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According to Jon Khoury, the executive director of Cottonwood Center for the Arts, “relevance” is the most important obligation artists (and arts organizations) have to their community. So instead of planning shows years in advance, Cottonwood leaves room to adjust and adapt, making sure they’re responsive to what the community needs and wants.

In 2019, Cottonwood had around 72,000 visitors; this year, they believe they’ve exceeded that number. “It’s just been a steady kind of increase,” says Khoury. “What I attribute that to is giving people something that they actually want, artistically and culturally, and knowing that that is our obligation. So we’re not force-feeding people with what we think is culturally important, we are giving people the opportunity to indicate to us what’s important. And then, in turn, us giving [artists] an opportunity ... to show them here.”

Cottonwood Center for the Arts, a 24-year-old nonprofit arts organization, has eight formal employees and over 50 paid instructors. Currently, there are 80 small businesses (and 104 artists) in the building that rely on the center to conduct their business. To put this in perspective, when Khoury first started at Cottonwood, in 2012, there were only 14. Today, the Cottonwood waiting list is approaching 400 people.

“In my first nine years, we never asked for a dime to run this place,” says Khoury. “Because my argument [is] that the arts, in many cases [though] not in all, should be able to offer a service or a product or program that is interesting enough that the community will engage financially with it.”

But ultimately, the demand for Cottonwood space, products and programming is simply more than the center can accommodate — “because there’s only 24 hours in a day, there’s only 37,500 square feet, our staff is only here from 10 to 6 every day,” says Khoury.

While Cottonwood isn’t necessarily looking to move into a bigger space, they are considering other ways to expand their offerings: extending their hours of operation, hiring on more staff, making improvements to the building and expanding the footprint of the center. (Cottonwood has an alleyway project underway, a 6,000-square-foot outdoor space that will be up and running by spring.) This year, the organization is participating in the Give! Campaign so they can implement some of these changes and, in doing so, better serve the community.

“If the demand is there, we try to meet that demand, no matter what,” says Khoury. “And [we] will basically stop at nothing to make that happen. Any type of support we do get from the outside makes it even more feasible to do things like that.” 

Anna Fiorino is a graduate from San Diego State University. She is a journalist with (more than three but less than twenty) years of experience. In her free time, she edits novels.