Blog: Tamara Real

Tamara Real is the Executive Director of the Arts Alliance*, a non-profit organization dedicated to developing, nurturing and sustaining arts and culture in Washtenaw County. From 1994 through 2007, Tamara also served as principal of Get Real! Communications, a marketing firm she founded to help cultural organizations achieve their audience development goals. Major clients included the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs (MCACA), the Michigan Museums Association, and the Public Museum of Grand Rapids. For nearly 10 years, she organized MCACA’s highly popular annual meetings (also known as the “Cool Cities” conferences).

Tamara also coordinated numerous programs in cultural tourism for the Michigan Museums Association and, along with Jennifer Deutsch, co-authored a branding guide developed specifically for museums entitled Just Who Do Your Customers Think You Are? A Guide to Branding Your Organization.

Prior to starting her own business, Tamara managed marketing activities at Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village (now known as The Henry Ford), The Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and the Smithsonian Institution. She also served as the Director of Cultural Affairs for the City of New Haven, Connecticut. Tamara received her Masters degree in Art History from The Johns Hopkins University, where pursued her passion: medieval manuscript decoration. She lives with her husband, Carl, a jazz vocalist and trombonist, in a former church that they have renovated into their home. 

*The Arts Alliance was incubated by the Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce from 2000 – 2005 and is now an independent non-profit organization.Tamara has served as the director of the Arts Alliance since 2002. 

Tamara Real - Most Recent Posts:

Tamara Real - Post 4

Arts and cultural activities provide an unparalleled opportunity to understand ourselves and the world around us. Community, business, and other leaders are increasingly coming to recognize this and contemplate how they can harness the power of the arts to address some of the challenges that face us.

For example, a recent study conducted by The Conference Board, an organization that serves the interests of Fortune 500 companies around the world, noted that students who take part in arts and cultural activities during their years in school are more likely to have the skills needed for 21st century jobs. In fact, some employers are even looking at applicants' resumes for experience in band, orchestra, theater and the visual arts as predictors of future success. Employers, such as the folks at Marriott and Glaxo-SmithKline, find that exposure to arts and cultural activities gives young applicants one of the most desirable skills in today's ever-changing world: the ability to deal with ambiguity. 

Think about it: a student raised exclusively on No-Child-Left-Behind-there's-only-one-right-answer testing is going to have a hard dealing with situations where there's no one right solution and indeed, the tried-and-true answers of the past no longer apply.

Locally, organizations such as the Ann Arbor Art Center and the Two Twelve Art Center in Saline offer many dynamic programs that complement in important ways the educational experiences our young people receive in school. 

In October, the Ann Arbor organization will present an exhibition and series of activities that explore creative reactions to some of the most inhuman behaviors man has visited upon his fellow man. Through visual arts, performances, and food, the Ann Arbor Art Center will explore the Armenian genocide and other catastrophes.  Certainly, there is no one "right answer" to these sorts of tragedies and this program will give participants a chance to consider how they would react to such calamities.

In Saline, the Two Twelve Art Center runs a lively program called "Art Van Go," that enables local youth to work with practicing artists on arts and cultural activities during the summer months. The Art Van Go mini-van takes artists and supplies into Saline parks where young people can develop their conceptual thinking skills by making arts projects.  (It may seem like a little thing, but just painting a picture with simple watercolors demands lots of decision making: what to include, what not to include, how big is one element (a flower, for example) in relation to another element (a house), etc.) This valuable program gives kids a chance to express themselves and experience success in a fun and non-threatening manner, an important opportunity indeed.

In Ypsilanti, Eastern Michigan University and the Riverside Arts Center are exploring ways they can collaborate to offer arts education programs to area residents. The What Is That Gallery (is presenting skills-building workshops and classes, and emerging community leaders are demonstrating their resourcefulness and ingenuity by crafting new programs, such as the Shadow Art Fair, to response to the needs and interests of a new generation.

Throughout all these examples, arts and culture is the common thread. By using arts and cultural activities as tools, folks in our county are teaching us about the horrors of the past so that we don't repeat them, building creative thinking skills in our children, developing new skills among arts practitioners, and identifying community needs and developing new activities to address  them.

Folks are undertaking all these initiatives because they love doing this work and believe in it passionately, not because they have to ...and certainly not because they're being paid a ton of money!

What's not to like about that?

Post 3: What Bugs Me

Generally, I’m a pretty upbeat person, especially when it comes to arts and culture. But there are some things that really get my knickers in a twist. Here are a few of them: 

"We can’t fund arts and culture because we need to shelter the homeless and feed the hungry."

I hear this a lot when there’s a funding crisis and I believe it’s a real false argument. Instead of pitting social services against arts and culture and look at the funding pie as an “either-or” situation, why can’t we look it as a “both-and” scenario? This certainly demands a new way of looking at service delivery, collaborative behavior, and funding allocations, but I don’t believe it’s impossible. 

As a matter of fact, a number of social service agencies, such as The Corner Health Center
and SOS Community Center, are already employing arts and cultural activities as strategies to achieve their human services goals. We just need to be more creative in our thinking. 

Which gets to my next thought….

We aren’t using all the tools in our toolbox to address the social and economic challenges facing our communities. 

If you were a carpenter, you’d probably have a variety of tools on hand to use on the job – you wouldn’t set out with just one hammer. You probably wouldn’t even have just one screwdriver, but a number of them – not just one drill bit, but many of them. So, why aren’t we consciously using arts and culture to help address challenges such as youth obesity, illiteracy, homelessness, and the lack of public transportation?  

How you may ask? Well, some communities have used public art to make bus shelters and transit stations so appealing that you want to ride the bus. Seattle’s Dept. of Transportation, for example, has an entire Art Plan – definitely worth checking out! 
In Houston, an artist has given the idea of affordable housing a whole new twist when he decided to tackle the issue rather than just commenting on it in paintings. The initiative is called Project Row House and it’s been held up as a model nationwide.

"Nonprofits should be run more like businesses."
Listening to the news today really makes me glad I don’t run my organization the way Wall Street firms have been running theirs. Years ago, it is true that many nonprofits were run on big ideas and small financial planning but nowadays, that’s much less common. Even here in Ann Arbor, I’ve sat in meetings where business organizations talk about taking on projects that seem way outside their missions because of a quick buck – taking actions that most nonprofits would shy away from as outside of their missions. 

Thanks, but no thanks – I’ll take the rigorous, mission-driven thinking of a nonprofit any day.

We know Baby Boomers are soon going to be retiring in droves and we’re not actively developing succession plans to insure smooth leadership transitions. 

Our cultural community is led by an uncommonly collaborative and talented group of individuals, some of whom are starting to contemplate what they want to be doing in the next chapters of their lives. We know that there are fewer people in the next generation (the Baby Boom is a bulge in the population) and fewer still interested in taking on the relatively low-paying, benefits-lacking jobs of the nonprofit sector. 

So, what are we as a community doing to address this pending crisis in leadership? We can look at it, like an impending car accident, and watch it happen or we can pro-actively start to plan for leadership change. We can make sure that nonprofit boards have the knowledge they need to plan for smooth transitions. We can help groom our emerging leaders. We can help manage change rather than react to it.

All these items demand some new or different ways of thinking. I guess it’s because I work in arts and culture that I think that’s what we should be doing: thinking creatively about solving the challenges that are facing us. What do you think? 

Post 2: The Business Of Art

So, what do we know about arts and culture in Washtenaw County? We know that nonprofit arts and culture is a $165 million industry in the county. The sector employs about 2,600 people – roughly the same number of people who were employed by Pfizer when it was going full tilt. Those jobs translate into almost $57 million in household income. 

Now, let’s put a human face on those numbers. Wild Swan Theater is an Ann Arbor-based theater company that creates family-oriented productions that are totally and imaginatively accessible to folks with hearing and visual disabilities. Internationally known, Wild Swan provides employment annually to about 50 artists, such as actors, musicians, composers, playwrights, or set designers. In most cases, a company that’s creating jobs for 50 or so people would be considered a pretty important part of our community and yet, when it comes to arts and culture, we somehow seem to overlook the value of this contribution.

Arts organizations are just like any other small business: they pay rent, purchase supplies, invest in their facilities, and have to meet payroll. Doing so, nonprofit cultural organizations inject $33.4 million into the economy.

Again, let’s see who’s doing this. To use a striking example, the University of Michigan Museum of Art is in the midst of $35+ million expansion project that will totally revitalize the institution. That project is pumping millions of dollars directly into the local economy, paying construction workers, architects, and folks who provide concrete, glass, and more. These are ordinary folks just like you and me who are deriving economic benefit from the presence of arts and culture in the community.

Arts and cultural activities act as a powerful magnet, drawing millions of attendees who spend thousands of dollars in our community above and beyond the actual cost of their tickets. These expenditures can include eating in restaurants, shopping, transportation costs, child care, and overnight accommodations. In total, nonprofit arts audiences in Washtenaw County generated $49.5 million in expenditures related to their cultural experiences. 

One of the most dynamic examples of the tourism appeal of the arts locally is the University Musical Society-sponsored residency of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in 2006. When the RSC performed its cycle of Shakespearian plays, nearly 27,000 seats were filled for 21 regular performances, with audience members hailing from at least 39 states and four countries.  In addition, media coverage extended awareness of our community as RSC articles appeared in the Chicago Tribune, NWA World Traveler, and Toronto’s National Post, among other outlets. 

I hope this gives you a little more understanding about the role arts and culture play here. Next time, I’ll tell you a little about how arts and culture can help our kids lead better lives in the 21st century. 

Post No 1: What I Know

I head up the Arts Alliance, a service organization that’s working to create an environment in Washtenaw County where culture and creativity can flourish and the arts are accessible to all.  That means that I eat, sleep and breathe arts, culture, and heritage – which as far as I’m concerned, is about as wonderful a life as one could want.

So, to start this blog for Concentrate (thank you so much for the opportunity!), I thought I’d share with you a little of what we know about arts, culture and heritage in Washtenaw County; what we don’t know, and where I (and others like me who think about these things) think this lively, exciting and fragile sector is headed.

Washtenaw County is simply loaded with cultural opportunities. There are the major ones that everyone is aware of: the Ann Arbor Art Fairs, which love ‘em or hate ‘em, bring in about a half-million visitors every year, and the internationally acclaimed presentations of the University Musical Society, which offers programs you literally can’t see anywhere else.

But perhaps you’re less familiar with the Riverfolk Festival that takes place the first weekend of August in Manchester. (Maybe you’re not even familiar with Manchester. It’s a little community way on the southwestern corner of Washtenaw County, so small it doesn’t even have a traffic light and it likes it like that, thank you very much). The Riverfolk Festival is 2-day, multi-stage event that brings in some truly amazing performers and presents them in a lovely village park.  The performers range from witty folk singers who  wonder why some folks seem to know so much about what’s on God’s mind to rockin’ Cajun groups that will get you up and on the dance floor the organizers lay out before you can say “jumbo!”  There’s an arts and crafts area for those who want to shop, a healthy kids activity area where young ‘uns and their parents can have fun and learn about healthy habits painlessly, and of course, food. My favorite is the fellow who sells home-made root beer (when’s the last time you had a root beer float?), followed closely by the treats cooked up by the nice ladies at one of the local churches. I like to think of this festival as what happens when a sophisticated musical programmer meets small-town America.

Oh, and did I mention that you can listen to the great music, drink your root beer float, and look up at a zillion stars in the sky because there’s no extra street lights to obscure them?  Visit their web site
and you can see more. Definitely worthy marking your calendar for next year!

And what about the Art on the Farm Festival, that will be coming October 26 in Dexter?  Last year, this art show and sale took place on the finest Fall day you could imagine:  blue skies, a crisp, crunch in the air, and just cool enough to need a sweater but warm enough to still feel comfortable. The event literally takes place in two barns on a farm set alongside an old apple orchard. 

So, imagine yourself driving out on the back roads to Dexter on a lovely Fall day. You pass under the railroad bridge, go a little farther, and suddenly spy a number of cars parked alongside a barn and on the road. Walk up to the barn. There’s a banjo group playing and some small children and running/dancing to the music. Parents are chatting and listening to the music. Walk into the barn. Discover a panoply of artists, with their wares set out for you to explore: jewelry, knitted items, paintings, assemblages, photographs, wrought iron, glass, book arts. It’s a bit like discovering the best of the Art Fairs in a charming, rural setting.

There’s lots, lots more I could (and will!) tell you about -- these are two just of my favorites that I think are undiscovered gems in this community we call Washtenaw County.