Kim Dabbs (profiled by Rapid Growth here) is the Executive Director of the West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology (WMCAT).
Arriving from Metro-Detroit after a 10-year hiatus from Grand Rapids was an eye opening experience for me. The city I grew up in had transformed at a shocking rate. While working in the cultural sector for the past decade statewide, I was able to see and experience change firsthand and watch how radical collaboration moved a region and a state forward. What I witnessed in Grand Rapids however, was breathtaking.
When I arrived last fall to lead the West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology (WMCAT), so many people from the local community stepped in to be my cultural concierge, to help me navigate a tight knit community and to find ways to work with others inside and outside our sector. This immersion into the new Grand Rapids is what is spurring rapid growth at WMCAT and at other institutions that have had recent leadership transplants from other areas of the country.
So began the idea for Culture Trek, a three-day, dawn till dusk adventure that would span hundreds of miles throughout Michigan. I began organizing a statewide round of introductions earlier this month for three arts leaders in Grand Rapids who also happen to be Michigan transplants: Dana Friis-Hansen, director and CEO of the Grand Rapids Art Museum who came to Michigan via Austin, TX; Christian Gaines, executive director of ArtPrize who landed here from Los Angeles this spring; and David Rosen, president of Kendall College of Art and Design who most recently lived in southern California.
The one common theme we had as a group was being Grand Rapids "newbies" and being cultural "veterans." A unique mix when it came to understanding the role of the collaborative voice and platform for sharing the burgeoning creative economy in West Michigan.
To really get someone excited about global impact in arts education, we headed up north to Interlochen Center for the Arts where we met with President Jeff Kimpton and Drew Buchholz, the chair of the Michigan Council of Arts and Cultural Affairs. Interlochen embodies the missions of our collective organizations through arts education, presentations and a deep history of quality and expertise. Reframing boundaries and a broad conversation of collaboration worldwide was the perfect start to our adventure.
We stopped at the home of West Michigan community leaders and owners of the Essence Restaurant Group, Jeff and Georgia Gietzen in Glen Arbor to connect and converge around topics of the growth of the Grand Rapids region, how the progress had been shaped and where new programs could exist through cross-sector collaboration and innovative partnerships with the business community.
Later that evening we drove down the coast of the Lelenau Penninsula and took in the activity surrounding the Traverse City Film Festival. We met Alan LaFave, coordinator of Hell's Half Mile Festival, and our liaison to the local film community at Little Fleet. This fabulous Portland-esque gathering space was the perfect end to our first day.
We hit the road early on Saturday morning. While we all took times curating the soundtrack for the car ride to our next locations, we also were able to take time to learn more about each other’s backgrounds, about the new and exciting ideas for our institutions and where the intersection could happen within all of our organizations. The road time was the incubator for our collaboration, and we didn’t squander a moment of it.
With multiple stops in the Great Lakes Bay Region, we were able to see how the cities of Midland, Saginaw and Bay City were coming together to fuel change through a cultural community. A highlight of the visits was the conversations around Art and Sol, the world’s first major solar art exhibition happening here in Michigan. This multi-venue event celebrates the intersection of art, culture, education, science and people. This was the perfect addition to our growing portfolio of amazing Michigan collaborations. We were able to make a stop at the Flint Institute of Arts on our way to metro-Detroit to see their amazing collection and vowed to stop back further explore collaborations like the Flint Public Art Project on our next Culture Trek.
After dropping our bags at the hotel, we dashed off to the home of arts advocate and philanthropist Marc Schwartz in Birmingham, Michigan. If anyone knows how to curate a dinner party, Marc does. With a guest list encompassing every major cultural institution, foundation and collaborative around creativity in the region, the four of us were able to learn about the power of the Detroit scene and how it impacts that region and our state as a whole. The night was full of exchanges of ideas, programs, projects and cross-state invitations. This was where the rubber hit the road.
Sunday morning began at Astro Coffee with statewide media leaders Sarah Hulett, news director for Michigan Radio, and Kathy Kieliszewski, director of photo and video for the Detroit Free Press. We moved onto a brunch coordinated by Clinton Snider, one of Detroit’s top visual artists and many of his colleagues from the region. This first hand account from the art creators was the perfect way to ground practice with collaboration. The ability to know how the artists are the shapers of this new creative landscape and how we can support this creative force to create social change statewide.
We returned on Sunday evening full of inspiration. We had a mission to understand the needs and successes of the creative community throughout Michigan, to strengthen connections toward statewide collaboration, and to reinforce west Michigan’s role in leading cultural initiatives in our state.
Was it a success? The conversations in the car ride along I-96 would point to a resounding YES.
I look forward to continuing my friendships and collaborations with Dana, Christian and David. Their greater understanding of Michigan’s creative assets and innovative, fighting spirit will contribute to a stronger cultural center in Grand Rapids, a robust collaborative statewide environment, and a greater understanding of their new home state. Michigan is more than gorgeous shorelines and picturesque lakes. It is a place where social innovation, great design and culture happen every day.
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