"Trash is just a failure of imagination"

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© 2017 Creative Chicago Reuse Exchange

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Spotlight: Detroit-based nonprofit Arts and Scraps

April 25, 2017

This post comes from CCRx team member and SAIC student, Courtney Graham, and spotlights Detroit-based nonprofit Arts and Scraps. Courtney spoke with the Executive Director at the time, Peg Upmeyer, in Fall 2016. The original post can be found on Courtney's website

I have been fortunate enough to be immersed in the arts all my life; with both parents working in creative fields, it wasn’t exactly optional in my household. Some of my earliest experiences with an arts organization were participating in community activities with Arts and Scraps. At the time, in the mid-90s, this entrepreneurial nonprofit was quickly becoming a familiar tent at every festival or fair the city of Detroit had to offer. My two younger sisters and I would beg our parents to make one more of whatever the craft-of-the-day happened to be. The materials were not your typical popsicles sticks and construction paper – there were foam shapes, bottle caps, tubing, everyday items and unusual oddities alike. But the most thrilling part was that the activity was completely open to interpretation; a suggestion was provided, but you were encouraged to take it wherever it led you. Besides festival tents, my dad would occasionally take us to mecca – also known as the Arts and Scraps store. We’d get a paper bag and fill it to the brim with anything and everything, three little girls buzzing with project ideas on the minivan ride home.

 

A couple decades later, I had the immense pleasure of speaking with Peg Upmeyer, the last co-founder still working at Arts and Scraps – though she will be bitter-sweetly retiring next month and a new Executive Director is currently getting started (Peg handed over the reins to James Henderson shortly after our interview). Peg spoke about Arts and Scraps’ humble start in a church basement, with herself and friends Nanci Ballantyne and Corine Tyler, as the sole operators. Three years in, the church announced it was closing, so the three founders applied for a series of grants and “never looked back." From its conception, Arts and Scraps has been entrepreneurial, charging nominal fees for materials in order to fund their educational programming. Though they were initially vilified for charging, this model has worked for them and is likely the reason they are thriving nearly 30 years later. By operating as a nonprofit business, Arts and Scraps generates fifty to sixty percent of its operating costs, making supplemental funding very appealing to foundations and donors that recognize their level of self-sufficiency.

 

The incoming revenue primarily comes from the store, a retail-style space where the public can shop for inexpensive and quirky materials. The majority of these consumers are people with at least some level of disposable income, the DIY-ers, suburban families, and arts educators. To supplement the store’s revenue, Arts and Scraps also holds pop-up sales at places like Eastern Market, where people come from all over the Metro Detroit area to pick up vegetables, meat, flowers, you name it. At these pop-ups, Arts and Scraps can charge premium prices, increasing the cash flow back to their true mission. Arts and Scraps’ target audience is “children living in low income areas." These retail portions of the business, while great for families like mine, are really just in support of educational programs that reach kids through schools and after-school organizations. Because transportation is a huge issue for their desired audience (and low income Detroiters in general, due to the gross lack of public transportation), Arts and Scraps typically travels to schools or other community centers to connect with their constituents. Another tool to close the transportation gap is their ScrapMobile. This twenty-six foot bus is full of materials that can be used at schools but also scheduled for birthday parties. Since its origin in in 2006, thanks to a $100,000 Humana Detroit Benefit Award, the ScrapMobile continues to serve eighteen thousand children in forty-five communities annually. 

 

Even though Arts and Scraps staff are bringing their programs all over the city, when it comes to place, the organization is deeply connected to their neighborhood. Since moving from that church basement, Arts and Scraps has called the eastside of Detroit home. They have established relationships with local schools and people in the area are involved as volunteers and supply donors. As Detroit continues to undergo a revitalization of the downtown area, Arts and Scraps once considered moving, but heeded the overwhelming pleas from the neighborhood for them to stay put. Yes, moving downtown might mean more foot traffic than their current, more residential neighborhood, but the loft-dwelling midtowners are not their audience. It was important for them to remain accessible to the group they are trying to serve.

 

The other major factor in this cycle is the supply donors. Arts and Scraps accepts individual donations – “it’s not unusual for eight to ten people to drop things at the door...in a given day." While they do post online a list of items they can take and what they can’t, they do accept most everything. Sorting is a difficult process, but individual donations (sometimes a loved-one’s whole estate) are how they receive some of their most interesting objects for the store. These one-of-a-kind items can be resold for higher prices to people looking for specialty pieces.

 

Although individual donations are great, the vast majority of material comes from businesses. Arts and Scraps currently has 220 companies contributing. Donors were once procured with endless cold-calls, but now businesses reach out to them to talk about what pieces might be reusable. Arts and Scraps offers to pick up everything, in all quantities. When working with a new donor, staff conducts a site visit, which is sometimes necessary to show people the potential in their surplus material. One example Peg gave was a staff member pulling a scrap out of a pile, saying this could be a butterfly wing. Donors have a hard time imagining uses for things they discard, but once they’re shown a concrete way how things could be used, they get it. One of the most inspiring parts of this process, Peg said, is seeing businesses take recycling a step further. Even if Arts and Scraps can’t safely use something, donors are now reaching out to other organizations to find alternate reuse or green disposal. Arts and Scraps is pushing the first domino and in a whole line of positive change.

 

One of the most beneficial effects of working with business surplus is quantity. When Arts and Scraps receives at least one thousand of something, those bulk items are taken to their warehouse, as opposed to the store. The five thousand square foot warehouse serves as a factory for their kits. Kits are pre-packaged materials with a specific project in mind. These kits are then taken to schools for programs with staff facilitators, but also sold on Arts and Scraps’ website. This ecommerce platform, launched in 2005, provides the nonprofit with an even greater audience reach.

 

As rich and innovative as the supply chain and programs happening at Arts and Scraps are, the structure of the organization is equally compelling. As a 501(c)3, the company is governed by a board of directors. In the early years, the board served more as guidance on programming and development, but over time has transitioned into a true governance role. The eight members of the board are active ambassadors in the community during their three year terms. While fundraising is less of a focus (each director is responsible for giving or getting $250 per year), each person selects a project to focus on for the year. This project must either bring in revenue or save costs for the organization. One member is, as Peg described, the Guerilla board member. This special position is a one year term to concentrate specifically on one large goal or focus. According to their extensive website, the focus of this year’s Guerilla board member is increasing “marketing to corporations, individual donations and advancing organizational structure." The flexibility of this appointment allows for Arts and Scraps to galvanize people in career transition who might not otherwise be available to commit to a three year term. When asked about the relationship between the board and staff, Peg unsurprisingly, used a very visual metaphor. She described the workflow as an hourglass, with the board at the top, herself (Executive Director) as the narrow center, and the rest of the team at the base. I thought this analogy was quite fitting, especially since the hourglass can be flipped for two-way communication within the organizational network.

 

Regarding their larger networks, Arts and Scraps is a member of a number of cultural collectives. Due to sustainability and green practices being a key component of their work, they collaborate with other environmental and recycling groups. Lately, these groups have been dominated by the trend in building reclaim, with education and arts recycling falling by the wayside. Both locally and nationally, Arts and Scraps has found its greatest allies in the arts community – which, in the Detroit area, “has its act together." One example is CultureSource, a member association for nonprofit arts and cultural organizations in Southeast Michigan. As Arts and Scraps was growing, CultureSource and its member organizations served as a network to cultivate relationships and resources. CultureSource aims to “strengthens the arts and culture sector in Southeast Michigan through advocacy, capacity building and marketing resources in order to cultivate an innovative, collaborative, diverse and engaged community." Although Arts and Scraps used to be one of the younger members of groups like CultureSource, they’ve now established themselves as a definitive force in the arts community of Metro Detroit.

 

Arts and Scraps isn’t limiting their partnerships to other nonprofits. They recently paired up with Team Detroit, a powerhouse advertising agency in the city, “after the head of Team Detroit challenged the nonprofit community to come up with projects where they could help." Through this collaboration, the agency developed a new visual branding for Arts and Scraps, complete with an updated wrap for the ScrapMobile.

 

The work of an arts administrator isn’t always the most exciting, however, reconnecting with the mission and the constituents is always revitalizing. Peg described a teaching method called the couch and the curtains, used to get kids thinking creatively. If you were to redecorate your living room from scratch it might seem overwhelming, but if you keep your couch and curtains, you have a starting point and it’s less intimidating. When you give kids the couch and curtains, they can get creative with everything else – “it’s important to provide a launching point." This approach, coupled with unusual materials gets children started, without limiting their imagination.

 

With curiosity as a natural entry point, Arts and Scraps has emphasized different aspects of their business in keeping with national trends. As Peg explained to Detroit City Limits reporter, Sarah Rigg, “about six years ago, the world understood what recycling was” so the emphasis became being green – “then, three years ago, STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] became a hot topic...we’ve been doing both those things for a number of years." As school curriculum has shifted towards STEM, Arts and Scraps has been able to bring a creative arts approach to these other subjects. “For instance, if the students are learning about insects, we don’t have them draw a diagram. Instead, we talk about the attributes of an insect, why it fits into that category, and then we have them invent an insect nobody has ever seen before and build it out of scrap materials." With steadfast attention on education through recycling, Arts and Scraps is able to create inspiring programs that connect science with the arts.

 

Arts and Scraps has been a source of nostalgia for me and remains one of the many reasons I’m involved in the arts today. After speaking with Peg Upmeyer, I have an even greater respect for the organization and feel extremely grateful such a place exists in Detroit. Their entrepreneurial model makes them sustainable and accountable to their stakeholders. Their store, outreach, and programming make them accessible to so many diverse audiences of children and adults alike. In a city still continuing to find its footing in a new age, Arts and Scraps is a radiant hub of learning, reuse, and creativity.

 

Links to the Arts and Scraps' pages:

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