Client Spotlight: Prabir Mehta of Gallery 5

Client Spotlight: Prabir Mehta of Gallery 5

Client Spotlight: Prabir Mehta of Gallery 5 1000 667 Logan Cousins

Our first client feature comes from Prabir Mehta, chairman and co-founder of Gallery 5: a nonprofit art center, gallery, and venue located in the Jackson Ward neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia.

As a member of their board, Ryan Holloway has helped take the nonprofit to new heights. Arriving in 2017, Holloway assisted with not only balancing the books, but establishing a growth strategy that provided opportunities to help improve the gallery, as well as gave employees raises and bonuses.

Now that the gallery is putting up it’s best numbers for donations, ticket sales, and community engagement, we decided to sit down with Prabir to learn about the history of the space, as well as how Holloway has played a role in improving operations.

Tell us about Gallery 5, and Holloway’s involvement.

A few individuals, including myself, founded Gallery 5 in 2005 as an arts hub. At the time, it was more for recognizing immediate contemporary artists, but over time, it has grown into being more of a vehicle for community advocacy groups, as well as more up-and-coming artists to have a springboard to perform on stage, visual artists, and even event planners. It’s an open door to the community.

It’s become somewhat of a blank canvas, which has been really neat, but requires a lot of constant oversight on many different aspects. In the last 15 years, we’ve grown from a renegade, DIY, art student-led organization into transitioning into what it is now; an actual board of directors that’s running, with staff that’s firing on all four cylinders. It’s a well-funded machine that’s now able to take on this larger mission of engaging communities through the arts. 

We are 15 years in right now, and Ryan came in on year 13. It’s great we have a path forward financially thanks to his knowledge of the field and understanding of the dos and don’ts of the fiscal world in navigating a nonprofit. I’ve never navigated a non-profit of this size before, and although I have friends who have nonprofits under the $100,000 a year mark, we’re closer to approaching $350,00 as our annual budget. 

You need some solid brains to practically double your fundraising efforts, which speaks volumes of how we’ve been able to juggle money, including allocating the right resources to the right things, investing in the right people, and knowing the exact numbers of what’s needed to make the next month’s operations possible. We also set goals for board members to raise a certain amount, as well as expectations of what the gallery should be making daily. Ryan’s been very seminal in all of that.

At the core of it, the integrity of the product matters. If it doesn’t meet our mission’s needs, we can’t participate in it.

Let’s back up and talk about this transition: how did you approach keeping the DIY integrity to Gallery 5 while still figuring out how to grow?

Evolution is a part of life. You either adapt or go extinct. That works at programmatic capacities. That works at staff capacities, board capacities, income capacitance…all of it. This will be a forever changing landscape. The organization can only do one thing which is moving towards its mission. No matter what the changes we make, it will forever be the mission of engaging communities in the arts. 

We’ve had the entire building for 13 years,  and then on lucky year 13, the building was purchased by a new owner. For the benefit of everything, the first thing the new owner did was put in a complete and fully aggressive effort into revitalizing the building immediately before it fell apart.

We’ve put in a lot of money over the years into things to make it possible just to have this space for the community, and we did it very cheaply because we were just a bunch of renegade Richmond art people. 

So, when the new owner came in and became our new landlord, we told him that the first thing that must happen is that this building must be saved or else it will fall apart and he’d have to gut the whole thing. He agreed with us, but the cost to redo an entire building (is expensive), so our rent jumped an exorbitant amount. 

We lost the upstairs space in the process because we had two options: either shut down the organization for four months while they redid the entire building or we would take the downstairs and remain open the entire time during construction. It was a complete chore for both the new owner and our staff, but we got through it because we had a common vision of making sure that this place was alive and serving its mission.

At the core of it, the integrity of the product matters. If it doesn’t meet our mission’s needs, we can’t participate in it. This will forever be an artist-run space, and therefore we pay our bands to play and have staff that hangs artwork. We even have a fully vetted ABC bar staff. We’re in it to win it and be around forever, but it has to remain a community space and engage with communities throughout Richmond. That means you have to hit under-recognized communities as much as the best painters in town. All of that is what keeps Gallery 5 intact.

That’s very true, and Richmond could use more of that.

You know, 15 years ago it was one of the only places for (arts). As a musician, I was super excited for Gallery 5 to open because it was one more venue. At that time, Strange Matter didn’t exist, it was going through changes to where it didn’t feel like a stable venue. Bogart’s was there, but it was more for jazz and alt-rock, alt-Americana. Cary Street Cafe was a jam band thing, and then there was The Camel. Those were the five places you played in Richmond.

Now it’s a much more diverse and lush offering, but there were some lean years where The Camel wasn’t open yet, nothing was in the Strange Matter/Nancy Reagan spot…there weren’t many places with stages and sound systems. It was cool to be on the cusp of all of that. It helped the gallery find its direction and say “these guys have probably gotten too much attention and are playing bigger rooms and stages all the time, but there are these 300 other artists that really have nowhere else to play in Richmond. Maybe they can’t reach ‘X’ number of ticket sales or they’ve never been on stage before, so we’re here to crack some eggs.” That’s what we’ve done, and it’s took off.

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A lot of people don’t think about Gallery 5 as a nonprofit, which can be used as a model more for engaging in niche communities.

It’s interesting, a really good friend of mine, Lucas Fritz, who’s the owner of The Broadberry and is one of the owners of The Camel as well, is a huge Gallery 5 supporter. He actually does all of our ticketing for us. I love what Lucas does with The Camel and The Broadberry…they do some very intelligent decision making, which has been very inspiring to see and bring into the fold.

Ryan and I, of course, have to go through the money weekly and after working with Lucas, it has made me appreciate Ryan a lot more as well. They’re both on this ‘move the business forward’ line of thinking whereas I’ve always been like ‘just keep the nonprofit alive.’ There’s a big difference between those two thoughts, and I’m slowly starting to merge into that sweet middle spot where it’s like ‘keep the dream alive, but keep it moving forward.’ To bring that for-profit energy to the nonprofit objective has been more impactful for the community, which has been a really fun thing Ryan and I get to do every week.

In the time that I’ve worked with Holloway, we’ve been able to balance out the male/female payment hierarchy, including making everything equal amongst staff. It was the right thing to do and he was like ‘we’ll afford it, so ‘let’s do it’. We put in our own minimum wage to more closely reflect a living wage. We started giving raises to those that needed them, holiday bonuses, Christmas bonuses, etc. Those were all decisions that could only have been made with the right mind for how the money moves. 

Ryan’s ability to recognize the needs of the staff, and how the money can bridge those needs. That really helps keep the organization moving forward at growth capacity, and without Ryan, I don’t know if I’d be able to do that.

That’s great. Anything else you’d like to add?

Yeah. Probably the most important thing I could say about working with Holloway is that he’s a good person. Ryan’s a really good human. He knows why he cares. That’s important. A lot of people don’t know why they care about things, they’ve just been told that they have to. He gets it though, he understands what this thing does. He understands what the Gallery is, what it does, and why it’s needed for Richmond. 

He always has a calm and methodical approach, knowing when things will be lean versus when we’ll have ample funds. To navigate those peaks and valleys with a good attitude is vital to any organization, but there’s a sense of ‘we will get through this, but here’s what we have to do.’ There’s always a path forward.

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