Arts and Culture

Central District Forum for Art & Ideas

Staffing up and doubling down

Central District Forum for Art & Ideas (CD Forum) is a vibrant, Seattle-based arts organization dedicated to representing and celebrating a large variety of Black artists and experiences. But behind the scenes, it was a one-woman show. Sharon N. Williams, Executive Director, was the only full-time staff member when she joined in 2013.

“One-person shops are challenging,” said Nina Yarbrough, Business Development Manager at CD Forum since 2018. “You can’t do the things that make a company fiscally healthy.”

Williams’ leadership created a major expansion opportunity for CD Forum in 2014, when the organization became part of Leveraging A Network for Equity (LANE), an eight-year collaboration with the National Performance Network/Visual Artists Network, seeking to build the financial and organizational health of performing and visual arts nonprofits. The initiative focused on arts organizations that had been largely left out of traditional funding systems, offering grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and strategic consulting from Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF). Through this initiative, Williams garnered the organizational support she needed, including hiring Yarbrough and four other staff.

“LANE gave us a chance to look at our organization through a fiscal lens and set strategic goals,” Yarbrough said. “We hadn’t been able to do that in a really long time, and it’s a huge part of my job today.” 

Headshot of a woman with hoop earrings and brightly colored blouse.
Nina Yarbrough, Business Development Manager (Photo by Jonathan Vanderweit)

As the first Business Development Manager at CD Forum, Yarbrough has been part of many milestones for the company. This has included the launch of a brand-new website, creating improved communications tools to tell CD Forum’s story, implementing a new CRM in Salesforce, and securing their first multi-year, six-figure contribution. But through all the infrastructure building, CD Forum has been adamant about staying focused on their mission. This can be challenging in a landscape where Black artists are often not given enough support and recognition, especially when the organizations giving them voice are smaller scale.

“There’s a perception that a growing organization isn’t capable of stewarding a large gift,” Yarbrough said. “We also have to help funders understand who we are. We support Black artists and are unapologetic about that. We know what we’re talking about. We are a world class arts company created for and by Black-identified bodies.”

According to Yarbrough, working with NFF focused her efforts on raising the organization’s profile and capacity.

“NFF helped us layout our financial goals and set up a baseline for what funds I was going to go after,” she said.

One of the moments that underscored the value of the organization’s growth was watching the progression of choreographer and dancer Randy Ford. Yarbrough first saw Ford as a dancer in a showcase for another choreographer at CD Forum. Ford later returned to showcase work centering her own intersections as a Black trans woman.

“Having a place that could be ready for an event like Randy’s – that’s the best indicator of success,” Yarbrough said.  

This story was written as part of NFF's 40th anniversary celebration.

[Lead photo by Jen Au]

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