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City & State or ZIP Tonight, this weekend, May 5th...
City & State or ZIP
City & State or ZIP Tonight, this weekend, May 5th...
City & State or ZIP

INTERVIEW: Eyedrum executive director Robert Cheatham

The news was posted online this week, unceremoniously mixed among calendars and announcements: “Eyedrum May Soon Call it Quits.” (PDF)

Cheatham

But news about the 11-year-old community arts organization’s financial trouble quickly picked up headlines on blogs and discussions on listservs. It’s not debt that finally spiraled out of control, Eyedrum executive director Robert Cheatham said, or personnel costs they can’t keep up — the organization is debt free, he said, and is run entirely by volunteers, who book about 280 events there every year. The trouble is that this summer of recession is even slower than usual, and with fewer acts and shows are on the books, audiences are smaller. That means less money coming in to pay about $5,000 a month for rent and utilities.

Cheatham met with a representative for Eyedrum’s landlord, Braden Fellman Group Ltd., Thursday morning to let them know they can’t afford the rent this month. It’s not the first time they’ve gone to their landlord with financial problems, but it’s the first time with no clear way out of it. The meeting, he says, was “uneventful,” but he expects to hear back within a matter of days if they’re willing to adjust the rent, or what the terms will be to break the lease.

A Braden Fellman rep confirmed that they learned about Eyedrum’s financial trouble this morning, but couldn’t say when a decision would be made.

Eyedrum has never operated like other non-profits, Cheatham says. It’s a de-centralized, non-hierarchical operation that started in a smaller space on Trinity Avenue and moved to its current location in 2001, when it paid about $1,800 for a portion of the space. A few years ago, they took over more space there, and the rent continued to climb to where it is now, $3,700 a month.

A 2005 Eyedrum exhibition featured work by Athens artist UGA associate professor Michael Olivieri. AJC file photo.

Board members are selected more for their taste and aesthetics than for fund-raising talents, and they are free to book events in the space. They try to bring in enough money to keep the 6,000 square foot facility running and provide programming.

“For better or for worse, there’s an ideological component to how we arranged things. For 10 years, it worked very well,” Cheatham said. “There were people with huge debt, whereas Eyedrum brought in incredible performances, events, for next to nothing.”

So what happens next? There are a few options:

  • Keep going, but cut back. This requires the rent to go down to as low as $2,000 and the organization to strip down to basics. They’ve already gotten rid of their phone service, but Cheatham says they can look at other ways to cut, like ending security service.
  • Move. This is tricky, Cheatham says, because ” the board does not want to go back into a basement situation, or a garage. Finding that middle ground, it’s problematic. The things that were cheap enough required a huge build out. I am not willing to do that kind of build out again. We spent two years getting this space into shape.”
  • Stop. They might book shows into other spaces, or halt Eyedrum for a while, or permanently. “The stress of this is too much,” Cheatham says. “Some are very exhausted of having to deal with artistic administrative problems, given the current economic climate. Our fears are that if they stop for a while, people have a short memory. It’s hard enough to keep people focused when there’s a space. We’ve lost of a lot of board members already.”

For now, events on the calendar are going ahead as planned. If they leave the space, they’ll likely cancel most of them, or find another place for them. Incoming donations will go toward operations. Cheatham and board member Priscilla Smith said they’ve been calls and offers for help since the new showed up online, but Cheatham remains skeptical that a short-term rush of donations will keep the space running.

“There may be a sugar daddy, sugar mama somewhere. I’m not sure what the future holds,” he said. “We took it for granted that at the end of the month, things would work out.”

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