D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center Helping Art Enables Thrive

By John Murph

March 11, 2019



Inside Art Enables’ spacious, 6,000-square-foot facility on Rhode Island Avenue in Northeast Washington, Imani Turner displays some of her colorful, effervescent drawings of animals, people, and her favorite musician, Michael Jackson. Elsewhere, Robert Corcoran is creating miniature paintings of jade-colored leaves against grainy black backdrops, using relief-printing techniques. They are two of several artists with learning disabilities who come regularly to Art Enables.

Founded by Joyce Muis-Lowery in 2001, Art Enables is a nonprofit vocational and supported-employment program. It is a haven for mostly adult, self-taught artists dealing with developmental disabilities and mental health issues such as Down syndrome, traumatic brain injuries, and bipolar disorder. Art Enables provides space for them to cultivate their art and earn money from their artwork. Prices for each artwork range from $15 to $100. The artists keep 60 percent of each of their sales, while the other 40 percent goes toward framing and marketing costs. With an annual operating budget of $650,000, Art Enables receives both private individual and corporate donations, as well as foundation and government grants; it also receives between 35 percent to 40 percent of its financial support from a contract with the D.C. Department on Disabilities Services (DDS) to provide supported-employment and employment-readiness services to individuals with disabilities.

Tony Brunswick, Art Enables’ executive director, says that since its founding, the organization has sold more than $1 million worth of artwork. “In 2017 we sold nearly $60,000 in artwork and had more than 40 exhibitions locally, nationally, and internationally,” he adds.

To attract artists within the Washington metropolitan area, Art Enables has partnered with DDS and other nongovernmental agencies and organizations that cater to individuals with mental health needs. Another long-standing partner of Art Enables is the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center. That alliance helps Art Enables to operate responsibly and within budget as a nonprofit organization.

The Pro Bono Center began working with Art Enables in 2013, two years before Brunswick came aboard. Its previous executive director, Mary Liniger, sought legal counsel on updating the organization’s employee manual and resolving an employee disciplinary issue. Through the Pro Bono Center’s Nonprofit Legal Assistance Program, attorneys Michael Gibson and Ryan Munitz from the law firm Sheppard Mullin LLP came to the rescue. Gibson was enthused by working with Art Enables because not only is the nonprofit located near his Brookland neighborhood, but it also afforded him an opportunity to continue his lifelong commitment to community service. “I grew up in a family where we always did some type of volunteer work,” he says. “I went to a Catholic school my entire life. The motto of my school was ‘men for others.’”

Munitz had a specific interest in helping local organizations with their labor and employment needs. “As an attorney who typically helps larger organizations, it’s incredibly fulfilling to assist nonprofits because these organizations may not be able to obtain legal assistance otherwise,” she says. “Being able to assist nonprofits with updating their employee handbook or reviewing their hiring practices will not only protect these organizations down the line, but it also will allow them to use their resources on what really matters — helping the communities they serve.”

Through the Pro Bono Center, Munitz is now working with Art Enables to update its family leave policy. Gibson has since moved to Bass, Berry & Sims PLC. He still, however, provides pro bono legal guidance to Art Enables, now under Brunswick’s executive direction.

“When I came on board, Michael was one of the first people that I reached out to because we needed legal counsel on licensure and certifications. I wanted to make sure that as a nonprofit organization, all of our organizational documents were in order with the city and the federal government,” Brunswick says.

Brunswick says Gibson also guided Art Enables through its lease negotiation, refinancing its current building, and updating its event rental contracts. “In areas where Michael doesn’t have the expertise, he’s been great about referring us to one of his partners internally or someone else in the law community. He continues to be a great asset to us,” says Brunswick, adding that Gibson recently recommended Katie Smalley of Bass, Berry & Sims for additional guidance on venue rental contracts.

Brunswick attends many of the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center’s free in-person and online clinics. Last year, he attended one on social media policy. “The last time our social media policy was updated was around 2013 or 2014, when we updated our employee handbook,” Brunswick says. “The technological world has changed so dramatically since then. We’re so reliant on social media as part of our marketing and communications work; I want to make sure that our social media policy is up to speed.”

“For a small organization like Art Enables, we benefit tremendously from the Pro Bono Center. Having resources available where we can bring very critical organizational questions to attorneys who can give us effective guidance and support is invaluable,” Brunswick continues. “From governance, liability, and fiduciary responsibility standpoints, it’s important to have people in your corner [who] can help you ensure that you’re leading an effective organization that maintains levels of compliance to ensure that it can thrive. The Pro Bono Center has been that resource for us.” 

If you’d like to help a nonprofit organization like Art Enables, please contact Darryl Maxwell, Assistant Director, Nonprofit & Small Business, at [email protected].