building. We know it definitely will be an asset to downtown.”

Sackandy said the building is “solid as a rock.”

“The only problem is a leak in the roof,” he said.

With funding tight, ArtsAltoona’s education program has been suspended. Since January, the program reached children weekly in low-income housing with free art classes taught by local volunteers at Evergreen Manors.

In March, the Mirror reported that the program was to last through the summer, with students painting a mural on a maintenance shed and planting a garden as a way to brighten up their environment.

Altoona Area School District Superintendent Chuck Prijatelj and his wife donated $1,000 to ArtsAltoona in April.

“I was unaware they were cutting the education program back,” Prijatelj said Monday. “The necessity for the arts and arts education is an integral part of the development of children. The arts are crucial to the quality of life and community in Altoona. That’s the reason I support the arts.

“I’m hoping once we get the arts studio building underway, we will be able to bring those things back. I know that building is very important, which will make 11th Avenue that much nicer in terms of cultural growth.”

Joe Irwin of L.S. Fiore, one of the biggest donors to ArtsAltoona, said the company is continuing its support.

He didn’t disclose the amount of money that L.S. Fiore donated, but he said the commitment to ArtsAltoona includes a multi-year, semi-annual monetary donation along with company marketing support of organizational initiatives.

“We are a supporter of the program. We haven’t changed our support at all,” he said.

The organization’s May 22 online newsletter, which was written by ArtsAltoona Chairwoman Donna Gority, cites difficulty in balancing income and expense after the organization hosted three events in late April and mid-May.

The newsletter states ArtsAltoona “intends to restart the After School Arts Program (ASAP) in the fall if we are successful in raising the necessary funds to make it sustainable.”

Gority also wrote about the staff cuts in May. The organization started hiring Jan. 1.

“Due to difficulty balancing income and expense following our three big events, we found it necessary to furlough much of our paid staff,” Gority wrote.

The furloughs affected two full-time employees and three who were part-time. According to Sackandy, two of those employees were casual “as-needed” workers that he believes are interested in working again if they are needed.

“The furloughs were heartbreaking,” Sackandy said, but the employees have landed new jobs in the area, he added.

Despite the cuts, the organization is still alive and well with bare – staffing and dedicated volunteers, according to the online newsletter.

Sackandy said there are three part-time employees remaining along with two contractors hired for special projects.

One of the main events of ArtsAltoona that drained resources was the Reveal party, involving fourth-year architectural students from Penn State (University Park campus) who, through their spring semester, developed concepts for the Kress building.

A Reveal party April 26 at the Altoona Heritage Discovery Center included staff expense for planning and cleanup.

“It was a draw on resources, and required more staff time than might have been expected,” Gority said Friday.

Two days later, on

April 28, the organization hosted another event on the main street through Juniata. It was a neighborhood block party with music, art and food. Penn State Altoona students involved in the Sheetz Fellows program helped set up the event.

“The students were a huge help and allowed us to make the event bigger than it otherwise would have been, but it was more of a drain on our staff resources to organize,” Gority said.

The third event Gority referred to was the May 12 book festival at the Altoona Area Public Library. Authors voluntarily participated, and ArtsAltoona hired a band.

Even with volunteers donating their time, staff costs for setting up and cleaning up ran higher than expected, Gority said.