What’s the (Cultural) Plan?

Finding ways to support Ann Arbor's arts and culture
Elaine Selo

Scott Rosencrans, a member of the Ann Arbor Park Advisory Commission, and Elaine Selo of Selo/Shevel Gallery on Main Street, at a meeting to discuss the city’s arts and culture community.

Collaboration – and the need for more of it – was a common theme Tuesday night at a meeting to discuss Ann Arbor’s arts and cultural future. Hosted by the Arts Alliance, it’s part of a series of forums aimed at developing cultural plans for seven communities in Washtenaw County, under a broader plan for the entire county.

Several people spoke about the urgency of supporting local groups, as the economy continues to batter both businesses and nonprofits. Elaine Selo, co-owner of Selo/Shevel Gallery on Main Street, said she’s seen ups and downs for 27 years, and now “all of us are just trying to survive.”

More of that kind of candor is needed – people in Ann Arbor too often hold themselves in such high regard that they’re blind to what’s happening in the local economy, said Newcombe Clark, a local real estate broker who sits on the boards for several local nonprofit groups, including the Michigan Theater. “We lost Peter Sparling last year,” he noted, referring to the closing of the Dance Gallery Studio. He said that the past two fiscal quarters for the Michigan Theater and the Ann Arbor Art Center have been difficult, “and they’re not out of the woods yet.”

Shary Brown, executive director for the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair, said that many times groups will put up a shield until the very day that their operation collapses. Elaine Selo observed that that’s apparently what happened at the Ann Arbor News – it would have been nice for the community to have known things were so dire, she said, so they could have perhaps come up with a response before a decision was made to close the company.

Because the economy has created a “shared misery,” Selo said, it’s actually easier to admit that your own group is struggling. Even so, some businesses and nonprofits are afraid that if they say they’re troubled, people won’t shop there or donate. They really need to share what’s going on, she said, “and find some solutions for getting over it.”

Chris Lord advocated for a space for local writers to meet.

Chris Lord advocated for a space for local writers to meet.

Tuesday night’s discussion focused on some practical issues, too. Chris Lord, who helps coordinate the Writers Reading at Sweetwaters group, said that while there’s lots of support for school-age writers – such as the Neutral Zone and 826 Michigan – other local writers don’t have venues to come together. She wanted to bring the perspective of writers to the cultural plan, and specifically, the issue of finding a space to hold workshops or informal gatherings.

Omari Rush, education manager for the University Musical Society, suggested contacting the Ann Arbor District Library. The library is positioning itself as more of a community meeting place, he said, and again, it’s an example of the importance of collaboration among different groups. Lord said they’d talked to the library – in fact, they were holding a special poetry reading by Robert Fanning there on Thursday, April 9, as part of National Poetry Month. She said the library charges for room rental – and for groups that don’t have money, that’s an issue.

Brown stressed the importance of communication – connecting underutilized resources in the community with the people and groups who need those resources, like available space to hold meetings and workshops. Selo suggested a blog might be one way to do that. Angela Martin-Barcelona of the Arts Alliance told the group that they were working on creating an online hub for the county’s arts and cultural community, and that they hoped it would be a place to make those connections.


Tuesday night’s meeting about the Ann Arbor arts and cultural community was held in the conference room of the Ann Arbor Area Convention & Visitors Bureau on West Huron Street.

The group also talked about funding. Tamara Real, president of the Arts Alliance, noted that the Ann Arbor area doesn’t have a “granddaddy of funders” like the Mott Foundation in Flint or the Gilmore Foundation in Kalamazoo. And state funding consists of a weird boom and bust cycle, she said – Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s proposed state budget for fiscal year 2010 includes dramatic cuts to arts funding. Long-term, “there must be another way to handle funding,” Real said.

Another issue with state grants is that it’s difficult for smaller, newer ventures – like the Shadow Art Fair – to get funded, Real said. Brown added that the art fair, when it got started 50 years ago, wouldn’t have been funded, either.

Amy Harris, director of UM’s Exhibit Museum of Natural History, said that city officials like to point to Ann Arbor’s arts and cultural sector as an attraction, as does the business community. Yet other than the recent Percent for Art program and funding for the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, she wasn’t away of serious financial support from the city. [The Percent for Art is funded by 1% of the cost of public projects, like the municipal center currently under construction. Those funds, up to $250,000 per project, are administered by the Ann Arbor Public Art Commission.] Brown noted that the Street Art Fair actually pays the city more than $50,000 each year for support like fire and police services.

Harris proposed a series of educational forums for the community, with possible topics including 1) how the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation can be used to create endowments for arts & cultural purposes, 2) a health report on the arts & cultural sector, 3) a look at how university arts & cultural organizations are funded. She noted that at the Exhibit Museum, for example, only half of its budget comes from UM.

Tamara Real of the Arts Alliance at Tuesdays meeting in Ann Arbor.

Tamara Real of the Arts Alliance at Tuesday’s meeting in Ann Arbor.

Scott Rosencrans, a member of the city’s Park Advisory Commission who described himself as an “art hobbyist,” suggested they look at other communities who have successfully supported the arts & culture sector, such as Madison, Wisc. or Key West, Fla. (Earlier in the meeting, Brown had described a recent trip she’d taken to Key West, where she said the arts community was highly visible and reflected a key value of that city.)

Els Nieuwenhuijsen Eldersveld raised the issue of accessibility to arts and culture in Ann Arbor. Some cities are promoting themselves as being accessible to people with disabilities, she said. How accessible is Ann Arbor, and what can be done to bring that message to the forefront?

The group also discussed the need for a comprehensive arts directory, something to allow people to search and find artists in various categories or styles – like a Time Out for Ann Arbor, Selo suggested. Lord said that perhaps information gathered for a previous Arts Alliance survey could provide a foundation for this. Rosencrans suggested Community Television Network as a possible venue for informing the public about local artists.

The Arts Alliance will be holding an additional public meeting in Ann Arbor on a date to be determined. Tamara Real indicated that at their next meeting, they’ll identify concrete steps they should take to address some of these issues.

Next week, the Arts Alliance is hosting a similar forum focused on Saline. That event will take place April 14 from 7:30-9 p.m. at Saline City Hall, 100 N. Harris St.


  1. By Scot G
    April 8, 2009 at 5:49 pm | permalink

    It is great to read the thoughtful communication on this important issue. I echo the comments of Newcombe, we need to be open and honest about the struggle to survive. I am looking forward to the thoughts from the “out-county” communities as they hold their forums.

  2. April 8, 2009 at 6:10 pm | permalink

    This article talks about the Ann Arbor Art Center as “not being out of the woods.” This leaves an incorrect impression of the state of affairs of the organization. We have been responsible and had some good luck. We sold a building and successfully consolidated programming into one facility. We have no debt and modest savings. Revenue and attendance projections are exceeding expectations. As we celebrate 100 years as a community art center, it important for the community and our supporters to know that we are managing this asset well.

  3. By Newcombe Clark
    April 8, 2009 at 9:29 pm | permalink

    Thanks for the clarification of my Comments, Marsha. I in no way meant to imply a deficiency in the Art Center or its governance if the wake of the success of recent fiscally prudent decisions and the celebration of your historic anniversary. I meant to illustrate that even organizations perceived as untouchable, such as the Art Center and the Michigan Theater, are not immune to the reality of what’s happening in the local economy. Many worry that we will be surprised and regretful by just what we stand to lose in this economic downturn unless we are honest today about the potential pitfalls and fragility of all of the things we hold important and dear in this community, including our more beloved and venerated arts and cultural institutions. Sacrifices are inevitable. We just advocate that we’re honest with each other,ask for help when we need it, and that we put everything on the table under full disclosure so we can choose our own path to sustainability…least it be chosen for us.

  4. By Mary Morgan
    April 8, 2009 at 9:36 pm | permalink

    Today’s news about the financial struggles at Performance Network is another example of the issues that most, if not all, arts & cultural nonprofits are facing.

  5. April 8, 2009 at 11:48 pm | permalink

    There’s free space at the Ann Arbor District Library that can be reserved for community use; see


    “The aadlfreespace meeting facility is available for free use by non-profit or for-profit groups four time slots per calendar year.”

    There’s a long list of venue spaces here, several or many of which might be suitable for a writers group:


  6. By mr dairy
    April 9, 2009 at 6:54 am | permalink

    I’m puzzled that there was no mention of a week long Ann Arbor arts event with a rich 47 year history,national and international recognition and growing community support… the non-profit Ann Arbor Film Festival.

  7. April 9, 2009 at 9:50 am | permalink

    There actually was mention of the Ann Arbor Film Festival at the meeting. I attended the meeting and used them as an example of how effective it can be to ask for help when it’s needed. Their successful campaign last year was a wonderful testament to how this community will rally around those in need.

  8. By Mary Morgan
    April 9, 2009 at 10:49 am | permalink

    Karen is right. I would note that this report of the meeting isn’t a transcript – if anyone who attended this meeting (or one of the previous ones) wants to weigh in with additional comments on what happened, please do!