G-Sync: The D.I.T. Refresh - So Many Good Questions

What if the secret to a more vibrant Grand Rapids was right in front of you -- and had a proven track record that worked globally? G-Sync's Lifestyle Editor Tommy Allen sits down with the DAAC and gets the skinny on the new partnership platforms that are taking our locals worldwide.
When a person is at the post-break-up stage of a relationship, they often take time to step back and hang out with some friends before beginning those critical first steps of moving on, with a self-improvement focus attached to the plan.

It is within the cycle of friendly conversations that, more often than not, a path-altering revelation is comes to light. It's after a friend has listened to us and responded with the attention-getter, "Let's be honest…" -- also often followed by the time-tested yet still true, "…next time you will be smarter."

Nothing could better describe how I felt after sitting down for a cup of coffee with the Division Avenue Arts Collective's (DAAC) Mike Wolf and Lamp Light Music Festival's Dan Climie to talk about the next steps for the DAAC. The organization is currently without a space and in the process of launching a new fundraising campaign that started earlier this month to solve this matter: The DAAC: D.I.T. Refresh Project.

It's the first friendly conversation I've had with the DAAC since this all-volunteer run arts organization had to vacate their Avenue for the Arts' Division Avenue space, a storefront that they had rented and built community in for nearly 10 years. (The RIght to the CIty)

Over the last decade, the DAAC had created community as well as put Grand Rapids on the indie/arts map as a destination for living or visiting by hosting art exhibitions, international and local music events, workshops, lectures, film screenings. The DAAC even awarded more than $3,300 via the Sunday Soup program -- a program where an artist's creative project is funded via members of the community casting an affirmative single yes vote for the project they like the most, all while enjoying a hot bowl of homemade soup.

We are in a time period where cities are seeking to create reasons for people to relocate to urban areas, and the DAAC played a big part in changing the attitudes or stereotypes that have lingered for far too long about Grand Rapids.

But when they lost their space in the summer of 2013 with very short notice as a condition of the new landlord set to take over the building, many in the community began to take notice. Ultimately we were left with a gnawing question: What did it mean for our city when a treasured arts center, a true anchor of this struggling and emerging arts-focused avenue, witnessed one of their own turned out?

As it played out further in the community via social spaces, arts conferences, and in the bars that surround the avenue, the bigger question emerged: Was this gentrification or something else?

And while the answers may not be clear for some time, members and supporters of the DAAC have clearly heard the friendly advice, "next time you will be smarter" and are applying it in an inventive way. Their D.I.T. Refresh Project seeks to "do it together" to create something truly remarkable in our city, even if it is not on Division Avenue anymore.

For starters, according to Wolf, the collective took an honest inventory of what they were left with after the termination of their lease. This period of being essentially homeless, ironically reflecting the fate of so many individuals who wander along Division Avenue, forced DAAC to ask very hard questions about its own mission, as well as examine whether it should even continue to exist.

Luckily for us they have decided to remain the DAAC and, after a few meetings with their lawyer, have set out to begin the critical next steps.

One of the best things that came out of this was the recommendation that they not move forward as a nonprofit right away. Instead, they'll first apply to Fractured Atlas, an organization whose mission is to help fill in the gap period for many arts groups, so they'll be able to raise funds and yet still offer a tax deduction to the donors.

Joining Fractured Atlas also enables the DAAC to stabilize as they prepare to seek out a new building. Ultimately, they would love to purchase a building but they are open to a lease or rent-to-own agreement during this first stage.

Next, by hosting a fundraiser, they are able to test the community's willingness to go along with them on this journey. They hope it will someday lead to the dissolving of their LLC as they become a full member of the 501c3 arts community.

But what drives the DAAC and its supporters (whose numbers are growing rapidly in spite of the organization's homelessness) is that they provide something we cannot purchase as a community or easily place on a bumper sticker.

"We recognized right away as we looked at the DAAC's legacy that we still have a chance to create something that is wholly Grand Rapids," says Wolf. "An artist can borrow or appropriate items from others to fold into their work and make it their own but too often we see planners simply trying to recreate a replica of what Chicago or New York have here. We are not going to be Chicago. We are not New York. We are Grand Rapids!"

Cities often wrestle with how to create this distinction, as evident last weekend when Detroit artist and Kresge Arts In Detroit Fellow Ed Fraga was in Grand Rapids to speak at the Aitken Retrospective at UICA.

The next day, Fraga met informally with a group of artists on the challenges Detroit artists face. In fact, he shared something I think even Grand Rapids struggles with to this day: How do we define what our city's arts aesthetic is for the world to see? Is there a Grand Rapids style or movement?

Wolf was quick to point out later almost exactly what Fraga was addressing about his hometown: We are both cities in Michigan benefiting from the world's attention at the moment. While we have their gaze, what do we want to do?

"It is also important to recognize that it may not be up to us to define it," says Wolf. "And yet rather than remove ourselves from the process, I would counter instead that the D.I.T. community [as the DAAC personifies] can continue to build on this our community aesthetic in all that we do."

Wolf has a great point. We already are a region that is well-versed in the ways of philanthropy and community involvement, so why wouldn't this spill over into our arts sector as well?

To this end, DAAC leadership has recognized that improved community organizing will expand their reach and influence and strengthen our arts community in new ways that are not so siloed.  

"We are also in a community that is encouraging more creative interaction within all areas of our city's life," says Wolf. "So we need spaces like the DAAC for those emerging artists of all disciplines in our market to have access to a venue to showcase their work but also for those who want to act in the role of a curator to book a venue that is affordable by today's climate and then bring in talent to our region."

Wolf gets excited when he begins to wander into the expansive nature of contemporary art and how it is emerging in fascinating new ways that the DAAC can be a part. He recommended an off-the-radar Chicago artist Public Collectors but also a different kind of café, Pittsburgh's Waffle Shop – a place that only serves food from nations with whom America is at war and broadcasts a talk show from this space. 

Both of these projects are examples of just two movements afoot in art. One celebrates the everyday (and often overlooked) and the other, rooted in the arena of social practice (a white-hot movement), seeks to inform us of our space in this world. Both movements help to collapse our ever-flattening planet as we collectively begin to recognize a bigger community tied to the world.

A natural evolution on the old bumper sticker is emerging as a new "Think Global, Be Global" mindset begins to be the reality for those with access to platforms that expand our reach. The DAAC has expanded Grand Rapids' reach in ways too minute to measure but very much there.

The partnership with Fractured Atlas has opened their access to a wider audience. Additionally, the DAAC has launched a fund development campaign on cable TV's A&E network partner, RocketHub. (RocketHub was recently featured at ArtServe's Resonant 13 conference held at Kendall College of Art and Design.) From now until February 25, contributions can be made to the DAAC via RocketHub as they seek to raise $20,000 to get in a new space.

And instead of going it alone, the DAAC has begun acting like an umbrella for our D.I.T. community. They're welcoming other arts organizations to partner with them in their quest to create a future Grand Rapids where this line of thinking is preserved and encouraged into the future. Joining them in this venture are Do-It-Together Grand Rapids, Lamp Light Music Festival, and Many Hands Clay Cooperative whose collective power is exactly what the DAAC has been facilitating for more than a decade now in Grand Rapids.

"In order to really create any kind of community, it needs to be built by the people," says Wolf, who is quick to remind me of the "We the people" aspect to this project. "By all of us coming together, we remove the isolation and begin to realize the direction we as a community of artists can begin to go."

And a smarter DAAC realizes what many artists, both in Grand Rapids and all over the world, already know: The more we control our space, the better our assurance that we will be here for others in the future. Without it, we become unable to put down roots and we end up putting our critical arts launch pads in a state of reaction, unable to create or assume leadership within the community.

The DAAC in this newly energized D.I.T. Refresh Project is not just something for the career-focused artist but also for those who are seeking to create contemporary art, which is so much more than just a painting, a song or even a movement. It is about moving forward into the new, the next, the wonderful.  

If Grand Rapids' arts scene is to be defined in the future by anything, I cannot think of anything more exciting or worthy of our time, money or stamp of approval than ensuring this newly reborn DAAC has a chance to contribute to a future that truly needs all of us. And if they take control of a building they can call their own, then that is something we as artists and arts lovers can proclaim as truly remarkable and rejoice that it happened here.

The Future Needs All of Us

Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor

Get the very best and most eclectic additions to your life in this week's G-Sync Events: Let’s Do This! Check It.

All Photography: Courtesy of the DAAC, 2013/14.

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