The Columbus Area Arts Council’s new executive director wants to boost arts education, an area that has been among her specialties.

Currently, local arts education is where organizations such as the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic still shine, devoting about 20 percent of its annual budget to educational programs.

Kathryn Armstrong, who began work June 6 alongside her predecessor, Karen Shrode, has been getting acclimated to leading the nonprofit agency — one that presents high-profile local events such as Saturday’s Johnson-Witkemper Insurance Biggest Block Party Ever, expected to attract several thousand people.

For now, her responsibility involves becoming the Biggest Catalyst Ever for arts and related groups. She has met with a range of organizations in recent weeks to hear how the arts council can help agencies have the most impact.

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“The most important thing for me still is to listen and to observe,” Armstrong, 37, said from her office on the Fourth Street side of The Commons.

Armstrong said she wants to hear from organizations about their real needs and strategic plans in order to help them become more successful and to get their vision before the public.

The executive director, part of a staff of five, oversees a budget of $614,559 with an anticipated deficit of $57,834 for this year, according to the arts council board. She acknowledged that as she becomes more familiar with budgetary matters, she will begin to tackle ways to make up for the loss of $148,000 in direct funding from the city in 2015.

She also looks to secure title-sponsor support for successful newer events such as Live On the Plaza, which featured international a capella group Naturally 7 last month.

Armstrong said she would like to find a $25,000 sponsor for that gathering.

“Funding (overall) is still our biggest challenge,” she said. “But I am not at a loss for ideas.”

Tracy Souza, president and CEO of The Heritage Fund — the Community Foundation of Bartholomew County, leads an organization that long has supported integral endowment funds for long-term support for arts organizations such as the Philharmonic.

Moreover, Souza herself has long been a dancer, a daughter is an actress and her husband is a longtime local musician. So Souza is well-prepared to evaluate arts leadership.

“Kathryn Armstrong is the right person stepping into the right role at the right time,” Souza said. “Look at what is going on right now (locally).”

Souza pointed out several key developments:

Members of the arts community have been meeting regularly to develop more collaboration on programming and support for each other.

Mayor Jim Lienhoop has supported the revitalization of the Columbus Arts District Coalition under Indiana Arts Commission board member Sherry Stark’s leadership.

The arts council has been preparing to take an active leadership role around this critical quality-of-life issue.

The arts’ contribution to quality of life has surfaced prominently in recent years in Columbus. Organizations such as the Heritage Fund have polled young professionals and others about what is important for them to remain in the area.

“Sometimes, this community just needs to be reminded how good we really are,” Souza said.

Stark, who has met with Armstrong about the downtown cultural district, already is a fan of Armstrong’s.

“She is very bright and has a wonderful passion for the arts,” said Stark, who served as arts council director herself from 1996 to 1999.

“She really understands the importance of collaboration, and having all parts of the community working together,” Stark said of Armstrong. “And I think she brings a new, fresh energy — and new ideas and thoughts.”

Stark and others’ positive public comments are important since Shrode was popular among local arts leaders for continuing the arts council’s work under a trimmed budget and staff and more competitive jockeying for grant money.

Stark applauds Armstrong’s hope that arts education be bolstered.

“We all lament that so much of that has disappeared,” Stark said. “Certainly, from my position with the Indiana Arts Commission, I’m aware of how vital is today to find a way to re-introduce the arts into the school system.”

Armstrong’s background includes work with efforts such as Arts For Learning, involving outreaches with Indianapolis students in grades kindergarten through six.

“Arts in education sometimes can be thought of as a distraction (by some),” Armstrong said. “But, actually, with the arts, you’re involved in an activity that often relates to problem solving and communicating.”

Facilitating local support for the arts

One key for new Columbus Area Arts Council executive director Kathryn Armstrong is to work as a team player amid a variety of local agencies dealing with parts of the arts, such as:

  • The Columbus Indiana Philharmonic
  • The Columbus Symphony Orchestra
  • Dancers Studio Inc
  • The Heritage Fund — the Community Foundation of Bartholomew County
  • Mill Race Theatre Company
  • Landmark Columbus
  • The Columbus Indiana Architectural Archives
  • Columbus Museum of Art and Design
  • Bartholomew County Public Library
  • Bartholomew County Historical Society
  • Columbus Arts District Coalition

“My job will be to connect all the different arts-related organizations and other organizations and their mission, and to bring them to the larger community,” Armstrong said.

Kathryn Armstrong

Age: 37

New post: Executive director of the Columbus Area Arts Council since June 6.

Former post: Faculty member at the Herron School of Art and Design since 2010. Her teaching research includes interdisciplinary studio practices, collaboration, public art and project management.

Hometown: Michigan City, Indiana.

Family: Partner Steven Baker, also a design professional.

Education: Received a bachelor’s of fine arts in photography with a minor in Film Studies from Indiana University, a master’s of arts in painting and drawing from Eastern Illinois University and a master’s of fine arts in visual art and public life with an emphasis in sculpture from Herron School of Art and Design-IUPUI.

Public art commissions: They include a temporary sculpture on the campus of Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois, and a 34-piece installation on I-70 in Indianapolis funded by Keep Indianapolis Beautiful and Lilly & Co. in partnership with the Basile Center.

First reaction to Columbus: “I instantly fell in love with the magic of Columbus, and the ability to personally connect with community.”

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Brian Blair is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at bblair@therepublic.com or 812-379-5672.