The Grand Rapids Festival of the Arts turns 50 next year and for the first time in its history has a full-time paid executive director. David Abbott hopes to continue the Festival’s tradition as a celebration of art, music and international cuisine, but also make the event more of a driver for economic development and talent attraction. Abbott comes to the organization after working at ArtPrize and a variety of other endeavors. He spoke with MiBiz about how he hopes to engage the community regarding what it wants out of Festival, which runs the first weekend of June.
When did you begin the full-time executive director position?
April 1. I am greener than green. Because of my timeframe of only starting on April 1st, the things that you’ll see (this year) that I’ve touched are very, very limited. This is the time for me to listen and learn from the current leadership and to work on those hand-offs of relationships that I’ve already begun building with them and what this is going to be for the 50th.
How would you characterize the overall health of the Festival organization?
We are as healthy as we were 49 years ago and we have had a trajectory that’s gone up and down over the years, mainly due to weather. If it rains, people don’t like Festival. But if it’s sunny, man, it’s a cool day. And while many folks think it’s just Grand Rapids who shows up to it, we represent multiple counties that surround Kent County. So we have art and musicians that are coming from Muskegon, coming from Allegan, coming from Barry County. So there’s more that you’re exposed to than just what might be in your backyard.
Do you think the Festival organization and the event itself are in need of some updating?
Well, I think what it’s in need of is some stability and relationships, partnerships. Forty-nine years ago, we were the first thing that happened in the renewal of downtown, so if there were people who loved downtown, it was really easy to get volunteers to come and work at Festival. It was really easy to get sponsor partnerships, foundation grants, individuals donating, because they cared about the revitalization of downtown. Because we’ve had leadership that has changed annually, those relationships are not as easily maintained — I’m going to use a football term — in the hand-off.
Why do you see those relationships and partnerships as being so critical?
Sometimes balls get fumbled if you’re not careful enough. Really the primary reason I’ve been brought on board is because of the ability to be that connector and bridge-builder year-to-year. Between the board and the community, our sponsors, our volunteers, they would have a recognizable leader that is ultimately responsible because I receive a paycheck, too.
In building those relationships, what stakeholders do you plan to target first?
The obvious folks to begin with are really all of the other arts institutions in this city, making sure that the event feels very much collaborative and that we’re offering that platform for them to be on. Since we’re a free event, this is a point of entry for anyone. There is no economic barrier to enjoying the arts, so we want to make sure that there’s a good solid relationship with the GRAM, with the UICA, with Frederik Meijer Gardens. And then in terms of financial partners, it’s really understanding what do they want out of their Festival.
What do you imagine that being?
I believe that in order to have a vibrant community that wants to attract young talent that wants to live here, that wants to work here, you need to have a strong arts community. You can’t just rely on a single band to show up somewhere to play outdoors and expect that someone moving from a large metropolitan area — like a Chicago, a Minneapolis, a Portland, a New York — is going to come and feel like there’s a vibrant art culture here. This event attracts 350,000 people during that first weekend of June.
Given that it’s a free event, how do you calculate that attendance?
We know that it attracts up to that many people because we’ve analyzed the trash. The only metric that’s available to us for determining how many people enter the event is through the weight of our trash. And we’re excited this year because we’ve partnered with a recycling company (Schupan & Sons out of Kalamazoo) that is going to be recycling all of our plastics, all of our corrugated. Each one of our food booths will have one of those receptacles to be able to do that because, you know, that will help us in our analyzing the amount of trash.
Some people have mentioned adding alcohol to Festival as one possible enhancement. How would you address that?
It’s nothing I can talk about at this point. Our by-laws are very, very specific in that we will not sell alcohol during our event, and not for any other reason than just the added expenses that that adds to a Festival. It just was never a part of us. Will we be able to explore that in the future? I would say, right now, it’s not broken (and) we don’t have to fix it. Again, I think there’s unique ways that we could partner with Beer City USA … to drive (people) into the establishments that already sell it.
MiBiz new coverage of Michigan’s nonprofit sector is made possible through a generous sponsorship by the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, a leader in funding, initiating and leading programs that benefit the Grand Rapids area in the arts, community development, education, environment, health, and human services. For more information, visit grfoundation.org.