Cultivating resources: Nickel Plate Arts looks to future growth after looking back on five years of serving community

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For the past five years, Nickel Plate Arts has been ingrained in the arts communities along the Nickel Plate Rail line, connecting Tipton in the north to Fishers in the south. Next month, the organization will celebrate its sixth birthday.

With its home base in downtown Noblesville in two historic homes at 107 S. Eighth St., the nonprofit is rounding out its fifth year of service and looking at what’s to come as Hamilton County communities continue to embrace the arts.

Last month, the Nickel Plate Arts held its annual meeting, announcing a new strategic plan, “Cultivating Arts Resources.” With a new mission statement, Nickel Plate Arts Executive Director Aili McGill said the future of the organization will focus on making the arts as accessible as possible for everyone and continue its support of local artists.

“We opened the campus in September of 2012. Hamilton County Tourism knew they wanted some kind of arts initiative going on on this side of the county, and then, it just so happened that these buildings became available,” McGill said. “The original idea was that it was going to be a trail that Hamilton County Tourism could promote and advertise as like ‘follow this trail to find arts,’ but the assets that were along the trail in these towns just kind of weren’t organized or consistent enough for them to do that. So, they wanted a professional organization that could help lift these things up. It’s been interesting for us to watch that growth. In the beginning, we were so focused on (the Noblesville) space and activating it, but now we’re equally focused on the rest of Noblesville and Fishers, and thinking about Jackson Township as well, and how that all comes together.”

Before McGill was hired, she said planners in the beginning thought Nickel Plate Arts might serve the community as a folk school.

“But as we evolved, we started to realize that that wasn’t necessarily what there was a hunger for within these communities,” McGill said. “It became clear that lower-barrier classes – ones with a lower price point and less commitment – worked better for people in this community. Not everyone can commit to a weeklong workshop, but a two-hour evening drawing class works better. “

From there, Nickel Plate Arts shifted its offerings in that direction and also became a professional home for artists living and working in Noblesville.

“We also started to recognize that there was just this gap between the traditional arts community and everybody else,” McGill said. “People here didn’t necessarily have strong relationships with artists living and working in the area and didn’t see or understand how cool our artists are or how much they do. We focused on building more opportunities just to build contacts points for artists.”

Today, the organization’s efforts have further evolved into a good amount of oversight, the umbrella over dozens of arts groups, venues and other area nonprofits.

“We have so many partners in these communities that we can focus on the higher level of coordination,” McGill said. “Not only can we not do it all and be it all ourselves, but it wouldn’t be healthy for these communities if everything was going through us.”

In 2016, the Noblesville Cultural Arts District was established by the Noblesville Arts Council, made up of 19 area organizations, including Nickel Plate Arts and the City of Noblesville. McGill and Nickel Plate Arts serve as the consultant for the cities of Noblesville and Fishers.

“When we first started, there was a little more hostility towards the idea of allocating funding for the arts,” McGill said. “It was sort of considered ‘extra stuff,’ whereas now I think there’s a much better understanding, both in Noblesville and Fishers, that the arts have real economic impact, that arts and culture influence people’s decisions to move here and to work here. So, definitely on the city government level, there’s a much broader embracing of the arts as an integral part of our daily lives. There’s still a lot of work to be done there in terms of how everything can fit together, but in our years we have watched a fairly fundamental shift happen there.”

Home to 10 studio artists at the campus, Nickel Plate Arts is working to partner with a downtown merchant to acquire more studio space for local artists to work, McGill said. An official announcement hasn’t been made but McGill said she hopes to have everything finalized in September.

  • Aili McGill has served as the Nickel Plate Arts executive director since its opening in September 2012.

    “I had been at Conner Prairie for over 11 years when I took this position,” McGill said. “I had moved up the ladder there and they had run out of places to promote me, so that combined with my interest in really trying to have kind of a local community connection. At the time, Conner Prairie was very focused regionally and nationally, and so I started feeling like it was time for a change. Then, I saw descriptions of this initiative and heard that they were looking for an executive director, and it just seemed like a perfect fit.”

    McGill has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in museum studies.

    “My undergrad was at Earlham,” she said. “At the time, Earlham and Conner Prairie were connected. Since I knew that I was interested in museum studies, I applied to work at Conner Prairie when I was a freshman. I thought it was just going to be a summer job, and it really blossomed into much more than that.”

    McGill lives in downtown Noblesville.

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