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Troubled Light Factory on course for independence

By Elisabeth Arriero and Mark Washburn
mwashburn@charlotteobserver.com

Charlotte’s financially troubled Light Factory, one of only four museums in the nation focusing solely on photography and film, will likely return to its volunteer roots rather than look to merge with another organization.

Heather McNatt, a member of the Light Factory’s board of directors, said Monday that the 10-member executive board has decided not to pursue a Catalyst Fund grant from the Foundation for the Carolinas that would explore options for revival, including partnering with a similar organization. Instead, it will look for ways to remain self-sustaining.

On Oct. 7, the Spirit Square-based museum, which was founded in 1972, laid off its three paid employees and suspended operations amid financial problems. Revenue had fallen by a third over the past three years, said Jeff Wise, who took over as board chairman in May.

McNatt said some members were against a merger because they didn’t want the Light Factory to lose its independence. She said the organization would need to return to its volunteer-led roots to reopen.

“What we really need to do is communicate to the membership base,” she said. “Become a member, make a donation and really help support us in this transition period.”

Two potential $10,000 matching grants have been offered to the museum, McNatt said – one from an anonymous donor and another from a former executive director. That would mean that if the Light Factory could raise $20,000 from its membership, it would have $40,000 to work with, McNatt said.

In a meeting last week, four members were chosen to help the board of directors plan the group’s future. Among the issues they will examine are whether to expand the board, move out of Spirit Square and hire a part-time executive director.

As the Light Factory’s finances grew perilous in the spring, the organization – with the assistance of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Arts & Science Council – brought in Kathy Ridge of Levridge Resources, a Charlotte consultant for nonprofits, to develop options. Among the suggestions were splitting the museum’s operations, reforming as a smaller organization, finding a partnership or shutting down.

In 2012, the ASC gave the Light Factory $125,000 in operating support, but this year it had offered only technical support grants of up to $75,000 to help the museum find an sustainable model.

Washburn: 704-358-5007
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