A more equitable art scene in Macomb CountyQ&A with Phil Gilchrist: Nonprofit Journal Project

Phil Gilchrist is the executive director of Anton Art Center, a community arts organization located in Mount Clemens.

What is the IDEA Council? When did it start and what does it stand for?

The IDEA Council was launched by Anton Art Center in the fall of 2020. IDEA stands for Inclusivity, Diversity, Equity, and Access.

What sparked the creation of the council?

Anton Art Center is a longstanding, relatively small, arts organization in downtown Mount Clemens. We had a similar culture and atmosphere to many small arts organizations in that we were pretty insular. A smallish group of folks were involved, and it wasn't a very open organization.

In 2020, on the heels of the uprisings across the country, in the wake of the death of George Floyd, we thought it pertinent to investigate where we were as an organization when it comes to racial justice and being a welcoming and inclusive organization. How were we representing our community and including them at the table when we're talking about arts programming that's intended to benefit everyone? And so, we established our IDEA Council in response to those questions.

Who is part of the IDEA Council and what did you hope to achieve by forming it?

The initial foray was a group of about 24 people of color from Mount Clemens and Macomb County. It was an opportunity for us to convene this group of people who knew our work, were familiar with us, and were willing to engage in conversation about where we're headed.

Two primary things came out of the council’s first year of engagement with us: A solid list of recommendations to our board of trustees for concrete, tangible things to do to become a more welcoming organization and a call for a public artwork to represent communities of color, both in terms of the artists who created the work and the content.

The public artwork was installed in October. What was the process leading up to that?

We took a thoughtful approach to commissioning this artwork. We didn't want to just throw something on the side of our building and say, "Here you go." We engaged members of the community in talking about their experiences and uncovering what their lived experience has been with Anton Art Center and arts generally in this area. What we heard from the community is that there's this great movement of public art here in Macomb County, but there's not a lot of representation of people of color.

We learned a lot through that process. The series of community conversations that we held fed into the creation of this monumental mural piece now that we have on the exterior of our building. The mural was created by an artist named Jay Hero. He is a Mount Clemen's native, though he doesn't currently live in the city, and poet jessica Care moore. They collaborated to create this mural with an accompanying poem that represents and acknowledges the history of people of color here in Mount Clemens, in Macomb County, and represents it in a way that other public artworks here definitely don’t.
The artists, Jay Hero and jessica Care moore, and attendees at the mural's celebration on December 8
What happened with the list of recommendations from the council?

We're working to achieve some of the initial list. It will take us time. It involves rewriting job descriptions to include measures of inclusivity and really codifying some of those things into the core of who we are – the operating mechanisms that underpin our entire organization.

For example, the council recommended hiring a position dedicated to bolstering diversity and moving our organization in the direction of being more inclusive. Because we're a small outfit, the challenge is trying to figure out how we can achieve some of these recommendations in meaningful and transformative ways with limited resources.

I'm proud to say that we've definitely made significant strides in being a more inclusive organization, and that has started both from the top and bottom.

At the top level, our board of trustees is the most diverse it's ever been. We've got a little more than 40 percent non-white board members, and that includes members of the Black community, members of the Asian community, some who identify as Hispanic or Latino, and from the Arab-American community. From the board level, we're making a concerted effort to recruit people of color who have an interest in the arts and who are qualified in terms of being good board members and can help to elevate the organization.

From the frontline program aspect, we are being conscious about who we're including and who is helping us to bring things to fruition, both at the planning table but also as participants, and who we're asking to provide feedback and insight into what we're doing to help us better the programs that are serving our community.

This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change, and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.