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Tuesday, 16 April 2013 07:44

Cultural organizations leverage collaboration to improve quality, reach

Written by  Lindsay Patton-Carson
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The Grand Rapids Art Museum worked with Conduit Studios to develop an iPad app to help broaden the reach of the museum’s collection. The Grand Rapids Art Museum worked with Conduit Studios to develop an iPad app to help broaden the reach of the museum’s collection. COURTESY IMAGE

Downtown Grand Rapids spent a good portion of the past few years defining itself with new events, festivals, venues, eateries — the works.

That hard work by a collection of nonprofits and entrepreneurs was recently recognized by Forbes magazine, which listed Grand Rapids in its “15 U.S. Cities’ Emerging Downtowns” feature that highlighted Van Andel Arena and the Grand Rapids Public Museum as two entertainment options that contribute to the growth.

Now that downtown is better established as a destination, the key people who built up the arts and entertainment scene now look forward to how the city can expand that reach.

Collaboration is key

To further grow the city’s cultural profile, its organizations have turned to some key allies for help. That spirit of collaboration has some of Grand Rapids’ arts and cultural groups turning to partnerships with recognized, national outlets.

For example, in fall 2012, St. Cecilia Music Center announced a three-year partnership with the New York City-based Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, which followed in the footsteps of the Grand Rapids Art Museum’s partnership with the Whitney Museum, also of New York.

These two partnerships represent the transition from a mindset favoring more entertainment to one valuing better entertainment, a trend many say that the downtown area is currently experiencing.

“You don’t have to travel to Chicago or New York to hear great music,” said Cathy Holbrook, executive director for St. Cecilia Music Center. “It’s in your own backyard. We’re bringing the stars to you.”

Holbrook sums up the goal for many involved in downtown entertainment: Sure, you can drive three hours to Chicago or take a long weekend to visit New York, but because of these partnerships and the focus on quality, you don’t have to travel to see good entertainment anymore.

That same collaborative spirit helped the Grand Rapids Ballet Company grow and not only secure some of the best guest choreographers, but also get permissions to use high-quality works from renowned choreographers such as George Balanchine.

“We also pride ourselves on the partnerships and collaborations we have right here in our community,” said Glenn Del Vecchio, executive director at the Grand Rapids Ballet.

The ballet worked with the Grand Rapids Symphony, as well as several young choral groups throughout its Nutcracker production. Last month, the ballet welcomed the Grand Rapids Jazz Orchestra to perform with the dancers. In addition to the Nutcracker, the ballet and Grand Rapids Symphony collaborated once more on the symphony’s Lollipops Series.

The Grand Rapids Public Museum also leveraged available resources and chose to partner with local breweries for its Thank You, Beer! exhibition this past fall, right before hosting the blockbuster Titanic: The Artifacts Exhibition that opened in February. The beer exhibition focused on West Michigan’s brewing history and included special beer programming that featured local beer experts, including HopCat’s Chief Beer Geek Steve Smith, who curated Thank You, Beer!

“Not all museums have exhibits about beer, nor do they let you drink beer at the museum — and we did,” said Kate Moore, director of marketing and public relations for the Public Museum. “And for us, it wasn’t just experimenting with a new idea, but with a new audience. It really (lent) itself to new partnerships.”

Taking advantage of technological resources

Now that Grand Rapids has become known for blockbuster annual events like ArtPrize and LaughFest, which help put the city on the map as a unique entertainment destination, organizations are also taking a look forward to see how to reach audiences outside Grand Rapids and broaden the city’s appeal to out-of-town visitors.

The city that once wanted to keep itself a secret now seems intent on trying to reach new markets, often through collaboration and the increased use of technology.

“(We) apply the tools of today to expand audiences and expand impact to what we do,” said Dana Friis-Hansen, director and CEO of the GRAM. “Not all roads lead to Grand Rapids, but through technological impact, we can show what we have. We want to innovate and push the limits. We’re not satisfied doing what everyone else does.”

To better market what Grand Rapids has to offer, Experience Grand Rapids is working with the state’s Pure Michigan campaign to create a television commercial to promote Grand Rapids across the country.

“The research we’ve done and the research the state has done shows the Pure Michigan campaign is really working,” said Janet Korn, vice president of marketing for Experience Grand Rapids. “We have LaughFest, which is really coming into its own. ArtPrize — there’s really a sense of energy. Grand Rapids was awarded Beer City, USA. … There’s a variety of different reasons. The business economy is picking up some, so really, it’s everything that drives this town.”

As Friis-Hansen said, technology is another way these cultural organizations are expanding their impact on local, national and international audiences. The GRAM reorganized and refocused on digital media, forming a digital media department in 2012. Friis-Hansen said the staff reworked the art museum’s website and pushed social media platforms. One of the results was a new iPad app for the GRAM — a collaboration with Grand Rapids-based design firm Conduit Studios — that was introduced to the masses in March 2013.

Another organization that married technology and entertainment is the Grand Rapids Public Library.

Recent patrons to the library may have noticed a big change: new self-checkout technology. The new self-checkout stations use Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology, which can cost more than a million dollars to create, said Kristen Kruger-Corrado, marketing and communications manager at the GRPL. But instead of buying an off-the-shelf system, the library managed to create the technology in-house at a fraction of the cost and even offer it to other libraries for free.

Like its entertainment-based peers, GRPL is also focused on accessible, quality programing. An example: Last July, the library brought in filmmaker and Michigan native Michael Moore to speak as part of the GR Reads series. Moore even offered to speak for free, although his appearance could have easily cost the library between $20,000 to $30,000, Kruger-Corrado said.

“It was a blazing hot day in Michigan and he talked for two and a half hours and signed every single book afterwards,” Kruger-Corrado said. “I think I got home at midnight — it was an amazing evening.”

Building a base

The focus on the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Grand Rapids for groups like Start Garden has worked to get the community to accept the philosophy that failure is a normal part of business and not something to be frowned upon.

Likewise, what many organizations have learned is that not every new or well-intentioned program is destined to be a runaway hit like the oft-referenced ArtPrize or LaughFest. But rather than throw in the towel, some groups have realized success might be just a matter of reworking offerings to find what consumers respond to most.

When The Pyramid Scheme opened two years ago, owners and siblings Jeff and Tami VandenBerg had a solid vision for the venue: It would be a place for underground, independent musicians to play shows, fitting a niche that was, at the time, not well-served in Grand Rapids.

“The goals initially were to provide a space for good music — to not have to drive to Detroit — obviously to make some money, provide jobs (and) a good place to go downtown,” Tami VandenBerg said. “And once we opened, it did not take off how we expected.”

The first year and a half, the business struggled. Tami VandenBerg said the venue lost money on many shows and relied on alcohol sales to sustain the business.

“We realigned all our goals (and realized) maybe we should just focus on keeping our doors open,” she said. “And then fall of last year, we finally emerged.”

“I feel like we’ve finally hit our stride after putting a lot of work into it,” she said, citing the 13 sold-out shows for the venue as of this writing. “I just want to keep getting the kind of bands we’re getting.”

What’s to come

While 2012 and the first part of 2013 was big for downtown Grand Rapids in terms of growth and innovative ideas, there’s more to look forward to the rest of the year and well into 2014.

For one, the national collaborations will continue. St. Cecilia Music Center continues its partnership with the Chamber Music Society of the Lincoln Center for the next two years, while Friis-Hansen said the GRAM and the Whitney plan to extend their partnership, as well.

Also in the works for the GRAM’s space is GoSite, an innovative visitor and community center. Like a typical city welcome center, GoSite plans to feature tourism information for visitors and residents, but incorporate new technologies like social media to take the welcome center concept further.

The site is a collaboration between local businesses and is not GRAM-based, according to project director Kerri VanderHoff.

“We’re merging themes and moving forward thoughtfully,” VanderHoff said about GoSite’s vision and progress. “We want to share information instead of receive it.”

As for life after Titanic, the Grand Rapids Public Museum plans to host Dinosaurs Unearthed, another in a series of touring exhibitions, plus more locally themed exhibitions like Thank You, Beer! and Michigan-centric programs like Great Lakes Shipwrecks: Storms and Stories, which was a collaboration with Ferris State University.

“We’re really looking at a holistic approach to the next few years out,” said the Public Museum’s Moore. “We’re looking to target a number of audiences. We’re looking to have a blockbuster show, then a niche market, or targeting something specific.”

And that’s how the downtown entertainment scene is moving forward. The organizations have rid themselves of the “more, more, more” philosophy and instead continue to focus on strengthening what they’ve built up.

“There’s more energy to all of the things that are downtown,” said Korn of Experience Grand Rapids. “They’re getting a lot more traction.”

Read 2594 times Last modified on Tuesday, 16 April 2013 09:33

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