Q&A: New Ann Arbor Art Center executive director outlines inclusive vision for creative community

We sat down with Jenn Cornell Queen to talk about her priorities for the center and what needs she sees in the area's art community right now.
It's a new era for the Ann Arbor Art Center (A2AC).

Shortly after the major transition of moving A2AC's gallery to a more visible and accessible street-level space, A2AC President and CEO Marie Klopf ended her nearly 10-year tenure with the downtown arts institution. In December, the center announced its new executive director, Jenn Cornell Queen. Queen's name is likely familiar to many Ann Arborites through her previous role as senior vice president of marketing, communications, and events at Ann Arbor SPARK, her current role as an Ann Arbor City Council member, or her involvement with the Ecology Center, Main Street Area Association, Destination Ann Arbor, and Family Learning Institute.

As Queen settles into her new role, we sat down with her to talk about her priorities for the art center, how she plans to build on Klopf's legacy, and what needs she sees in the area's art community right now.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What is your vision for the Ann Arbor Art Center going forward?

A: To make use of the new gallery space, which is brand new to the organization. We're trying to pilot a play lab and see how that works. By inviting kids in and having family-centered activities, we want to get people in and make art more accessible.

This is a brand new space in Ann Arbor that we're not used to having. So really making people aware that it's here, it's accessible, and it's welcoming and inclusive is my prime focus for right now.
The Ann Arbor Art Center with the new gallery on the left.
We're really trying to tweak our programming too. We're doing a partnership with our neighbors next door at the Beer Grotto to do a pint and paint. We just piloted our very first one. People went and got a pint of beer, came back over here, and painted ceramics. It was a really fun night out and a really diverse group. 

We're also doing family evenings where you can come in with your kids and do an art class or make free art.  And we’re doing a date night too that can be with your spouse, your best friend, or whoever you want to spend the evening with.

We’re also looking at other partnership opportunities within our community.  We just had a meeting with all of the gallery operators in town. We sat in a circle in the gallery here with CultureVerse, UMMA, and Stamps Gallery and talked about what's going good, what are the challenges, what are the opportunities, and how can we all work together?
Q: What do you see as the Ann Arbor Art Center’s role in the community?

A: This is a place where you can come in to buy art, where you come to learn to make art, and it's a place where you can just come to experience art. 

Another focus is to continue to advance art in public, so it's publicly available and on display and in that way enriches the fabric of the community. The A2AC Alleys and Murals projects were spearheaded by the Art Center. 

Most people have interfaced with the art center through our classes. One of the cool things about the renovation is that we have availability for more classes. So if you haven't taken a class here, you should check it out.

Q: Where do you want to follow in Marie Klopf's footsteps and where do you want to blaze a new trail?

A: Marie did a really good job fundraising to get us to this place where we have a new gallery and all this space to do programming that is paid for. I need to do a really good job of making sure that people understand that the opportunity is here and to add classes that deliver really high-quality instruction. 

And I need to focus on fundraising for the future. She set up a really solid foundation with the [new] space and the renovation. But now making sure that the space is activated and achieving what the goals were for all of this, that's a huge departure.

Q: Working for a startup incubator [Ann Arbor SPARK] and an art center seem like very different jobs.  What similarities do they share?

A: I think a commitment to innovation. I think anybody in a leadership role at a small nonprofit needs to be willing to take risks and fail fast. There's no bad idea. Let's test it. And if it doesn't work, then we know for the future. Those are definitely shared qualities between startups and nonprofit organizations. 

Certainly the hustle to fundraise is an attribute that you learn. Also I think a mindfulness to doing things with partners, not having to go it alone. That's a huge lesson that successful entrepreneurs learn early on: if you try and go it alone, you're missing out on other voices that could be influential or educational and you're missing out on partnership opportunities. You don’t know what you don’t know, so you’ve got to ask.
The new gallery at the Ann Arbor Art Center.
I think one thing that I'm really proud of with my tenure at SPARK was getting community partners involved and growing A2Tech360 to the point it’s at. That took a lot of engagement and talking to people in the community to figure out what's missing, how can we collaborate, and how can we be additive to something that already exists in a way that's unique and compelling.

It's easy to forget because it's been a minute, but I was a startup. I started a gym, a completely untraditional gym at that. Having started a business, and understanding what it's like to balance the budget and to keep things lean and to find out how you can do less with more, is definitely the nonprofit spirit.

Q: What does the local art community need right now, and how can the center help provide that?

A: I think we're doing that in a certain way, bringing together our peers and sort of figuring out where the opportunities and challenges are. Having an eye on that collaboration and really being intentional about it is a role that we can play and do a really good job with. Also I think it's really important to make sure that we're not just bringing our peers together, but community partners and others as well. Ann Arbor, as small as it is, can be really siloed.

Doug Coombe is Concentrate's managing photographer and a local arts aficionado. He also curated the 2016 show "Ultimate Stars" at the Ann Arbor Art Center.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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