All eyes on Eyedrum

After a near-death experience, Eyedrum is poised for a revival

It’s appropriate for Eyedrum that, even when discussing such a mundane subject as financial viability, the arts organization’s board chairman, Allen Welty-Green, speaks in terms of colors.

“Using the threat advisory scale, I’d say we were code red in July, then orange, and now we’re down to yellow,” he says. “Sometimes it takes a crisis to give you a wake-up call.”

Welty-Green is referencing Eyedrum’s mid-year near-death experience, when the organization found itself unable to scrape together enough money to pay rent — again. At the time, the board issued an S.O.S. in the form of a press release titled “Eyedrum may soon call it quits,” which threatened the potential “demise of Atlanta’s longest-running alternative art and music space.”

But that was then.

Now, scarcely three months later, Eyedrum’s poised for a revival. An Aug. 14 fundraising auction was a crazy success, attracting donated pieces from more than 270 artists and bringing in about $15,000, enough to cover the back rent and then some. Other benefit events — an all-night dance-a-thon, a three-band concert and an evening of comedy and improv theater — have only helped bolster the organization’s bottom line. Next Sat., Nov. 14, it will host the first annual Ear Ball, an all-day, 30-act music festival certain to expand its financial cushion.

“I personally feel very optimistic about Eyedrum’s future, which is something I wouldn’t have said even a few months back,” says Ed Hall, who joined the board just over a year ago. “I sense a new and palpable energy on the premises.”

Unless Eyedrum again falls on hard times in the coming year, its next significant challenges will be relocating and implementing the most fundamental organizational change in its 11-year history — hiring a paid employee — without losing its audience or compromising its communal, edgy character.

Eyedrum’s all-volunteer model has been both a blessing and a curse. Over the past 10 years, the organization has grown out of a grungy downtown basement space furnished with thrift-store couches in the late ’90s to fill its current industrial-chic home on MLK Drive. There are plenty of nonprofit arts groups with permanent spaces and paid staff, and others with staff and borrowed spaces. Few groups in Georgia or elsewhere have their own spaces but no staff (like Eyedrum) because private foundations typically don’t offer grants to arts organizations without at least one staff member who can be held accountable for the money.
In addition to avoiding paid staff and spending little effort chasing grants, Eyedrum’s also ignored the standard nonprofit practice of recruiting deep-pocketed supporters and rainmakers to serve on its board. Instead, the organization has — for good and ill — been completely artist-run.

As a result, Eyedrum’s been able to maintain a certain ideological purity and unparalleled street cred. But it’s also kept the organization in an ongoing scramble to pay the bills. Rent and utilities alone now cost about $3,500 a month.

“We exist almost exclusively on earned income, which is very unusual,” says new executive director Priscilla Smith, adding that grants from Atlanta and Fulton County have historically covered only a sliver of the budget. “Our revenue has come from annual memberships, show admissions, concessions, space rentals and whatever private donations we get.”

Still, Eyedrum’s scruffy business model might have continued in perpetuity were it not for two setbacks. The economic downturn brought a steep drop in attendance and customer spending. But according to most Eyedrum insiders, the lousy economy only intensified a crisis of energy, passion and leadership already threatening the organization’s ongoing relevance and survival.

“The original vision was to bring visual art and music together and to blur the differences,” recalls Woody Cornwell, who was a recent SCAD graduate in 1996 when he and roommate Marshall Avett turned their Trinity Street apartment into a gallery/concert space. The venture was born out of frustration, says Cornwell: He couldn’t find a gallery willing to show his work and Avett’s noise-collage band couldn’t get a booking because it was “music that doesn’t sell beer.”

For a year-and-a-half, they hosted what became known as the Silver Ceiling Art Party, named for the tinfoil glued overhead. But with neighbors grumbling about the noise and late-night crowds, the pair decided to take their project to an ambitious new level in fall 1998. Bringing on a half-dozen partners, each of whom paid $100 in monthly board dues, they rented out the basement of an adjoining building.

The new entity, dubbed Eyedrum, quickly became known for its decidedly non-commercial, experimental offerings — free-jazz combos, poetry readings, anything-goes gallery shows, wild performance art — as well as a hipster party scene.

“Despite what anyone says, it started out as kind of a clubhouse where you could see and hear things you couldn’t find anywhere else in the city,” says Stan Woodard, who joined the board in 1999. “It was a space where people could do what they wanted.”

When Eyedrum realized it had outgrown its ramshackle basement home, board member Hormuz Minina helped negotiate the lease for its current space in 2001 with the landlord, Braden Fellman Group.
“We traded artwork for lower rent,” he explains.

As Eyedrum’s space expanded, so did its overhead costs: It had to host more concerts and events to bring in more revenue. Eventually, Eyedrum increased its programming to nearly 300 days a year — a huge time demand from the all-volunteer staff. For a span of several years, Woodard, Minina and other board members worked full-time to man the gallery, clean up after shows and do building maintenance without earning a dime.

“I’d gotten a divorce and was living in my parents’ basement, so Eyedrum became my life,” says Robert Cheatham, who served as executive director for much of the past decade. “I think people just assumed we were all getting paid.”

Then, in 2006, Eyedrum scored a major coup. The New York-based Warhol Foundation bent its own rules to award the organization a three-year, $30,000 grant. But as the late Biggie Smalls once observed, “mo money, mo problems.” For starters, the windfall could be spent to pay artists but not to pay rent.

“Art had given Eyedrum its initial cachet, but music always paid the bills,” Woodard says. “The Warhol grant widened the schism between the art and music people.”

Minina agrees Eyedrum has derived much of its energy from the creative tension between the idealistic and the practical, the flaky and the dedicated, the art and the music. But, after years of giving their time for free, several of Eyedrum’s workhorses were suffering serious burnout.

By the time the Warhol money ran out toward the end of 2008, Eyedrum appeared to many observers to be coasting. The gallery kept erratic hours and volunteers often couldn’t answer basic questions about the art on the wall. Dust bunnies collected in corners and the trash went unemptied. Publicity for new shows and events became spotty and sometimes non-existent. Artists complained their work was getting damaged while in Eyedrum’s care. The group even lost its annual Fulton County grant for 2009 because it didn’t submit an application.

“Starting about a year ago, people would come up to me and say, ‘Eyedrum’s finished, isn’t it?’” says Cheatham, who was easing himself out as executive director by then. “It got to be a bad scene for a while.”

Finally, in May 2009, the organization found itself unable to pay rent for the first time in its history. The landlord agreed to spread the payment throughout the rest of the year, but the board soon realized it couldn’t afford to honor even that agreement, so it drafted its well-circulated memorandum of distress.

The subsequent outpouring of support from artists and the community at large has re-energized the Eyedrum board, giving its members a renewed sense of purpose.

“The community effectively said, ‘We won’t let you go away,’” says Smith. “We’re not out of the weeds yet, but we’re in a tremendous renaissance.”

The groundswell of community support has convinced the board Eyedrum can’t continue in hand-to-mouth fashion — that it has a responsibility to ensure its financial stability in order to meet its mission as a grassroots multi-disciplinary arts incubator for Atlanta.

When its current lease runs out at the end of 2010, Eyedrum will likely accept an offer to move to a new space in Castleberry Hill that comes with a promise of temporarily subsidized rent, Smith says.
Even more radical, the organization will hire a paid staffer.

“That person could be an archivist or a fundraiser, we haven’t decided yet,” Smith says. “But part of the reason we got into trouble was burnout, so this should help, and I think you’ll see us going after more grant money.”

Smith says the board’s new optimism is tempered by a healthy dose of caution: “As we go through these changes, none of us want to lose what Eyedrum is about, but there’s a revolution going on here.” 

Full Disclosure: Creative Loafing managing editor Chante LaGon serves on Eyedrum’s board. She had no role in the assigning or editing of this story.