TELLURIDE – Last week’s New Years Eve Gala for the Ah Haa School was made all the more festive by an announcement from the school’s president, Josephine Fallenius.
In 2010, she said to a rousing cheer, the school raised $500,000 to pay off long-term debt.
That leaves Ah Haa with only $250,000 in long-term debt.
Just a few years ago, in April 2007 after the school acquired the Depot Building for its new home, the long-term debt was a staggering $1.5 million.
On top of that, associated with the trade of its old home in the Silver Bell Building (worth $3 million) to the Depot ($4.5 million), the school paid for some $500,000 in essential renovations to the Depot, most notably making the building fully ADA compliant, plus nearly $300,000 in interest payments and closing costs.
While the numbers were intimidating, Fallenius and the school’s Executive Director Rachel Loomis said in an interview this week, success in capital fundraising over the last few years has put the school in a “very strong financial position,” in Fallenius’s words. The school is not only positioned for a bright future but, Fallenius added proudly, “We have secured the Depot building as a public space through Ah Haa for generations to come.”
Yes, Fallenius and Loomis-Lee allowed, the $250,000 note will have to be paid off as soon as possible. And there will be a need for more capital fundraising in the near future to complete the restoration of the Depot so that the school can make full use of its spectacularly beautiful building. And there will always be a need for annual fundraising since tuitions cover only 40 percent of operating costs. So there will be no rest for the school’s board or staff. But having come as far as they have, these challenges seem relatively manageable.
That future, Fallenius and Loomis-Lee said, is to continue to serve as a community art school, with many students receiving financial assistance to help cover tuition, but also to evolve as a destination art school. The model is Ah Haa’s successful American Academy of Bookbinding, which regularly draws experts from around the world every spring and fall to workshops and immersion programs in their rarefied art form.
This summer, Ah Haa will launch the first of its “total immersion art experiences” with a two-month course in painting. While this and future programs (photography, ceramics) will be taught by established artists as guest instructors and will attract students from afar, there will “always be a local’s component,” Loomis-Lee said.
Moving into the Depot committed Ah Haa to redefining its mission, Fallenius explained. The bigger space and the prominence of the building essentially dictated a bigger role in the community. Thus the need, she said, to eliminate long-term debt so that the school’s energies can go to expanding programs. None of it could have been accomplished, Fallenius added, without generous donors, both large and small. Among the larger donors was James Loo, who held the note on the building and forgave $250,000 of it.
While fundraising has been a challenge, Loomis-Lee said, what makes it easier is the “quality of the product.”
“We are passionate about what we do,” she said. “That makes it easier for us to ask for support and easier for donors to give.” Loomis-Lee has been executive director of the school since August of 2009, but was the school’s curriculum director starting in 2007.
A new Ah Haa program that Loomis-Lee is particularly proud of is “Art P.E.,” an alternative for public school students who do not wish to participate in ski P.E., which incorporates yoga and other physical activities into an arts enrichment curriculum. As with virtually all Ah Haa programs, Art P.E. is strongly supported by scholarship awards.
Thinking about what Ah Haa has become, Fallenius observed that it is “an economic engine” for the region, with six full-time staff and numerous part-time instructors. Ah Haa is one of the cultural amenities that draw visitors to the region, and it operates year-round, she said.
“We used to say in Telluride that people come for the winter and stay for the summer,” Fallenius said. “Now we can say that people come for the winter and summer, and stay for the cornerstones of the community like the Ah Haa School.”