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Wednesday, December 29,2010

Leslie Donaldson

The executive director of the Arts Council of Greater Lansing sees a brighter picture for 2011.

by James Sanford
Illustration by Vince Joy

What have been some of the major challenges the Arts Council has faced this year?


Since 2001, arts funding in general has been cut. We work with 140 arts and cultural organizations and a good 100 individual artists, so we try to keep our finger on the pulse. Because of this, our agency has had to become a bit more nimble.


Not only has the Arts Council experienced cuts in public funding, but so have many of our arts constituents. With this has come a need for our agency to be nimble in adjusting its programmatic focus. In 2010, the Arts Council developed and adopted a new long-range strategic plan to meet areas of immediate and growing need, as it relates to these cuts. This includes increased support to areas such as arts education, access to the arts, and arts and health care issues. But it also includes increased support and commitment to cultural economic development initiatives. CED includes emphasis upon the growth of creative enterprise for artists and creatives, increased focus on engaging emerging talent with the creative sector, growing creative networks, and placing an emphasis on arts and culture in our daily lives through placemaking efforts.


How do we engage college students and keep them here? How do we grow and support our creative community? How do we place emplhasis on integrating the arts into our daily lives? How do we better connect some of our physical museums so people can find them?


It’s been a whirlwind of a year, but it’s also been very exciting, despite the cuts in public funding. We’ve seen some really positive signs from community members, the business sector and the number of people who want to volunteer. It’s new and refreshing — we’ve reached this tipping point for positive engagement in the arts. The arts are really part of an overall picture. It shouldn’t be the arts or this. We’re really starting to reframe that conversation to say that arts are an essential part of the picture, and all of that has really been quite exciting.


There’s a lot of discussion about whether Michigan has started to emerge from the recession. What are you seeing?


This has been a year of tremendous change in the arts sector and in our region, and we have seen very positive signs. I believe this has something to do with our collective work on the CED plan. I feel that we have reached a tipping point in our region where arts and culture is being understood as an important piece of the puzzle, helping to define what makes a region "cool."


Craig Mitchell Smith is a perfect exmaple. I love telling his story. He was one of our first individual artist grant recipients in 2009. He was on the verge of deciding whether or not he wanted to continue doing glasswork at that point, and when he found out (he would receive the grant) he jumped up and down and screamed: "I’m going to buy glass at Delphi Stained Glass right now and get started!" And he took the love he had for fusing glass and his love of gardens and did a one-day exhibit at Cooley Gardens. That led him to get some commission work. That little seed was all it took. We helped provide him with support — some press releases. giving him that little bit of seed money — and now, you know, he’s exploded. (Mitchell Smith opened his own gallery at Meridian Mall in October.)


We have other artists we’re doing this with on a regular basis. When you start to tell those stories, I see nothing but positive things all around. All of these things play into the larger economic picture. I don’t want us to feel down on ourselves because we don’t have that much cash floating around. Even a little bit of money can make a difference. In Michigan, we invented the auto industry— we can make big things out of small things.


Where do you see the Arts Council a year from now?


I see us growing in this area, with more support for artists and creatives in this area. We’ve been forging new partnerships with people we’ve never worked with, which is really cool. We’re trying to start up a Lansing mural program. We received a grant to get the program going. It’s to get at-risk youth to have positive experiences in the community, and that pilot program is beginning this year.


Personal guidance, consultations and mentorship seem to be growing areas of need. From January to November 2010, we provided 140 hours of consultations to 122 constituents and we expect this to grow in 2011. In order to expand upon this support, in 2011 we are building an online tool kit for artists to better access resources. I predict a greater emphasis upon educational opportunities for K-12, college and adult professionals in the arts.


I think there’s a lot of attention on Michigan now. We’ve been going through this economic process for quite some time, and I think the rest of the country is looking at us as a litmus test to see where to go.

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