A year ago, the Ann Arbor Art Center was carrying $450,000 in debt. Now the arts education and promotion group is entering its second century with almost $250,000 in the bank.

What a difference a well-timed sale makes: this past February, the art center sold the “Art Factory,” its studio building on Felch Street, to Icon Technologies for $950,000–about $300,000 more than it cost to buy and renovate it in 1996.

Back then, art center CEO Marsha Chamberlin says, the mortgage payment was less than the center was spending to rent studio space elsewhere. And few worried about the debt when the economy was strong: in 2001, the center’s WineFest fund-raiser alone netted $225,000. But student fees never covered the cost of running the Art Factory, and donations have plunged: this year’s WineFest brought in just $62,000.

The center’s staff, which peaked at eighteen in 1997, has shrunk to eleven people. The studios are back at the center’s headquarters on West Liberty, which was renovated this summer.

Chamberlin says she is thrilled with the changes, which included taking back some adjoining space the center had previously rented out. Most visibly, an exhibit gallery was moved upstairs, making room for a pottery studio right in the front display window. At the Art Factory, Chamberlin says, prospective students “had to go looking” for the studios. “Now,” she says with a smile, “it is going to be in their face.”

Chamberlin, a former potter, was hired as the group’s first paid director in 1979 and has led it ever since. She says having everything under one roof makes the center much easier to manage. And, without the Art Factory’s mortgage to pay, “we are weaning ourselves from using WineFest to pay operating expenses. Our goal is for the profits of WineFest to be used solely as cash reserves.”

This year, the art center also came up with a new fund-raiser: hoop-shaped bike racks that announced “art” in colorful letters. Paid for by the DDA, they’ve popped up all over downtown. Thirty center supporters and nearby businesses have contributed $1,000 each to sponsor a rack.