G-Sync: Where Do We Go from Here?

"Where do we go from here?"

It is a pivotal line spoken by Evita in the musical of the same name. It is also the question on the minds of many who were invited by the Urban Institute for Contemporary Art's (UICA) board and staff to meet their newly contracted consultant, Bill Johnson. Currently, the UICA has a $4 million building debt and a perception problem within the community. Johnson, who has a fairly impressive resume, suggested that UICA host a series of meetings to help settle questions.

I was invited not as an editor, but as a person whose path has intersected with UICA's many times over the years, beginning in 1986 when I was accepted into a regional photo exhibition at the old UICA Race Street location. UICA, to me, was always a place where diverse conversations and presentations could happen. It was an oasis for many of us who had moved to Grand Rapids. The perception now among many local artists and members of the community is that UICA abandoned that philosophy and unwisely mired itself in debt.

In the middle of the second of four meetings, Miriam Slager, a member of UICA's volunteer visual arts curatorial committee, said, "Maybe Tommy could write an editorial about what is happening here, today?"

"I'm sorry if my typing gave you the impression I was here to do a story," I replied. "When I was invited, I understood this to be meeting for community stakeholders -- not a media event. I am going to have to think this over."

Personally, I thought I could just leave knowing that a plan was being worked out to deal with the debt. As I walked out of the space, I tweeted how I felt at home for the first time in the new space and yet, my vagueness was purposeful. I knew I would have no answers at this point.

Some of our questions were answered head-on, as Johnson made it clear that the only way to move forward was to be more transparent with those who have invested in the creative capital of this organization over the years. I like this because as UICA evolved, it did seem that the openness it proudly championed over decades had diminished.

During his first of two terms at UICA, Johnson created a report that was delivered in April 2012. The report contained more than 150 suggestions to solve the current crises, ranging from simple tweaks to new hiring recommendations, such as creating a curatorial position.

After contracting with the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center, who according to Johnson, "(were at the UICA) for six months and did nothing," UICA brought Johnson back in December 2012.

After our meeting, I asked with UICA Board President Kathryn Chaplow about Johnson's rather bold statement. She informed me that while the Kennedy Center often works with arts groups in financial crisis, like UICA, they helped shaped the staff and remaining board members, but also had a monetary goal that needed to be satisfied before they could begin the work. When the funds could not be raised to activate their plan, UICA had to seek another avenue.

What is fascinating about Johnson and UICA's presentation is that despite the size of their debt, I am hopeful about their next steps. Johnson's openness and his willingness to say things that might step on toes seems to indicate he will not paint an unrealistic picture where everything is better when it is not. It is clear that for all their strengths, they have a lot of work ahead of them and the board and staff are poised with a plan to begin these critical next steps in their recovery.  

They will need others to advance, and this is where the community at large must come in to make it work.

After giving the meeting some thought, here are a just few of my questions and discussion points that I think need to be addressed or considered in moving ahead.

1) We must banish all talk of "going back." It is not possible. History moves forward. We should, however, re-read the Sheldon Scenarios that were crafted more than 10 years ago by UICA. I asked Johnson if it was correct that UICA had no strategic plan or study. While he said he could not locate one, after a few calls, I quickly discovered some documents, like the Sheldon Scenarios, were never presented to Johnson during his discovery phase for the April 2012 report. This scenario study needs to be read and discussed before we can even begin to focus on the strategic plan they are about to create. It provides much insight that still applies to the organization.

2) We need to engage all generations of UICA's history. That was clear from looking over the list of names that were attending, but institutional knowledge cannot be just an oral history. UICA will only be stronger once its staff, board, and constituents know and can access its history. Viget.org might be a great place to begin contributing this history, as well as a place to deposit articles and artifacts. It can be done outside of meetings, but set up the staff and future members with instant access to knowledge of this arts center.

3) We need to begin asking about the cultural drift of their base and why contributions outside of the major gifts of UICA's main donor base declined. In 2011, UICA received $357,000 while at the Sheldon location. This figure dropped to $169,000 in 2012 (Fulton location). The discussion on these points needs to look at the cultural capital misplaced or lost during this stage.

When I asked their CFO, Jim Pike of Fusion Business Services, why this line item of financial contributions had dropped by more than half, no concrete answer could be delivered because no such record keeping had been explored. It appears that while their troubling financial period might have begun to accelerate around this time, other symptoms not easily charted in a spreadsheet are indicated on the street via social sites like Facebook's Artist Superstar Squad, a group that has taken to discussing this matter.  

Johnson acknowledges that a very real disconnect in our overall community needs to be addressed, and sooner rather than later. I agree that these meetings are a good place to start.

As I look at the spreadsheet of the soul of our city's artists and arts lovers, a huge chunk of our creative capital, built up over UICA's long history through sweat equity from the artists and volunteers, simply disappeared.

After the week ended, I spent much time discussing UICA over the phone and in person with community stakeholders invited to the meeting. One gnawing set of questions kept coming back: Where did our creative capital go? Did you/we pull it out? Did you/we just abandon it as you/we left it sitting unattended on the table? Or did you/we just blindly let someone else walk away with the good stuff?

UICA is getting it right by asking all of us back to the table. I hope this openness continues, even if they are able to establish a track to what they will be post-crisis. I have no interest in blame, as the clock is ticking ever louder. So we need to stop blaming ex-directors, builders, contracts, etc., and start building upon what is and what we hope to see.

I am in for the next round of talks, but as I cautioned the board, if you wish to recapture this audience, the openness must continue. They assure all of us it will, and they will also be opening it up to even more individuals moving forward. This is grassroots at its best again, where everyone is engaged in the process, much it was at the very beginning.

UICA's purpose has always been to provide an open and clear platform to imagine things in our lives and to defend us from each other. It is time to roll up our sleeves if we still think this place matters. The board, staff, and Johnson appear poised to serve, but most importantly, to protect the strong artistic voice from those who would just want to silence it.

The Future Needs All of Us.

Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor

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