Art Counts In Washtenaw County

In Michigan, as in many parts of the country, there is a wide-spread perception that matters of arts and culture are superfluous; luxuries that are meant to be enjoyed by certain types of people at certain times and special occasions. Others, mostly artists and their patrons, bristle at this notion. To them, art is serious stuff, the expression of a culture or humanity itself. 

While art is certainly many things to many people and can be defined a million different ways, the one characteristic that is most frequently overlooked is that art, like anything else, is a business.

Indeed, arts and culture are vital components of the Washtenaw County economy, says Tamara Real, director of the Arts Alliance, a group that works to support and promote arts and culture in Washtenaw County. One of the greatest challenges facing the Arts Alliance is to create awareness among individuals and key funding agencies that arts and culture - and the people who make them possible - put very real money into the community's pocket by stimulating innovation and growth. It won't be a simple job.

Dwindling resources

In a faltering Michigan economy, cuts to arts and culture funding have been among the first and most dramatic. Despite mounting evidence that arts contribute to a community's economic development, the reductions continue. For instance, says Real, in 2002 the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs was reduced from 27 million dollars to 7.7 million dollars. At the time of that cut, the State of Michigan was ranked eighth in terms of grant money allocated to arts and culture. Yet when those grants were slashed, the slide began: Today, Michigan is ranked 50th for arts and cultural grants. While the full effects haven't yet  been felt  --the 2008 Creative Industries analysis by Americans for the Arts ranks Michigan eighth in the nation for art-related businesses-- there's clearly a disconnect between the success of arts and culture in Michigan and the state's perception of its importance. 

Arts count

The Arts Alliance hopes to form a picture of how the local population of artists is weathering these changes with its Washtenaw County Artists' Census, "Arts Count". According to Real, the census is a first step in a larger cultural plan project to strengthen arts and culture in the county. The hope is to create a strategy to dispel the idea that art is optional.

"The Arts Alliance hopes to provoke discussion," says Real. "We want people to realize the real-world implications of artists in our community. We want people to think about what Washtenaw County would be like with no artists - no music scene, no theater, no galleries."

"Do you think companies like Google would have come here if we didn't have these offerings?" she asks.

The Washtenaw census is no quickly cobbled-together project, says Real. Modeled after census predecessors developed at the University of Wisconsin, the Washtenaw incarnation was developed by a panel of local artists including choreographers, dancers, musicians, painters and sculptors. Available online or as a mail-in form at participating organizations like the Ann Arbor District Library , the confidential census contains only ten questions. It began on April 1 and will continue through May 17, with results and analysis slated for release in October 2008. 

A large hurdle to the success of such an endeavor is simply getting the word out. To do so the Arts Alliance partnered with many local organizations like the Chelsea Center for the Arts  and the Ann Arbor Arts Center to capitalize on their existing contacts in the community.

The census project's $200,000 tab was picked up by a number of agencies including the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation, the Washtenaw County Workforce Development, the Masco Foundation and the Ann Arbor Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Counting artists

Real hopes that the Washtenaw census will fill in gaps left by the U.S. Census of 2002 that reported a paltry few hundred artists in the entire state. In contrast to the meager 2002 numbers, the Arts Alliance census has, in just over one week, already gathered over 1000 digital replies from artists and enthusiasts.

The U.S. Census may have been inadequate with regard to artists, Real notes, because its questions focus on occupation and an individual's primary source of income. Many artists, of course, have not yet achieved viable income levels through their craft, and have other occupations.

Ann Arbor singer/songwriter Nadirah Saleem, of Fabulous Fantastic, is one such artist. Saleem came to Washtenaw County two years ago to complete her education and pursue her music career. Like many artists, she keeps a day job to support her: She has a career with the University of Michigan Ross School of Business and frequently models for a cabal of local artists. The 28-year old Saleem would like to stay in Washtenaw County to live, write and perform, yet like many of her creative peers, she struggles with the reduction in opportunities caused by reduced funding to arts and culture. She hopes that the census will result in more exposure and awareness of individual artists' needs.

"It would be great to circulate a questionnaire that explores how artists meet other artists, whether networking is important, and how the county can help facilitate networking or even mentoring of younger / newer artists," she says.
Saleem also points to ground-breaking projects like the Jackson Armory Arts Community, and says she and her colleagues would be more likely to succeed in if Washtenaw undertook similar support of individual artists' needs.

Tracking resources

"I look at these things in other areas that help support artist communities, and I realize we could be at risk of losing our artists," says Real, of the Arts Alliance. "Like any natural resource, if we don't support them, they'll disappear. They'll go to other communities." 

Neeta Delaney, President and CEO of ArtServe Michigan, hopes the Washtenaw census will galvanize other counties to follow suit with their own counts. Eventually, her organization hopes to coordinate the efforts of these local communities and "connect the dots," creating a state-wide artist database to help in advocacy of increased budgetary allocations by the state government. 

"Arts and culture in Michigan nurture the creativity we need in our entrepreneurs and innovators," says Delaney. "The arts are absolutely essential to catering to a desired standard of living."

The growing interest in the number of individual artists in Washtenaw county signifies the beginning of a shift: no longer are just larger organizations receiving credibility. Groups like the Arts Alliance hope to communicate to government funding agencies that art is indeed a bottom-line business sector that generates revenue and other advantages like attracting and retaining youth and talent. 

Real, of the Arts Alliance, feels that repeating the Washtenaw census every five years will help track the artistic community's economic and population fluctuations. With concrete numbers and the ability to identify trends, perhaps elected officials will start to take notice and eventually help to allocate more funds to arts and culture.

"The census will help everyone realize that artists are good for economic growth," says Real. "Artists create a dynamic vitality that attracts young, talented workers. We as a community need to preserve and create communities that those types of people want to live in. Artists create those types of environments." 

Leia Menlove is an Ann Arbor-based writer whose work has appeared in the Ann Arbor Business Review and Mind, Body & Soul Magazine.  This is her first story for Concentrate.


Tamara Real-Director of the Art Alliance-Main St. Ann Arbor

Valerie Mann-Saline Based Artist-Saline

Nadirah Saleem-Rocking Out Guitar Hero Style-Ypsilant

Nadirah Saleem-Ann Arbor Based Singer-Songwriter-Ypsilanti

Neeta Delaney-President and CEO of Artserve Michigan(Photo by Marvin Shaouni)

All Photos by Dave Lewinski

Dave Lewinski is Concentrate's Managing Photographer.  He recently got over his childhood fear of goats.

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