This mission-driven for-profit is transforming Toledo through the arts
In 2010, Rachel Richardson was the co-director of a Toledo-based nonprofit called Independent Advocates that worked with domestic violence survivors in the Lucas County Court System. They accompanied their clients to court hearings, helped them get protection orders and navigate the divorce process, and held fundraisers for their efforts.
It was through these fundraisers that Richardson noticed just how generous and committed the local artist community was.
"I got the most unrestricted support, and without hesitation, from artists," she says. "They would get involved and jump right in by donating a piece for auction or offering to play music for free. I was really inspired by the fact that the artists and activists in Toledo seemed to come together for a cause."
Art Corner Toledo (ACT) is an arts organization founded by Richardson, born out of the need she saw for artist-led community engagement and placemaking projects to revitalize blighted and underdeveloped areas and neighborhoods. And it started with a mural in a forgotten swath of land in 2010.
Toledo GROWS, the community garden outreach program of the Toledo Botanical Garden, had designated the Manos Community Garden at Jackson and 14th Street as one of its own, but it had never been tended. Located behind the popular Manhattan's Pub 'N Cheer, the garden was all but forgotten. Until Richardson led the effort to put a mural there.
She worked with local artist-activist Har Simrit Singh and Toledo GROWS, which teaches kids involved with criminal justice system how to farm and garden, to produce a mural in partnership with the youth in the program that would express what they were learning. "Keep it local, keep it fresh," was the theme of the mural, and within two years that space became one of the community's most-tended gardens.
Ten more murals went up along that corridor, which transformed into a venue for performances, art walks, and craft fairs.
"This space was not anything, but then it became a destination because we put a mural there," says Richardson. "When you say 'Manos Garden' everyone knows what you're talking about."
A couple of years later, Richardson was contacted by a graffiti artist asking for her help to find a wall to paint on.
"He was a graffiti writer who wanted to go legit and go above ground," she explains. "So I matched him up with another artist who had never done a mural before but is extremely talented, and they put together the 'Toledo Loves Love' wall with rainbow graffiti and black and white illustration. That wall has become iconic in town – people take their wedding photos and senior pictures there. It used to be a parking lot but now it's a place; it's a destination unto itself."
In 2013, ACT partnered with United Way to work on projects in Toledo's Junction Neighborhood, a neighborhood designated as underdeveloped and in need of support. In 2014, she was approached by the Toledo City Council and Lucas County administration, which had taken notice of the transformative power of these murals and wanted to support her work in a more meaningful way. That resulted in ACT getting funding from the City Council general budget, which hadn't happened for an arts-based project (typically funded through the Arts Commission) in 15 years.
"That was unprecedented," Richardson says. "That was then matched by a County fund, and I was able to make a full-time job out of this and pay artists more than just a token."
In 2015, Richardson went all-in with ACT, producing over 20 murals and fostering more organizational partnerships, including a planned collaboration with the Toledo Museum of Art in 2016.
It might sound like ACT is a nonprofit arts organization. But ACT is a for-profit creative business, though one whose work is community-driven and social justice-oriented.
"It means I can do other things that strike my fancy that I believe are beneficial to community and worth my time," she explains. "But murals are still my focus."
With her previous experience running a nonprofit serving domestic violence survivors, Richardson saw first-hand the amount of time and energy that was wasted in nonprofit bureaucracy.
"Once you become a nonprofit you become in service to your board and you lose sight of the work itself," she explains. "I remember spending hours and days setting up board meetings when I could have been with women in court. It seemed like a dilution of effort."
She continues, "For this particular project I wanted to be the sole decision maker. I wanted to be moved by my own inspiration rather than having to go to a board and having to ask permission. That seemed really convoluted to me for something I've put all my blood, sweat, and tears into."
She also says she didn't want to compete with other nonprofits for all-too-elusive, limited, and fleeting funding, but rather work with them as partners. Then the grants they raise might be used to contract work out to her — without diminishing her ability to make an impact. For example, when one of ACT's murals transformed an abandoned building into a desirable property, ProMedica, the largest corporation in Toledo, took it over and added new community development initiatives to the building's operations. Now she's on their community advisory committee.
"A person in the creative field can have voice at the table," she says. "The creative voice would not have been invited to sit at the table had it not played a role in the redevelopment of that building."
Richardson admits that being a for-profit company with a community-driven mission has been confusing to both government and corporate sponsors alike. It has taken some convincing, but she has been spearheading a shift in those attitudes.
"Just because it's not a nonprofit doesn’t mean it's not doing good work," she says. "Nonprofits can be very limiting. It seems to be a move that corporations are making to see that you don't have to be a nonprofit to do valuable work. And it stimulates the economy!"
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