culturedGR: Closing the gap in arts coverage

Not all startups are tech focused; some are actually close to the opposite. Such is the case with local non-profit startup culturedGR, an arts focused non-profit that “celebrates, examines, and supports the visual and performing arts culture of Grand Rapids, Michigan by building thoughtful conversation through news, arts criticism, and conversations with creators,” according to their website.

Founder Holly Bechiri launched the arts journalism site in September of 2016. “There was a continued loss of coverage of the visual and performing arts—and I know the benefit that the arts have for our community,” says Bechiri. “It was important to me that we get a chance to connect our community to the incredible artists, performers, and arts organizations—and the way that I could do that is through arts journalism.”

Shortly after leaving the Community Media Center’s journalism branch, The Rapidian, Bechiri was approached to create a proposal to answer the gap in arts coverage. Since the fall of 2009, Grand Rapids has become a growing arts hub in the Midwest. With the presence and growing notoriety of ArtPrize, Grand Rapids has developed a yearlong art presence. With the Avenue of the Arts’ First Fridays monthly event, ArtPrize in the fall, regular programming at GRAM, UICA, Grand Rapids Ballet, and Grand Rapids Symphony, there is plenty to be covered. 

Bechiri describes culturedGR as "Grand Rapids-only dedicated arts publication in Grand Rapids, creating quality arts journalism in order to connect our community with the arts. We do that with news stories, profiles, and conversations with creators, and arts criticism. Each of these are important pieces in creating a healthy arts ecosystem, and a healthy community—we need beauty and creative expression now more than ever, and the arts are a proven way to increase your sense of a high quality of life.” 

The visual arts and performing arts can be a privileged world in which access is limited or denied to marginalized peoples. This can be so prevalent that many people can come to believe that art is “not meant” for them, but is rather a space meant only for a powerful or influential coterie. Systemic racism and sexism are also ubiquitous in the arts, and it limits access to many communities. This dynamic and its barriers are addressed in the very name of the organization. The use of “cultured” is a tongue in cheek approach to how the world of visual and performing arts is often perceived.

When asked about the issue of access and the image of the visual and performing arts, Bechiri replies, “We are a nonprofit on a mission to connect our community to the arts, to restore access to the arts.” Bechiri is aware of the history of connecting marginalized peoples to high art, and the reprised role of white savior that many have taken in the past. This is why she mindfully chooses to state it as a restoration of access to the arts, drawing attention to the violence that was perpetrated upon marginalized peoples by the denial of access. 

This denial of access is seemingly compounded even more when we view art as Bechiri does—as a way to add beauty to our lives, and survive the hardships that life continuously brings. She sees an active role of art in society and our everyday lives, adding, “Artists have always been the ones helping us grapple with social issues all through history. They're often the truth-tellers, using comedy to point out abuse of power, using beauty to remind us of the value inherent in a human being, using storytelling to point out the injustice in the systems we've built around us. Art is a part of the conversation, and it's often the prophet of our society, calling us to do better. But even art that is pure beauty, pure color and form, that artist is putting more good, more beauty, more room to breathe in the world. That alone is a way to fight against all the evil in the world—by filling it up with beauty.” 

On the importance of access to the arts to marginalized peoples Bechiri says, “Somehow we got it in our heads that only a certain kind of visual arts was considered 'fine art' and that only a certain sector of society was to be privy to it. One of my favorite experiences in the arts in 2017 was at the UICA, in Shani Crowe and Kiara Lanier’s performance that included this incredible hair braiding that was otherworldly. If you were there it was undeniable that absolutely that belonged in an art institution.”

Further adding, “We need to restore that access and tear down the walls that have been built up and marginalized people in so many ways—in our arts institutions included. The way you become educated and involved in the arts—the way you become cultured—is to learn and experience. Those supposedly fancy people that we think 'belong' in the art museum with art we don't understand? They don't understand it either. Sometimes even the artist doesn't know what it is they're really saying until months later. It's true! You don't have to understand art to enjoy it, to have it benefit your life.”

You can become a member of culturedGR and thanks to the generosity of local artists and arts organizations, get to participate in plenty of "adult arts field trips," all for free, from visits to local artists' studios to attending dress rehearsals, to getting a tour with the curator of a new opening art exhibit, and more. Dip your toes in opera, ballet, theatre, and art. Try a lot of different things and discover what really captivates you. All this for as little as $5 a month or a one-time $50 donation.

You can follow culturedGR on Instagram here, on Facebook here, and on Twitter here.

Ken Miguel-Cipriano is Rapid Growth’s innovation and jobs editor. To reach Ken, you can email [email protected] or follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Images courtesy of culturedGR.
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