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Saturday, June 15, 2024

How Arts Garage’s Remarkable Turnaround Came to Be

Palm Beach County is a renowned arts destination in South Florida, with numerous art galleries, live music venues, and a vibrant mix of for-profit and nonprofit initiatives. In Delray Beach specifically, there are dozens of private galleries showcasing remarkable artists, along with several venues that often explore various artistic disciplines – and among them all, Arts Garage stands out.

The visual & performing art center is a literal beacon of light in Downtown Delray Beach, with wraparound windows glowing nightly, showcasing innovative and diverse visual and performing arts experiences to devoted patrons from the local community, South Florida, and to visitors from around the globe. From Grammy Award-winning musicians to emerging, local artists, Arts Garage hosts exceptional performances in its Stuart & Shelby Theater while The Marshall Family Foundation Gallery at Arts Garage exhibits emerging regional visual artists. Arts Garage has become a renowned institution as it also provides educational programming for both adults and children to grow their talents and knowledge of the Visual & Performing Arts. However, it wasn’t always this way.

Founded in 2011 as a Delray Beach Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) project, Arts Garage was initially created to be a space similar to what would become Arts Warehouse (which opened just down the street in Pineapple Grove six years later). By 2014, Arts Garage had transitioned into a not-for-profit organization with a board of directors and opened as a New York City jazz club-style venue. Beloved by its patrons near and far, the venue was a clear hit in the local community and beyond. There was just one problem: it was bleeding.

Arts Garage struggled to overcome financial problems, accounting concerns, debts and incomplete audits, and the administration was unable to adequately manage the establishment’s funds. The dysfunction within the organization threatened both its funding and its support from the city. By early 2016, the organization’s reputation and financial forecast were dire and the venue’s closure seemed likely.

Enter Marjorie Waldo.

Marjorie came from the education world, with years of experience turning around charter schools that lacked re-sources and funding while she advocated for at-risk youth. After a career shift from education, Marjorie harnessed her expertise in turnaround management to begin consulting for underperforming businesses and nonprofits. It was at this time that Marjorie was introduced to Arts Garage as someone who could potentially right the ship. After an open discussion with the Board regarding the big changes that were necessary to save Arts Garage, Marjorie was offered the position of CEO in October of 2016.

In November of 2016, with Marjorie officially on board, Arts Garage’s financial struggles loomed large. The organization had hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, stacks of unpaid bills, and due to missing documentation was years behind on mandatory audits. Unphased, Marjorie took these challenges head-on by prioritizing payments to staff, small businesses and local vendors. She reduced accounts payable by cutting unnecessary expenses and negotiating payment plans with large vendors. In January 2017, Marjorie launched the Arts Garage’s Band of Angels, whose members committed to an annual donation of $10K and helped the nonprofit re-cover long-term debt.

With a small staff and limited resources, Marjorie began to rebuild Arts Garage. She led improvements, eliminated overlaps, implemented infrastructure systems, initiated operational adjustments, and improved customer service standards. She created policies and procedures to improve the Arts Garage experience for both patrons and staff, and cultivated a team who shared her vision. Marjorie implemented a sustainable business model that increased the variety of musical genres as well as the number of shows on the stage, which ultimately helped raise tickets sales and increase revenue opportunities. And it did not stop there.

“I attended every show that first year, and I would make a list of five to twenty-five things that we needed to improve,” Marjorie recalls. “Do we need to paint the stage? Do the seats look okay and are the tablecloths dirty? How are the acoustics? Do the patrons look happy? Where’s the staff member making sure that the open-ing of the doors isn’t disturbing the performance, and all of that kind of stuff.”

Marjorie’s attention to detail combined with her leadership and operational skills meant that by the end of 2019, Arts Garage’s fu-ture was bright. The organization had increased its budget by over 25% and ticket sales were up by 30%. Then the pandemic hit.

Rather than letting Covid defeat her, Marjorie rallied. With all of the tools she had implemented in place, zero debt and a small reserve, and all audits completed, she was determined to not let the two-week shutdown ruin what she had built. Instead, she put a plan in place, and adapted. During the pandemic, Marjorie made it a priority to support local talent by continuing to produce live performances with a commitment to book each one for the stage once the venue reopened. She honored her commitment to donors by live streaming and recording performances, all of which were free and open to the community, until in-person entertainment could resume. Although ticket sales were non-existent at the time, Marjorie utilized reserves, leveraged numerous and large grants and loan opportunities, and engaged in creative guerilla marketing to keep the organization afloat.

Three years later, Arts Garage has not only returned to its pre-pandemic success, but it is better than ever, outperforming even its most successful pre-pandemic times. Over the past year, on top of hosting over 300 performances, community events and classes and with more than half of all performances sold out – Marjorie has secured numerous grants, with 30% of funding coming from significant grant funders, including the CRA, Florida Department of Cultural Affairs, and the Cultural Council for Palm Beach County. Combined with generous gifts from donors and record-breaking tickets sales, the Arts Garage budget is 46% higher this year than it was in 2016.

“This is a significant achievement, particularly for a smaller non-profit organization,” explained Marjorie. “We’ve learned a great deal from our turnaround efforts and we’ve built a toolbox to make our organization more sustainable and adept at increasing revenue streams and audience engagement.”

And with Marjorie leading the way, it’s clear Arts Garage’s impact here locally and beyond, is untold.

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