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An alleyway mural in downtown Grand Rapids. An alleyway mural in downtown Grand Rapids. PHOTO BY KATE CARLSON

Grand Rapids officials, arts organizers explore a revived arts council

BY JOSH SPANNINGA Sunday, April 11, 2021 03:19pm

Grand Rapids officials say part of the city’s post-pandemic rebound for events and entertainment should include a focus on reviving a local arts council to coordinate funding and programs.

Evette Pittman, supervisor of the city’s Office of Special Events, said during a recent webinar that such an organization is high on her priority list as the region bounces back from widespread event cancellations during the COVID-19 pandemic, which collectively have wreaked havoc on local economic activity.

“To build back better, we need a better functioning arts and culture infrastructure on a community-wide scale,” Pittman said during the webinar. “We need to be more systematic. An operational arts council will serve as endowment support for the arts community in Grand Rapids, instead of businesses and corporations receiving dozens of individual asks. Arts endeavors would work through a singular arts council to create a vibrant arts scene in Grand Rapids.”

Grand Rapids’ previous arts council, which formed in 1967, was created to provide organized support for arts and cultural institutions throughout the city. The organization provided its artist members with exhibition space and professional support, and provided member organizations with financial and strategic assistance. 

However, the Arts Council of Greater Grand Rapids disbanded in late 2011. Various factors, including the recession and state budget cuts, were cited for dissolving the organization before remaining funds were distributed as grants to local artists and organizations. 

By 2019, the need for a collective arts group in Grand Rapids became apparent. In response, Steelcase Inc. helped facilitate what is now known as the Arts Working Group (AWG), a collection of 27 different Grand Rapids arts organizations dedicated to supporting and strengthening the local art community through open dialogue, strategic planning and other types of support. 

Louise “Punky” Edison currently serves as the AWG’s accountability partner. 

“They intentionally do not have a designated leadership model, and that’s on purpose,” Edison said of the group. “So I support them in doing what they decide they want to do.” 

Edison worked for the former Arts Council for four years, as have some other members of the working group. According to Edison, the group also has arts and cultural leaders who are new to Grand Rapids and bring their experiences with various other arts council models to the table. 

“I think there’s a wealth of information to help look at the history of what worked and didn’t work, and build something for Grand Rapids that will meet its needs,” Edison said. 

The AWG consists of a wide variety of arts organizations in Grand Rapids, from big hitters like the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA) and Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) to smaller organizations such as Lions & Rabbits, a local arts center dedicated to creating accessible arts education and enrichment programs. The intentional lack of a leadership model allows AWG members to all speak freely and openly about pressing issues, concerns and ideas, and then subcommittees are formed to address specific topics. 

“From grassroots to institutions, we all meet,” said Lions & Rabbits founder and owner Hannah Berry. “There are a couple of committees. The committees are for diversity, equity and inclusion, and the next committee is about reopening in COVID, so that’s more for anybody who’s working in policy, or working alongside venues reopening, or grants, or PPE or anything like that.” 

Berry feels that the AWG has major potential to benefit all types of arts endeavors, from large projects with the UICA or GRAM all the way down to individual artist grants and support. That potential could increase with the support of an official arts council. 

“There are a lot of artists that … should just be artists,” Berry said. “That’s the best case scenario where they could be paid to do the best job that they’re incredibly good at, but there’s less organization behind it. So having an arts council, for me, is really empowering local artists to be able to do their own entrepreneurial (pursuits).”

Conversations in early stages

With the city of Grand Rapids’ renewed interest in an arts council, the AWG could play a pivotal role in helping to mold what a new organization could look like. While conversations between the city and the AWG are still in the early stages, advocates see potential. 

“I think that the Arts Working Group coming together as a whole is like 10 steps forward,” Berry said. “I think the city acknowledges that because the city management understands the importance of the arts.” 

While no formal meetings have been held yet, Grand Rapids City Manager Mark Washington has sat in as a guest at one of AWG’s meetings. AWG members have also met with the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce for informal discussions. 

“I do think we’re very early in that conversation, but there does seem to be some recognition that having some ‘connective tissue’ pulling that all together, and thinking about the past, the present and the future of the arts in Grand Rapids could help all of the arts organizations and artists to flex that creative muscle,” said Assistant City Manager and Chief Administrative Officer Doug Matthews.

Both the city and AWG seem hopeful about the creation of a new arts council in some capacity, though officials are proceeding with caution. 

“The reason that we’re trying to be very intentional and thoughtful about what’s next is because there’s a lot of important work already,” Matthews said. “We don’t want this to distract from that work, but it could be a result.”

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