This week, we spoke with Damon McLeese, executive director of Access Gallery, located at 909 Santa Fe (in Denver’s arts district). Damon has been involved with Access Gallery for 20 years and is well-known for his emphasis on creative thinking in all domains of life—including nonprofit management. Click to check out Damon’s inspiring TED talk on doing graffiti with Alzheimer’s patients—not to miss!
1. Tell us about you and your organization and the social change you are trying to achieve.
“We are a gallery that works with people with disabilities. Historically, we have primarily worked with school-age students. In the last three to four years, we began working with older and transition-age students (ages 17–26) and shifting the focus of our work in a major way. We had been doing traditional programming where students come to us, we do something artistic with them, and when they turn 21, the schools stop serving them. But after they turned 21, many of these students kept coming to us because they had nowhere else to go.
“We realized that perhaps the most significant barrier facing these youth isn’t their disabilities; it’s that they are poor. So we started shifting our focus away from arts education (though we still do a lot of that) and focusing on a small group of young adults to develop skills that will be marketable. Our new charge is to provide economic opportunity for young people with disabilities through the arts. For instance, we converted a cigarette machine that dispenses pieces of artwork for $5. We teach them to paint portraits of people’s pets. Now we are getting into the field of making art for corporations, i.e., larger works for their corporate lobby, board rooms, hallways, and so forth in which we use the client’s image or themes to make new, original pieces. Our students get to experience working and creating in a team; especially among youth who have a developmental disability, oftentimes they are deprived of opportunities to work in a team. We make a lot of artwork collaboratively, because also, in all workplaces, you’ve got to work in a team. We foster a collaborative and non-competitive environment.”
2. What keeps you inspired and going when things get tough?
“Being around all this creativity! Every day at my job, I see people solving problems creatively. In our society, I think we often feel so stuck, whereas in art and creativity, it’s a way of life to make mistakes, to try things that may or may not work. In life, students are often told “no” more than they’re told “yes.” What keeps me going is creating an atmosphere where people can explore and try different things—which may be a little uncomfortable, but it encourages students to stretch and grow.”
3. What advice would you give to someone who is trying to break new ground in a traditional field?
“My biggest advice: trust your instincts. We’re a very small organization. Everything published about successful nonprofit management seems aimed at much larger organizations. Yet so much happens at the smaller level—so much is achieved and so much happens! Sometimes you may have no idea how to solve certain problems: at those times, trust your gut. After all, you are there for a reason.
“I also suggest starting small. We started out with a very traditional nonprofit model, and we’ve recently shifted to a 50 to 60% social enterprise/earned income model. We thought our mission was art and disability, but the need we found was economic opportunity, so we changed the focus of our work a little bit. Sometimes we have to take a step back and try something new.
“Also, be creative: We tend to look at the world as “either/or,” but there’s a lot of ambiguity; get comfortable with that. There are a lot of creative opportunities in the gray area.”
4. What book do you recommend to everyone you meet and why? OR What book is on your to-read list and why?
5. How have you worked with JVA and how has that helped your organization?
“We worked with JVA on a couple different projects over many years. When we started entering into social enterprise, we realized we were already doing it but needed to figure out the best way to go about it. When we started breaking into the field of producing corporate art, JVA helped us formalize our business pricing, sizing, etc. That was really helpful to work through with JVA. And most recently, we did a strategic planning process through JVA. I also appreciate how JVA keeps their trainings affordable to start-up grassroots nonprofits.”
6. What else would you want to share with us that we haven’t asked?
“Don’t be afraid of creative solutions! We can get so stuck in routines of grant cycles, fundraising, etc., but it’s really important to take a step back and look at what you’re doing. Thoughtful change can be healthy. If you don’t take a step back to take a fresh look, you can miss opportunities.”
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