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December '02 Cover Story

Gwynne Rukenbrod:
Hired and Inspired

Short North Neighborhood Foundation
Discovers Its First Executive Director

By Cindy Bent

Photo by Gus Brunsman III

The Short North Neighborhood Foundation has a new captain. Gwynne Rukenbrod, former studio director of arts nonprofit Glass Axis and current director with Days of Creation - Arts for Kids. She was recently hired to become the Foundation's first executive director. Gazette reporter Cindy Bent spoke with Rukenbrod and SNNF Board member Zoe Johnstone about Rukenbrod's history and her goals for the Foundation.


SNG: Let's start out with how you came to the Foundation. You have worked in nonprofits before?

GR: I am the past studio director of Glass Axis, a nonprofit glass facility here in town. I was also the past program director of Camp Sunrise, a camp for children who are affected by HIV/AIDS. For one camp season I helped run the organization. That was my first experience directing a nonprofit. But then I got into more of the arts side, when I went to Glass Axis.

SNG: How did you get into the arts?

GR: It's kind of a funny story. I left Camp Sunrise [in 1998] - working in HIV/AIDS. I worked in that field for five years, and I got very burnt out. I was good friends with a glass-blowing instructor at CCAD. He said, I'm going to Thailand to build a glass studio, are you interested in coming with me? I said, "Of course I'm interested!" That was my first real exposure to glass. I've always been artistic and my mother would say, you know, that's a great hobby, but artists can't make a living, so find some other skills and do art as a hobby. When I came back to the U.S., I decided that I really needed to tap back into that side of me. I found a job out in Newark, Ohio as assistant curator for the National Heisey Glass Museum. They have a hot shop at what was the Institute of Industrial Technology, which is now called The Works. So &endash; from Heisey, which was a 40-minute drive and $8 an hour, I began looking elsewhere. The studio director position at Glass Axis opened up. They were crazy enough to give it to me. I did that for a year and a half, and their funding became restricted due to a $50,000 move. So then I became the part-time bookkeeper and started doing little things - I worked at the Clay Café,

I did catering, worked on my own glass art, did a few craft fairs &endash; and then back in May or April,

I was talking to a friend and saying, you know, I enjoy having a lack of responsibility, but I really miss utilizing my skills in nonprofits. I feel that I have an affinity for understanding how a nonprofit runs, the tax part of it, the IRS requirements, the fund raising, the marketing. Days of Creation - Arts for Kids was looking for a director, and so I applied and am still the current Director.

SNG: Did you attend college, and what did you study?

GR: I went to OSU, and I have a BS in Health Education and Community Wellness. And then I began taking business classes, but didn't finish my graduate work due to the death of my mother. It just kind of happens, you get derailed. That was six years ago.

ZJ: You find out the reasons for it later.

GR: And there is a reason for it. When we were taking the business courses at OSU, I was drawn to the nonprofit courses, but I don't think I would have gone the arts route, I would have stayed in health education, maybe social services, that sort of thing. But because your mom dies, and you're floundering, trying to figure out who you are, it was just such a huge life-changing thing, and I always had kind of a crazy sense of style, and always loved to decorate with lots of color. I found myself drawn to being creative and allowing myself to get more into the arts organizations. So, last year - all summer long I did Days of Creation - Arts for Kids, and then saw the ad in the Columbus Dispatch. Days of Creation requires limited time each month in the winter, so I thought, I'd have some extra time I could devote to something else. I knew that the Short North needs to support the arts very strongly we work with a lot of artists, we support art activities in many ways through our small project grants - so I applied and I got it. I have been their Director for a month.

ZJ: In the first month, she's gotten probably thirty percent of the emergency housekeeping that needed to be done for us. She renewed all of our licenses, has actually managed to put all this stuff in print in some way. We've known that we needed to get a director, because we're all volunteers, with limited time, but experienced. Most of the people who are trustees are burned out, from just getting it going.

SNG: What is the purpose and mission of the foundation?

ZJ: This organization is really a gratitude thing. It's time for us to give back, to cause interaction between neighborhood organizations among themselves, and retain the job of a foundation - which is to be disconnected in a certain way. The work of a foundation is to apply/give time money or energy as appropriate to the projects which fit our mission. We need Gwynne to do this, to help define how we work. Any new organization in the neighborhood can be perceived as a threat. And in this case, it's absolutely not. It's not an umbrella for anything, it's unique in that what we seek to do is to promote the values of the Short North to the rest of the community.

GR: The Mobile Murals - art on moveable panels that wall off Short North construction sites from the sidewalks &endash; are a prime example of how we are able to bring four very different organizations together - the Short Stop Teen Center, the Arts and College Preparatory Academy, JP Morgan Chase, and the Short North Business Association. SNNF secured the funding for the project. When someone comes to us and says, "We really want to do this but we don't know how to get the funds or put it together," that's where I see us serving them. It's saying, let's save you some time and some resources, let's do some research together. That's where we're different - we're not competing with any organization. We try to help all the organizations in the Short North.

ZJ: We work with seven neighborhood organizations. Victorian Village, Italian Village, the Short North Business Association, Friends of Goodale Park, the Short North Special Improvement District, Harrison West, Dennison Place, a minimum of seven. That's why people get confused.

GR: We see the neighborhood as between Columbus Convention Center and OSU, between the railroad tracks and the river.

SNG: How did the foundation start?

GR: What I got from Sandy [Wood, another founder] is he, and a few other people started communicating with the various neighborhood organizations and asked them what they were looking for, and they said they really needed an organization that would help them with their missions.

ZJ: None of these organizations are 501(c)3. That's the other piece of this. The SNBA cannot

submit grant applications. Even though Mary [Martineau, SNBA Director] could write the grant, we have to submit the grant. The Hubbard School playground project, we were the 501(c)3 organization for that. We provide that function for legitimate not-for-profit ventures, other organizations that can't apply for grants.

SNG: The Foundation itself - when did the first funds go into the bank?

GR: We want to establish this as a fiscally viable organization that's going to last for many years. To have an endowment that we can use the interest from to give grants and still have the endowment, that's the key.

SNG: Where do you want to take the organization?

GR: We want to establish credibility in the city of Columbus, and we want people to be able to recognize our name, and know what we do. Those things I hope to accomplish through various activities. The mARTi gras is a great way to accomplish that, doing various projects like the Mobile Mural or the Hubbard School Playground. I see myself as being the person who's able to communicate to the residents and the community of Columbus what the Foundation can do. I also would like to establish the Foundation to be fiscally sound, to establish general operating funds in the bank before the next year starts. One other goal is to do an Art and Music festival - we are The Arts District, we really need to have an arts festival down here that's uniquely Short North.

ZJ: She has a very good vision that's another reason we want her with us. The other thing about this organization is that

money is a very small piece of it. This organization wants to honor the time and energy that people can bring. Time is a non-renewable resource. Gwynne under-stands that part of it too, that if you have a working board, you're giving time. We need to be on a track so that nobody feels that it's not productive.

SNG: Where do you feel that you are in the "getting the word out" goal?

GR: We're not where we want to be.

ZJ: We've known we needed a director to do that. I think that's the biggest pressure that the board is feeling. The spirit is willing, you know, but we needed a body. Taking a risk to be able to generate the funds to have a director is our risk of this year.

SNG: Since the board is composed of members of all the other neighborhood organizations, it sounds as if all the organizations at least should know you're here?

GR: They don't see a difference between us and the SNBA, and the SNSID, and that's one of the goals for 2003, to differentiate ourselves and communicate. We don't have a logo yet, we don't have a brochure yet. But as soon as we get that, we can put together a press packet, and can take it to the various merchants, the different organizations, and say, "Hey, you want to know really what we're all about, here you go." We now can go to their meetings and answer their questions, and I think that a lot of footwork needs to be done up and down the street just to get the different organizations to understand where we're at.