We’ve been living on nothing so long that this is really easy for us,” says Katie Brass, executive director of The Carnegie Visual and Performing Arts Center in Covington.

It’s not that the economic vagaries of the world outside the center’s doors have miraculously bypassed The Carnegie. Last year’s annual budget of $1.05 million has shrunk to $860,000. The four-production theater season has been reduced to three. And at least one art opening has had to be postponed.

But woe-is-me has no place in Brass’ managerial style.

“Do I wish the economy was better? Of course. But the solution is simple. If the money’s not coming in, then it can’t go out. You stop some of your spending.”

Fiscal sobriety. What a novel concept.

“I think people often make things more complicated than they need to be,” Brass comments. “And really, the answer is nearly always pretty simple. There is always a place to cut. Sometimes, it’s as simple as changing the thermostat.”

Thirty-year-old Brass isn’t the first executive to do a microscopic search of expenses to find relatively painless ways to trim a budget, but her no-nonsense style is something of an anomaly in the world of culture.

“She’s direct, she’s honest, she’s a go-getter and she’s driven,” says her husband, Eric, a visual artist and art teacher at St. Henry District High School in Erlanger. “Honestly, she knows what she wants and knows what she needs to do to get there.”

It’s a style that might ruffle the feathers at some arts institutions. But it’s a perfect fit for a place that’s committed to arts without the ego. You see, it’s never been about prestige or wealth at The Carnegie, and Brass was drawn to that from the start.

“You don’t have to dress up to come here,” Brass says. “You can bring your kids to a gallery opening. You can bring youdog to a gallery opening. And you can have fun. In fact, we encourage it.”

The Power of Innate Ability
When Brass received her management degree from the University of Dayton in 2000, running a place like The Carnegie was far from her mind. She worked for three-and-a-half years at the Council on Child Abuse in Blue Ash, eventually rising to the position of assistant development director.

Although she’s never been particularly concerned about prestige, when Brass plans, it’s on a big, ambitious scale. She’d heard about a development position at the Contemporary Arts Center, and something about it fascinated her.

“On a whim, I applied,” Brass recalls. “I loved the arts, but I really knew nothing about them.”

To her surprise, she got the job.

“Katie really stood out,” says Edwina Brandon, who was then the director of development at CAC and is now at the Des Moines Art Center in Des Moines, Iowa. “I wasn’t concerned that she didn’t have a background in the arts. She had intuitive development skills and that was much more important.”

Brass was ambitious and incredibly focused, but by 2007 — three-and-a-half years after she’d arrived — she was burned out. She didn’t have another job lined up, but she decided to quit. That was on a Monday. By Thursday, she had a job as development director at The Carnegie.

Sixteen months later, just as the world economy was slipping into a state of freefall, she was named executive director.

A Philosophy of Access

Brass loves The Carnegie Center. She loves its philosophy. She loves what it stands for.

“Andrew Carnegie built this building because he wanted everybody to have access to all these amazing books,” Brass says. “And he meanteverybody. When this was built in 1902, it was the first integrated library in the South.”

Although books are no longer the central product of The Carnegie, Brass feels the connection to the present day is a palpable one.

“Our mission is that everybody — every single person — should have access to the arts. Young people. Old people. Wealthy people. Poor people. Everyone.”

So Brass has championed things that others only talk about. The Carnegie doesn’t completely bankroll its theater season. Theater isn’t its expertise. So it collaborates with other organizations. Next season, the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra will collaborate on a large musical. Northern Kentucky University will share the production responsibilities of another show. And the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music will co-produce a third.

“They’re experts in what they do,” Brass notes. “We’d be crazynot to work with them.”

Also, The Carnegie’s gallery will continue championing the work of local artists, and the education program, which provides free arts education for thousands of young people, will continue in full force, unaffected by the economic turmoil that continues to create so much chaos in the rest of the economy.

The end result, at least for Brass, is that she makes her family and the community proud.

“I just hope that the community, 10 or 20 years from now — if I’m here or not — that they can say Katie Brass really had the right idea. I just want them to be proud that they have The Carnegie. And I want them to know that it’ll be here for them forever.”