The Rapidian

Life after the Arts Council

A reflection on the impending closure of the Arts Council of Greater Grand Rapids from a former employee: what happened and where do we go from here?
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Recently, the Arts Council of Greater Grand Rapids officially announced its plans to disband after providing over forty years of service to West Michigan. As a former intern and employee of the organization, it was especially difficult to comprehend what the closure would mean, not only to me but to my community. It wasn’t a matter of losing employment (my position was grant-funded and ended before the announcement), but more a disbelief that Grand Rapids could lose its arts council during a period of time when public support for art was spilling out into the streets.

Yet the longer I thought about it, the less I viewed it as an unfortunate consequence of years of cuts in arts funding and lowered public visibility, and the more I began to see it as an unforeseen result of a positive chain of events- in other words the growth of area arts organizations. While the loss of this pillar organization is unfortunate, it presents an invaluable opportunity to reflect on the history of the arts in Grand Rapids and challenges us all to play an active role in its continued progression and vibrancy.

While employed at the Arts Council, I frequently found myself answering one question in particular: “So, what exactly does the Arts Council do?” Of course, there was the elevator speech, the packaged response that described the Arts Council as a chamber of commerce for arts organizations and local artists: I would describe how the Arts Council provided financial and strategic support for members, and acted as an advocate for issues of policy, funding, etc. Although all this was true and, in my mind, important, I was often met with a puzzled face and an encouraging nod.

This nudges at the core of what led the Arts Council’s demise. While it was vital to the evolution of the arts in Grand Rapids- there could be no ArtPrize without Festival, and there would have been no Festival without the Arts Council- the growth and increased visibility of major arts institutions like the GRAM and UICA made the public space for the Arts Council to occupy smaller and smaller. That isn’t to say that public visibility is what determines the success and survival of an organization, but it is a very large part.

A friend, also an avid member of the local arts community, once described the Arts Council as “connective tissue,” something that linked local arts organizations and artists to resources, financial or otherwise, and in many ways serving as an intermediary between voices in the arts and in the community. With the Arts Council’s closing, this is what our community stands to lose. It’s not a lethal blow, but it is significant, and it will be up to the leaders and members of the arts community to continue the spirit of cooperation and camaraderie that have aided in bringing it to where it is today.

There is also a challenge to the community to take notice of the behind-the-scenes work that other organizations are doing to strengthen the arts, creating opportunities for artists and pushing for continuous cultural growth. Yes, it is an exciting moment for the arts in Grand Rapids, but this hasn’t happened overnight and can still fall victim to stagnation if we let it.

“The task of art is to transform what is continuously happening to us into symbols, into music, into something which can last in man’s memory.” This quote (from author Jorge Louis Borges), scribbled on a square of stationary, hung from my computer at the Arts Council, and I read it multiple times each day I worked. It served as a reminder of the essentiality of art, and of its ability to endure and to remain, long after the final brushstroke or curtain call. Now, in the wake of the announcement of Arts Council’s impending disbandment announcement, it seems fitting in a different way. It illustrates how, in the end, it isn’t the organization that will endure, and it may not even be the artist. It is the art. It is the experiences that people will remember long after, even if they don’t remember who provided it, or if they ever knew at all.

Disclosure: I served as Marketing Assistant for the What's Your Art GR? campaign with the Arts Council of Greater Grand Rapids from October 2010 to October 2011.

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Nice opinion piece, good to have your perspective on this unfortunate closing.

Thanks for giving us such an intimate peek into what happened!

nice job, alex. the "what's your art" campaign inspired me on many rainy days.

The NEA boasts that American's spent about 9 billions dollars on the performing arts last year but put into perspect women alone spent close to that much on cosmetics. Why GRAC would come to the conclusion that GR has enough art organizations is beyond me.