Arts leader steps down

The Columbus Area Arts Council executive director who steered the nonprofit agency through substantial cuts in city support will step down after a new leader is chosen later this year.

Karen Shrode, 63, has led the nonprofit organization since November 2011, when she returned to Columbus from Indianapolis after serving as a grant consultant and project analyst for IUPUI. Except for the three-year period from 2008 to 2011, Shrode has been part of the council’s leadership staff since 1998.

Shrode, who announced her resignation at Thursday’s arts council board meeting, said she is uncertain of her future plans but does not intend to retire.

She said this is a good time for her to make way for someone with a different set of skills than those which have been her strength. She said she feels the arts in Columbus need a visionary leader with strong fundraising ability across the community.

“Now is the perfect time to bring in someone who can help develop a comprehensive strategy, not only for the arts council but with regard to local arts and culture in total,” Shrode said. “It’s really a good time to hit the reset button.”

Despite Columbus city government in 2015 abandoning $148,000 in direct funding it had provided to the arts council the two previous years, Shrode led a trimmed-down, five-person staff — minus a marketing person and a development director  and continued to spearhead popular, newer programs such as the Martin Luther King Day educational drama presentation at The Commons before hundreds of students and adults.

Other ideas that came to fruition under Shrode’s leadership included:

  • The Sculpture Biennial, which brought seven new sculptures to downtown in 2014.
  • Live on the Plaza, a festive, annual event launched in 2014 and aimed at bringing creative, different styles of music at the Bartholomew County Library Plaza.

Shrode also was part of the team that developed the application resulting in downtown Columbus being designated as an Indiana Cultural District, one of only six statewide.

Under her watch, the unCommon Cause gala — the agency’s biggest fundraising event — had record years in 2014, when $97,000 was raised, and last year at $118,000.

That kind of fundraising has helped the arts council, located on the first floor of The Commons at 300 Washington St., offer free programming such as the popular First Fridays For Families and JCB Neighborfest. Sponsorships have also allowed the agency to present other events with moderately priced tickets.

The arts council presents about 25 events annually and partners with others on events such as Ethnic Expo and the Columbus Scottish Festival.

The council’s Rock the Park concert with the Charlie Daniels Band attracted an estimated 6,000 people last year and more than 7,000 with REO Speedwagon at the previous staging in 2013. The event also hit the 7,000 attendance mark in 2012 with Foreigner, marking the concert series’ most successful run since it began in 2008.

“In reality, the arts council (as a whole) deserves the credit,” Shrode said, praising her staff. “We’ve always worked as a team.”

Shrode said she feels the post needs a person with a strong sense of vision and charisma.

Sarah Cannon, president of the 14-member arts council board, and board secretary Erin Hawkins said those traits would be great to have in a new executive director.

Cannon said she hoped the new person could be in place by fall as Shrode helps with the transition.

Hawkins praised Shrode for her leadership, including budget management.

The arts council started 2015 with an anticipated $50,000 budget deficit but managed to break even by year’s end. Shrode was in a similar situation this year, as the organization began with an anticipated $57,000 budget deficit.

“She has done an especially amazing job with that,” Cannon said.

The city’s line-item funding for the arts council, the only group in Columbus whose main focus is arts programming, was removed totally for 2015, requiring the organization to compete for a share of a $50,000 pool through the Columbus Parks and Recreation Board and The Commons budgets. The arts council got $7,500 for its Live On the Plaza event with MarchFourth! in June.

Shrode acknowledged that the city’s change of approach in funding presented a challenge, losing what was then 20 percent of the agency’s $700,000-plus budget. The budget since has dipped to $672,000.

But Shrode said such cuts did not figure into her decision to resign.

“I love the arts community,” Shrode said. “I love the entire community. And I always will support both.”

About Karen Shrode

Karen Shrode

Position: Executive director of the Columbus Area Arts Council since Nov. 1, 2011.

Age: 63.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in art history, University of Illinois at Chicago.

Recent career: Arts education coordinator, Columbus Area Arts Council, 1998 to 2000; assistant director/associate director, Columbus Area Arts Council, 2000 to 2008; grant consultant and project analyst at IUPUI, 2008 to 2011.

Interests: Travel, world music, film, modern art and architecture, poetry, storytelling, nonfiction and travel writing, modern dance, and music by contemporary and minimalist composers.

Hometown: Rockport in southern Indiana.

Family: Daughter, Samantha Bernard, of Ferndale, Mich.

Executive director post

The executive director for the Columbus Area Arts Council manages and oversees a nonprofit agency organizing and presenting concerts, educational and family presentations, outdoor food-and-music gatherings, participatory arts workshops and demos, hands-on art projects for at-risk and other youth, and other efforts.

The executive director is responsible for overall arts advocacy and managing a regional arts partners group linked to the Indiana Arts Commission.

Author photo
Brian Blair is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at or 812-379-5672.