Cultural arts groups in West Michigan are thankful for the current support they find in donors and audiences, but they have serious concerns for the future.
As schools lose funding and are pushed to teach to the test, exposure to the arts is lost. When the current generation reaches the age where people typically begin to have the time and money to support the arts, that lack of exposure may become painfully clear. Still, arts leaders believe the arts are integral to West Michigan’s cultural fabric, and they hope future generations will realize that, too.
MiBiz sat down with some of these leaders and a nonprofit adviser for a roundtable discussion on the past, present and potential future of the cultural arts in West Michigan. Participating in the conversation were:
- Dan Gustin, director of the Kalamazoo-based Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival
- Glenn DelVecchio, executive director of Grand Rapids Ballet
- Kyle Los, executive director at Actors Theatre in Grand Rapids
- Corey Balkon, senior manager and CPA at Hungerford Nichols, a Grand Rapids-based accounting firm
- Kristin Armstrong, executive director at Saugatuck Center for the Arts
Here are some highlights of the discussion.
At a high level, what’s the state of the cultural arts in West Michigan?
Gustin: I think the arts in West Michigan are flourishing. It seems to me there’s a lot of interest in the arts. I think there are a number of individuals here who not only support the arts, but they (financially) support the arts. They actually put the money where their mouth is. It’s very important.
Los: I’m relatively new to all of this. We’re doing work that is socially-leaning. We’re trying to do things that are moving toward social justice, so it’s a very unique opportunity for audiences that are looking for things that are trying to create change. We tell stories to assist a more critical, empathetic society, which then creates more change. I think that’s helped us.
DelVecchio: I think we’re really fortunate in the community we’re in. All of West Michigan has valued the arts and culture as a building block to making a strong community. So you have a lot of stuff that is very diverse in its programming. It creates something for everyone, whether it’s theater, the ballet, symphonies or shows that are coming through the DeVos Hall. We’ve embraced art and culture as a part of what our community is in West Michigan. It’s a good thing and it’s a challenge at the same time, where there is just so much to be offered.
Balkon: My background is a little more not in the arts. For me, I’ve had the opportunity to see how strong the community has been in supporting, but also how many of the organizations are trying to find ways to continue to change themselves, often through programming, to attract all the talent and all the people. It’s a wide and diverse range of people that you’re trying to attract to your programming. The challenge is that there’s so much that’s offered, how do you continue to find the funding.
Do you find yourselves fighting among organizations with similar missions for that shared market?
DelVecchio: In Grand Rapids, we have an unusually vibrant place for arts and culture. I don’t know that you really compete in the traditional retail sense. If you enjoy dance, it doesn’t mean the symphony is going to steal you away from us. On any particular evening, there may be something that you do that’s different because of the programming, but I don’t really view it as competition. What we say is that we have to make the pie bigger. More people engaged in arts and culture benefits us all. Trying to fight for your slice of the piece is really no way to go. I think we’ve all figured that out. Let’s collaborate and get more people involved and then let the chips fall where they may.
Gustin: I think that’s exactly right. The only area that we actually compete is doing whatever we do on the same night.
Los: Yeah, good luck finding a dark night in the city.
Armstrong: I agree with this philosophy that more is more. If we as West Michigan are going to compete with other urban city centers to get employees and keep employees, we have to see ourselves regionally. We can say, ‘Don’t go to Baltimore or Austin. Stay in West Michigan.’ We’ve got a ballet, symphonies, art centers, all kinds of cool stuff happening all year-round.
Do economic developers do a good job of telling the story that this is a center for the arts?
Balkon: We see a lot of professional recruiters who do use the arts as a selling point. From real estate agents to recruiters, they say, ‘We have very similar organizations to Chicago here.’
Armstrong: On the flipside, because we’re so close to Chicago here, there’s an enormous affinity for the density of the arts here. You can retire to a place where maybe the pace is slightly slower or cost of living is lower but you have the lake here and you still have the density of arts and culture that you can get in Chicago.
How much support is owed to the level of philanthropy and legacy families in the region?
Gustin: It’s definitely linked. I think the more pressing question is not whether our community supports the arts, but where our audiences are going to come from in our communities in the future. I’m not so sure what’s happening with millennials now and arts education nationwide. It’s not as good as it could be. … Part of it is the internet, and part of it is the education. Arts education is seriously flawed. When I grew up, my junior high school had an orchestra, multiple bands, theater programs, required art programs.
Are you all offering educational programming for kids?
Armstrong: Yes. It requires deep fundraising. We have to have a whole transportation fund. We have to make the programs free and put together a pile of bus money. It’s both exposure so we can build audiences and it’s part of leveling the playing field that kids need to have experiences, otherwise you’re simply not going to keep with people your own age who are involved in your districts like wealthier families. From an economic development perspective, we all know there’s a camaraderie with people who have the same experiences.
DelVecchio: The challenge for us is that we believe — and we know studies will show — how important the arts and culture experience is in educational development. As that funding for it disappears in the public schools, they look to us to supplement that for them. What once was a publicly-funded belief in the community is now being put on the nonprofit community to fill that gap. If you don’t expose children at a young age, you will not develop them as audience members who will be involved.
Are you finding that older millennials are as engaged on the donor or volunteer side?
Gustin: Well, the usual excuse is — and it’s true — people (at that age) tend to be in the beginning or middle of their careers. They’re working hard and are busy and don’t have a lot of income. It’s always been that way.
DelVecchio: They’ve always said about the arts that it’s an older audience. It’s because we get into these stretches of our lives where we’re preoccupied and predisposed. But we come back to it when our dollars and time free up only if we were exposed to it at one point. It’s always been an older crowd, but now can we bring those kids back in? Nothing’s changed except whether or not they’re being exposed to it.
Los: The thing is, there are organizations who are doing very unique things in order to engage with that audience, specifically making it more affordable. My partner and I go to way more shows because now I can spend $30 on two tickets instead of shelling out $80 to go once.
If you’re having trouble with certain audiences, does that influence your decisions on how you advertise and try to reach folks in the community?
DelVecchio: The artistic quality has to be there. That’s just the entry into the game — you have to have really good art. It’s the audience that has to distinguish really good art. It does affect how you market. You have a tendency to market to a lower common denominator. The best art that we produce is not necessarily our best-selling production. So, yes, we’ll have great artists all the time — we are putting on a very high caliber of artistic product. But the question is how do you market that. That’s an entirely different discussion.
Armstrong: This is not Chicago. The population is a completely different ballgame. With a larger metropolitan area, you may be able to be super narrow and focused, because there’s always going to be somebody who can fill your theater. In West Michigan, you can do it once in awhile. … If you want to be a robust arts organization, you have to understand your audience. You can’t make your audience want something they don’t want. If we’re serious about keeping live theater, professional dance and great music out there, we have to meet people where they are. You find out ways to open doors.
Is there a fear that the local audience will just want the more accessible art?
Gustin: Serious arts is not necessarily for everybody. That’s OK. Our goal shouldn’t be 100 percent. Our goal should be to expose them to it. If you do it on a high level, whatever it is, you’re going to get somebody to come back and they’ll bring some people. That’s how it works.
DelVecchio: I feel like the difference between the European arts community and American is that in Europe, they truly understand how integral art and culture is to their way of life. We understand it here as a community building block and as economic development, but at the same time, we still have to create the next masterpiece. If we just create programming for the masses without striving to create the next great symphony or work of art, we’re not furthering the long-term cultural mission that art and culture serves. So yes, we’re going to program so that we can strive to be financially solvent, but all the while we’re looking to create the next great piece of art.
Los: For us in the theater, we’re small and agile enough that our patrons are very forgiving if we do a peculiar work, because they know we’re going to do it the best we can. With this ability to connect with folks in New York, L.A., wherever, we can get and workshop productions that might have great legs to go on and do something grandiose in the grand scheme of things. We can actually impact and be a part of historical movements in the arts as opposed to just consuming, recreating our own version of something existing somewhere else.
In the recession, there was a lot of concern over the viability of organizations. What’s the sense of the health of cultural arts nonprofits now?
Gustin: Things did shrink a bit and some organizations actually went under, but there are new ones coming back all over the place.
Balkon: From my standpoint, I’m always worried about future funding — where does that come from? How does that affect this group of organizations? Because the philanthropy’s been so great here, 10 years from now is that philanthropy still supporting these organizations like it is now? That’s my main fear for this group. I still have clients that are struggling and haven’t gotten out of the recession — the economy’s great, but their financials do not reflect that turnaround. All organizations are trying to reinvent themselves. From my standpoint, I’m always looking 10 years down the road, what does that funding source look like?
DelVecchio: Grand Rapids has six museums. We have a symphony, an opera, ballet, a Broadway. Then Kalamazoo has a fine symphony, Muskegon has a symphony and Holland has a symphony. Kent County has 220,000 households. There’s 7 million people in Chicago. This is a good neighborhood in Chicago. So we may be a bit overbuilt. … But now you say to yourself, if we are focused on economic development, we are certainly creating the landscape. They’re planning on creating a millennial downtown living population. They’ll be taking the buses and living here. Could that fix everything? It might, I don’t know.
Given the donor bases don’t have much crossover, does that happen with the arts groups?
Armstrong: This is a really collaborative, open arts and culture group. This is not a group where everyone’s sitting here saying, ‘I’m not playing. I’m not sharing. I’m not going to help you guys out.’ People are willing to put their cards on the table and ask how they can help each other. I think there’s a recognition that if somebody can steal your donors, you’re doing a lousy job of what you’re doing. It just doesn’t work that way. If you’ve got a good product and people are excited about what you’re doing, they’re going to keep giving to you and also write someone else a check.
Given the political environment and the proposed cuts to the NEA in the Trump administration’s budget, how does that frame your outlook for the next few years?
Armstrong: At some point, what the private sector can bear hits a ceiling. What it really impacts is not the people who can afford tickets, it’s the kids who can’t get this stuff. Most of us are in urban areas where the people with the dollars proportionate to the rest of the population — the math doesn’t work. We heard during the recession, ‘I’m sorry, but this year my check has to go to the food bank.’ What am I going to say to that? When the priorities got that crazy, it was really hard.
DelVecchio: All of the social service agencies are seeing cuts in their funding. So where are they going? They’re going to the traditional foundational community that we all go to. The concept that we can push it away from public funding, we don’t necessarily know where that wall is, but it will hit a wall. It’s happening to not just the arts, but everybody. You’re not just fundraising for the arts, but literally everything, including infrastructure.
What keeps you up at night?
Gustin: The political environment that’s so poisonous right now. That’s keeping me up at night.
Armstrong: We do a lot of work in schools. We’re working on a project based on a new model, where we’re partnering with schools to help turn the curriculum to help kids be ready for the innovation economy. We’ve got a great little model that needs to get bigger, faster. We’ve got to do this for the students.
DelVecchio: I’m incredibly optimistic. There’s challenges, but I see us having what my wife and I call first-world problems. I still believe that we live in unbelievable times. At some point, yes, why are we diminishing the role of arts? We don’t need to do that. Why are we talking about how to run really good organizations as cheaply as possible? We don’t need to do that. But I live in this wonderful utopian community. … (The challenges) will pass, and I hope that the damage is not long-lasting.
Gustin: Just one other thing: It’s not just the poisonous and destructive atmosphere that we’re in right now, but I’m not so optimistic that’s not going to set us on a course that we’ll be tumbling down for a few years. We do live in a very wonderful community, but I’m wondering what this is going to do to us. It’s not just the arts.
Balkon: Like I said, I have a very different view from the rest of them. I get to work with many types of different organizations. For me, I’ve been so blessed. I’ve got to see so many great things happen in West Michigan working with so many nonprofits. How does that continue? The families have been there to really lead that charge — what families are next to lead that charge? That’s what my biggest concern is. We have so many great nonprofits, how do we keep doing what we’re doing?
Los: The only thing that keeps me up at night is opportunity. … We strive to be a platform for marginalized, misrepresented and misunderstood community voices in town. If someone can see a glimpse of themselves onstage, we’re doing a good job.