Take what you need, leave only what you can pay: Indigo Hippo fuels the community's creative flame

Art store on Main takes leap with business plan

CINCINNATI -- Buckets of crayons, bins of pens, bundles of every kind of paper, boxes of shells.

Candle molds, canvases and clay.

Pastels and paintbrushes and pinecones.

The storefront at 1301 Main St. is enticing and hard to pass by without walking in to browse the attractively cluttered shelves of art supplies and art-covered white walls. You never know what you'll find in Indigo Hippo.

And beginning in January, you'll be able to pay only what you can for anything in stock at this creative reuse center, a thrift store for art supplies.

“We want to use the power of creativity as a way for people to express themselves and connect, to approach hard conversations and difficult issues,” said Alisha Budkie, executive director of the nonprofit store and organization. “We want to make creativity more accessible for the whole community.”

The storefront at 13th and Main streets opened in March. But work began on Indigo Hippo nearly two years ago as Budkie, a Fairfield native and graduate of the University of Cincinnati College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning, began exploring the idea of creative reuse and researching centers in the U.S. and around the world. Creative reuse is the idea that people can donate supplies and materials to be repurposed by others for art projects.

“The more I heard about it, the more I couldn't believe it wasn't in Cincinnati,” Budkie said, citing the region's artistic and maker-culture and art schools, including DAAP and the Art Academy of Cincinnati.

Previously, Budkie, who co-founded Crafty Supermarket, had operated a for-profit art supply shop and studio, Smartfish, at the same location on Main Street. But for the creative reuse concept, she started a nonprofit organization, naming it Indigo Hippo, after a color and an animal that represent creativity.

Indigo is a weird color, one which everyone experiences differently, and a hippo is a heavy creature made graceful by water. Water supports a hippo, Budkie said, in the way creating art can support the emotional health of people and their community.

Budkie found support for Indigo Hippo from a variety of volunteers and donors, including the Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr./US Bank Foundation.

“There's something compelling about supporting someone's passion,” said Eric Avner, Haile Foundation vice president and senior program manager. “She was so thoughtful about determining community needs, finding a solution and then finding the means to go do that. ... It was an easy yes.”

In the summer of 2015, Indigo Hippo organized donation drives and community meetings with teachers, students, residents, philanthropists and psychologists to determine what might be needed in the community and how a creative reuse center might help.

“Those are still voices we get input from all the time,” Budkie said.

“That was a way to make sure that what becomes Indigo Hippo actually comes from the community,” added Emily Farison, Indigo Hippo's store manager. She and Budkie are the organization's only full-time staff members.

In addition to the storefront, the organization also provides art programming for Camp Joy, MORTAR Cincinnati and Clovernook Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Gallery space for local artists also is available in the store.

Donations make up 100 percent of the store's stock, and since opening, Indigo Hippo has kept nearly $35,000 worth of supplies out of the waste stream. (The organization received a Friend of Recycling award from Hamilton County.) People drop off donations nearly everyday, everything from a handful of markers to high-quality art supplies, such as candle molds, that are no longer needed.

“Every day is like Christmas,” Farison said.

Up to now, supplies have been priced between 25 to 50 percent of the manufacturer's suggested retail price. Items likely will be marked with a similar price range to give customers at least an idea of the value after Indigo Hippo moves to a pay-as-you-can system in January.

“We really want to make sure that we're not making this a more stressful situation for anyone, or more difficult than it needs to be,” Budkie said.

Budkie and the nonprofit's board of directors announced the new pay-as-you-can model Dec. 13 at the organization's first fundraising event at Woodward Theatre. The store is self-sustaining now, less than a year after opening, but the fundraiser should provide a financial cushion for the new pricing system. The event raised $3,970, which was matched by the Haile Foundation.

The pay-as-you-can model is based on a system used mostly by restaurants, including Moriah Pie in Norwood, which received national attention in 2014. Indigo Hippo organizers believe they are the first to implement the system in a creative reuse center.

More than 150 people come each week through the Indigo Hippo store, which is open Tuesday-Sunday. Art students come looking for inspiration. Teachers come to stock up for projects. Parents let their kids loose to pick out gently used, affordable supplies. People wander in not knowing they wanted to make art and leave with armfuls of supplies, ready to create.

“I feel like every time I walk in there, I find something new, something that's perfect for a project I've been wanting to do,” said Aziza Love, a singer, poet and artist. “And they always have crayons. I love crayons. I'm just a child at heart.”

Budkie and Farison said many customers have come to the register and find the low prices so affordable, they drop extra money in the donation jar. Others have put items back on the shelves, not having enough money to buy the materials they need. The new system will let everyone decide on supplies' value for themselves.

“We realize this is a risk,” Budkie said. “But we believe in making creativity as accessible as possible, and we believe in our community.”  

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