An out-of-gallery experience: How arts organizations are rethinking community engagement

Artist, curator, and arts programmer Joe Levickas sometimes jokes about how most gallery shows go — lots of work up front, one big opening night, and then a "month of quiet." And you don't talk about the art at the opening; congratulate the artist and keep socializing.

But for Levickas, exhibiting in the Ann Arbor Art Center's first POP-X pop-up art festival in Ann Arbor's Liberty Plaza last October was different. Levickas contributed "Dinner Guests," a collection of drawings by 50 artists. As Levickas visited throughout the weeklong fest to see how it held up, there were always people checking it out, and they always wanted to talk.

"What was interesting to me was that everybody had a different favorite, or [on] different days, people would respond to something different," Levickas says.

Event organizers hope to bring that out-of-gallery experience back to Liberty Plaza this week, when POP-X returns for an expanded 10-day festival. While the focus is on creating community, the event has also helped raise the Art Center's profile as a resource to area artists and art enthusiasts.

But POP-X isn't alone. The Art Center's efforts echo a concerted push by area arts professionals and community organizers to reach beyond the scene to find new audiences, eliminate barriers to culture, and show off what Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti have to offer.

More art, more engagement, more visibility
In simple terms, the Art Center is a sort of one-stop shop for cultural transactions. The 107-year-old institution's Liberty Street home features a first-floor store, second-floor rotating gallery, and third-floor studio classrooms.

But recent efforts to step out into the community and collaborate are yielding some fruitful results. The Art Center is playing a lead role in selecting public art for a City of Ann Arbor construction project along Stadium Boulevard, as well as exploring the creation of an Ann Arbor arts district with other arts groups and community leaders. And then there's POP-X, which successfully debuted last year.

"It was about just this sense of more: more art, more engagement of artists, more visibility for the Art Center and the work we were doing and have the capacity to do," says Omari Rush, director of community engagement at the Art Center.

Set up in pop-up pavilions in Liberty Plaza, POP-X highlights artists new to the Art Center and has also helped the center build new relationships with local musicians, performers, business owners, and government offices.

The goal was to make it clear what kind of resource the Art Center could be to the community, Rush says, as well as a "vehicle that shows off Ann Arbor to the world."

Post-show reviews and evaluations last year showed people got the idea of creating an inviting space, adding some temporary excitement downtown, and stimulating the local economy. Art Center president and CEO Marie Klopf says the debut festival surpassed all expectations.

"It's sparked all these connections and this visibility that has joined the variety of other things we're doing within the organization on a day-to-day basis," Rush says.

Thanks in part to that visibility, the Art Center has seen an increase in activity, including demand for classes, which has gone up by as much as 25 percent in the last few years. As a result, renovation and expansion plans are in the works to add much-needed classroom space.

Klopf says the Art Center has always done well with seniors and youth. But she says Rush's efforts to collaborate with the Neutral Zone teen center and develop programming like POP-X have brought in a new audience of teenagers and 30-somethings.

Building bridges
Across US-23, a volunteer group of artists and organizers has been using monthly art walks to help spur community and commerce in downtown Ypsilanti for almost three years.

Kayj Michelle, president of First Fridays Ypsilanti, says the effort started taking shape in October 2013, with a core group of artists looking for places to show their work. Michelle, the only Ypsi native of the bunch, stepped up to lead the group and steer it toward stimulating the local economy and generating foot traffic.

Partnering with local businesses, Michelle and a team of seven volunteers coordinate monthly events with participating venues and produce a map for self-guided tours. Recent First Fridays have featured more than 20 venues, with many hosting music, tastings, live painting, and other events as well as art.

In addition to generating business, Michelle sees First Fridays as a way to bring together disconnected areas of her hometown. Michelle hopes to strengthen bonds between the overall city of Ypsilanti and EMU's campus, between downtown and Depot Town, and between the regions north and south of Michigan Avenue.

"I'm using First Fridays to hopefully be part of the solution of building bridges to all those different parts of the community and celebrate Ypsi heritage," she says.

The group's work has gotten the attention of Ypsi's Downtown Development Authority and Riverside Arts Center, which have both partnered in the effort.

Will Hathaway, executive director of Riverside Arts Center, says the proof of First Fridays' success so far is in its longevity and ability to draw attendees from around the city.

"The folks who are doing the work of leading First Fridays bring an infectious enthusiasm," Hathaway says. "They are all about having fun, but very serious about building something that is sustainable in the long run."

Not about the art
In his day job as program director at University of Michigan (U-M) arts-engagement organization Arts at Michigan, Levickas notes an obvious parallel to POP-X and First Fridays.

"It really isn't about the art in some ways, it's about the community or it's about the individual," Levickas says. "It's about the interaction with the art."

That's a different sensibility than the one Levickas encountered in the New York art scene while working toward his Master of Fine Arts degree.

"They had plenty of people and they were making plenty of money, and unless you had money to give, they weren't really interested in you engaging with it," he says.

Each year Arts at Michigan gives away thousands of ticket vouchers to students for cultural events on and off campus as part of its successful Passport to the Arts program. Earlier this month, the organization welcomed 3,000 incoming freshmen to the U-M Museum of Art for Artscapade, an evening of art-making, live music, dance, games, and prizes. The idea is to get students in the building once, so maybe they'll see something worth coming back for.

Citing a popular Michigan Theater screening of R. Kelly's "Trapped in the Closet" video saga as an example, Levickas says if arts organizations want to attract new art enthusiasts, particularly students, they need to meet them where they're at.

Broadening multiple horizons
More than a few burgeoning art enthusiasts stopped by the Ann Arbor Skatepark on a Sunday afternoon earlier this month as the University Musical Society (UMS) hosted its highly unconventional season-opening show.

"Falling Up and Getting Down," a collaboration between UMS, Friends of the Ann Arbor Skatepark, and Ann Arbor Parks and Recreation, featured professional skateboarders skating to live jazz and DJ sets on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

Mark Jacobson, senior programming manager at UMS, says the arts organization wanted to give back to the community and align the event with the city parks' mission by making it free and open to the public.

"We didn't want there to be any barriers of access," he says.

The event attracted some attendees who weren't exactly Hill Auditorium regulars. Although the event was free, 3,000 individuals pre-registered for it online. Of those who completed a pre-registration survey, about 55 percent claimed not to have attended a UMS event in the last five years.

However, branching out into new venues doesn't just bring fresh eyes to the arts. It also broadens dedicated arts aficionados' horizons by exposing them to new corners of their own communities. Leading up to "Falling Up and Getting Down," Jacobson says he was so focused on introducing skateboarders and community members to live music and improvisation that he was pleasantly surprised by how many people were actually being introduced to the skatepark itself for the first time.

"I really think it was half and half, and I'm proud of that fact," Jacobson says. 

Eric Gallippo is a freelance writer based in Ypsilanti.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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