Through a little luck, a dose of good timing, and some tenacity, I was asked to serve on Michigan’s arts council. Little, muddy me.
Here’s how it happened: one evening in June, I found myself deep in conversation with a stranger at a gallery opening in Detroit’s Grand River Creative Corridor. She was interested in my multitude of jobs and my experience with the local creative culture, along with my Detroit ‘hustle.’ I was my usual bubbly, effusive, cheerleader-for-Detroit self, and Nancy was curious, charming and thoughtful. I made mental note that she was from Lansing, but didn’t think much of the encounter afterward. When she called me a few months later, Nancy revealed that she worked in the Appointments Office for the Governor, and wanted to nominate me for a council seat. Say what?
I became familiar with the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs around this time last year, when they announced their grant awards for 2013. Hoping for job postings related to art education, I scanned the websites of each the arts organizations in Wayne County that received program-related grant monies. Though no teaching opportunities revealed themselves, my research was not in vain, as I discovered new galleries, theaters, and festivals in the area to keep me exploring for the next few months. The MCACA dispersed $5.6 million last year to arts and cultural organizations for capital improvements, program and operational support, art education residencies, and regional regranting programs.
It all seems a little dreamy to me now: within a single month, I submitted my resume, signed a commitment, and was officially appointed by the Governor!
Sitting at my first council meeting in September, I was overwhelmed by my “peers” at the table. From the executive director of Interlochen, to the CEO of Detroit Public Television, to the new director of ArtPrize; I felt way out of my league. However, Governor Snyder consciously chose to appoint “an artist working in Detroit, under 30, with connection to community arts.” I find it radical, in the best possible way, of course, to initiate such diversity in a decision-making body. I take it as my duty to represent the underpaid and over-passionate contract artists who implement the grants that the MCACA awards. While the highly lauded arts administrators and foundation heads at the table have incredibly important perspective on maestros and politicians, I’m thrilled to cheer for the small-town orchestra who just signed a union-deal with their musicians. Each Council member has a part in crafting the vision for broader, more potent, and more equitable arts engagement in our state.
MCACA’s mission is “To encourage, initiate and facilitate and enriched artistic, cultural and creative environment in Michigan.”
This fall I observed a few grant review panels and participated in one as a panelist. I’m awed and inspired by the transparency of this process. Each of the more than 400 grant applications for 2014 was thoroughly read by a panel of arts professionals, discussed, and scored. The constructive criticisms are documented and shared, and the panel reviews are always open to the public – in person, via phone and webcast. Twenty-five people observed the panel I sat on in November. As John Bracey, the executive director of the MCACA, says, “As a small arts organization, you can’t buy that kind of feedback, and we offer it here for free.” John sees this process as a compelling and robust exercise in democracy. After the conclusion of the grant review panels, the Council staff provided a set of funding options to the Council members, based on the percentage scores the grants received.
At this Friday’s meeting in Lansing, we decided on a funding plan that spread the monies out at far down the scores as possible, funding even grants that scored 80% at as much as 60% of their request. Other years, they have funded only the highest-scoring grants at 100% or nothing, as a way of rewarding professionalism. I’m still wrestling with these ideas, trying to reconcile my own values of diversity and equity with the realities of bureaucracy while keeping an open mind and heart to learn from the great minds with whom I share the table. I’m learning to listen first. I’m figuring out how to best help artists and arts organizations in my community. I’m learning that my passion is a gift, and that my thoughts are valued when I thoughtfully share them. I’m trying not to make waves, but to be a part of the steering of the ship – and that’s new for me. Like I said, I’m learning.
This year, the Council was able to award $7.7 million in grants for FY2014. (I can’t tell you how my head spins when thinking about that figure.) Governor Snyder, along with the legislature, has been kind to the arts in Michigan through steady increases in funding for council the last 3 years, and that trend is expected to continue. My term on the MCACA lasts three years. I’ll be in Lansing once a month or so, while the quarterly full-council meetings rotate through arts centers all around the state. Being part of it all at this stage of my life is a boggling and incredible opportunity: to be at the bottom, working by the hour and savoring each sale, while catching a glimpse from the top of the art world. My goal is to share the view.