When Jennifer Goulet departed as president and CEO of Creative Many Michigan Inc. in September after 11 years, board members decided to hire a well-known philanthropic leader to lead the arts advocacy organization as it figured out the type of leadership it needed for the future. Interim President Steve Wilson previously led the Grand Rapids-based Frey Foundation from 2012 through 2018 and served as executive director of the Ruth Mott Foundation in his hometown of Flint from 2008 to 2012. Wilson spoke with MiBiz about his plans for Creative Many and his vision for the role that the arts can play in Michigan.
What convinced you to take the Creative Many job?
I retired as president of the Frey Foundation on June 30. As I stepped away from Frey, I let my colleagues know that I was moving into a consulting role. Somebody with the Creative Many board approached me, and I sent him my information. The important thing is what the board has done to set aside a 4-6 month period as a transition period to really take a good look at all of the organizational needs going forward. I will be guiding the ship, but also serving as a consultant to the board to take a broad and deeper look at where Creative Many is today and what the needs are going forward.
What in your previous careers prepared you for this leadership role?
I grew up as a lover of the arts. I’m a drummer and a creative writer and I’ve written a play. My background is in journalism. Throughout my career in the philanthropic sector, I have either led or provided support services for nonprofit leadership. The Frey Foundation is an arts funder, and 10 years ago, I was a funder through the Ruth Mott Foundation, where I was executive director prior to coming to Frey. As a funder, I worked with a variety of nonprofits and was always looking at assessing the organizational health and the clarity and the resilience of the organization. I had a good base of information about Creative Many.
What will be your main focus while leading Creative Many?
My main thrust is to look at its organizational needs, its funding and operations. I will be less focused programmatically and looking more at how I can help the board in assessing what the next steps are. This will be a short transition period and assignment. This is a very healthy move by the board of Creative Many to take a deeper look at itself as an organization and strategically determine the next steps.
Why is the ongoing work of Creative Many important?
Creative Many provides a significant benefit for the state’s economy. As we look at Michigan’s need to diversify its economy, placemaking has been a part of that. Richard Florida’s book “The Rise of the Creative Class” focuses on jobs for the creative industry as a part of economic development strategies. The cities in which Creative Many has done programming have seen significant placemaking activity around the arts. It creates a vibrancy in cities. An example would be a large activity that Creative Many operates through the Kresge Artists Fellowship Program, which provides direct support in a variety of ways for artists working in the city of Detroit. Creative Many also has done work with ArtPrize and this year brought in legislators and others involved in decision-making about the arts budget to see SiTE:LAB, which was part of ArtPrize but was an independently curated series of edgy art installations created by artists from around the world.
Creative Many also traveled to the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas where they set up an exhibit called Michigan House to showcase Michigan’s strengths in the creative industry. They literally take a piece of geography and build it out as Michigan and put on programs and panel discussions to showcase to audiences. It was unique to travel to a distant state and showcase what Michigan has to offer. The arts are a way for communities to connect with each other.
What do you see as the biggest challenges for Creative Many?
We are focused on the creative industries, which involves the aspects of the Michigan economy that involve creativity, all aspects of design, all aspects and the variety of professions and businesses that reach out to creative professionals in their work. The intersection of art and business is the key space in which they operate. Creative Many approaches its work from an economic development lens as well as an artistic lens and so creativity is certainly important to Michigan as it shifts its economy from traditional industrial and automotive manufacturing. We think it’s important to continue to teach and promote arts in school. To do that with a six-person staff and a $1 million budget is an undertaking.
How do you fund that work?
Our funding comes mostly from philanthropy. Creative Many’s funders include the Kresge and Ford foundations, the Meijer and DeVos foundations, and the Gilmore Foundation in Kalamazoo. The Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs provides funding for some of the public policy work being done.
What’s your view of the state of funding for arts groups across the state?
On the macro level, funding is always a concern. It needs to be independent of state government. … If you were to track it over time, it looks like a wave pattern. The funding level for the arts is one of the first things to be cut. At the school level, it’s the types of programs that are cut. But, the arts are so central to community needs and it’s incredibly important, particularly in Michigan.
How do you make the case for the arts as an integral part of a community?
The case is that the arts are part of the vibrancy of life, whether you’re talking about an individual, community or country. It’s certainly important to community life. When you walk through a city like Grand Rapids or Detroit, you see museums and performing arts centers and people can see that arts and creative elements are important elements to our lives. If you’re operating a business in the design field and you’re trying to attract designers who love the east or west coast of the United States, having a thriving, vibrant economy is critical to attracting them to your community to work.
How does that value translate to funding for arts education?
The importance of arts in education has taken on a significant value. Employers are increasingly talking about 21st-century skills, which include effective communication, creative thinking and working collaboratively. The arts are central to that. There are employers who are saying that they can train somebody to do a particular task, but they say what they can’t train them to have is communication skills, work together as a team, or resourcefulness, which is central to our daily life and work life as well.
MiBiz 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.