How Dearborn is investing in arts as an economic driver

For years, EmmaJean Woodyard says her efforts to spread awareness of Dearborn's arts scene felt "like a voice crying in the dark." But lately, her crusade is feeling a lot less lonely.


Woodyard, the executive director of the Dearborn Community Fund (DCF) and past executive director of the Dearborn Community Arts Council (DCAC), says there's a new sense of energy and purpose around increasing visibility for Dearborn arts. She says one of the "key motivators" for that initiative is using the arts to drive overall economic growth in Dearborn.


Devon Akmon, director of the Arab American National Museum (AANM), describes a "weird version of a triple bottom line" that's starting to come into play when AANM and other Dearborn arts organizations plan new programming.


"For us it was: How does it benefit the museum? How does it benefit the patron? And then how do we kick resources back into the community?" he says.


Ralph Valdez, executive director of the DCAC, says there's a growing sense that Dearborn could build upon its pre-existing resources to become a cultural destination along the lines of Ferndale, Royal Oak, or Birmingham.


"I think they all have had their struggles to find their footing as arts communities, and I think they've all done pretty well," Valdez says. "I think Dearborn's next."


More than just Ford


To realize the vision of becoming an arts destination, Dearborn has some awareness hurdles to overcome first. Akmon says public perception often casts Dearborn as being essentially synonymous with Ford Motor Company, and perception of Dearborn's cultural scene often begins and ends with the Henry Ford. But the city is also home to the AANM, the Dearborn Symphony Orchestra (DSO), numerous galleries, the Ford Community and Performing Arts Center, and much more.


"When you look at the cultural assets, Dearborn is immensely rich," Akmon says. "It's just that, for whatever reason, it's often overlooked."


Valdez suggests that Dearborn's "deeply blue-collar" ethos can make arts a harder sell than in some cities. He says he's heard some artists express feeling "undervalued" in Dearborn compared to other cities, and that Dearborn residents may be more reluctant to spend money on cultural events.


Valdez says Dearborn is in need of a self-image reassessment, but he already sees signs of that taking place.


"The city is getting away from seeing itself as whatever heritage or stereotypes Dearborn has as a suburban extension of Detroit," he says. "I feel like it's starting to happen that there's more and more awareness of the quality of creativity that comes out of Dearborn, that is separate from Detroit but is also connected in a special way."


New ways to engage


That's thanks to some new initiatives and more collaborative mentalities among Dearborn's arts organizations. The most recent example is a month-long community-wide celebration of arts called Arts Dearborn, which debuted in April. The DCF coordinated Arts Dearborn in partnership with numerous community cultural organizations including the AANM, DCAC, DSO, and more. Events throughout the month of April included a "Gallery Rally" encouraging locals to visit shows at nine different Dearborn galleries, numerous businesses hosting arts and artists, and the Ford center's annual Youth Arts Festival.


Woodyard says the inaugural Arts Dearborn was a "humble launch" for an event that she hopes to expand significantly in the years to come.


"We've got a lot (of cultural resources)," Woodyard says. "We need to let the world know, really. We'll start with our community and then hopefully the world will pick up on it."


In recent years the AANM has also been working to embed more of its programming into the Dearborn community beyond the four physical walls of the museum itself. The museum's successful "Yalla Eat!" program provides walking tours of Dearborn restaurants, offering an introduction to Arab-American cuisine and history. In addition to public tours, which draw visitors from within about an hour's drive of Dearborn, Akmon says the museum has also presented custom tours for corporate chefs seeking to further their product lines in Dearborn.


AANM has also expanded programming beyond Dearborn's city limits, partnering with the Cinetopia Film Festival to present its annual Arab Film Festival programming in Detroit and Ann Arbor venues. Akmon says all these efforts have been "wildly successful" in expanding the museum's audience and exposure.


"Much of the arts and culture we celebrate within the museum is taking place outside our door," he says. "It's living history, living culture. So the ability to provide immersive experiences for our constituency is ... not only beneficial for the museum and beneficial for those who are coming to participate in the programming. It's good for the community at large."


"A lot of untapped potential"


Another major recent development for Dearborn's arts scene was the opening last year of the City Hall Artspace Lofts, three former Dearborn municipal buildings that were converted into affordable housing dedicated for artists.


"That really signaled that as a community we recognize the importance of art, not only in our own community but as a tool of economic development," Woodyard says.


Many Artspace tenants are still just getting settled, but they're already showing an interest in actively contributing to Dearborn's economic growth through their work. Akmon says several Artspace artists have enrolled in classes at the AANM's Growth Center, which offers entrepreneur training classes. AANM staffers are currently in the process of engineering new classes specifically aimed at artists, with potential topics ranging from grant writing to mentorships with gallery owners.


"They're telling us, 'We need these resources to be more sustainable in our practice,'" Akmon says. "So in many ways, through the lens of the Growth Center ... we're looking to have direct economic impact on our immediate communities."


Carl Goines is one of those artists. Since 2004 Goines had worked primarily in Detroit, where he co-founded the nonprofit 555 Gallery and had lived since 2014. He says Artspace was the "number-one attraction" for him to move to Dearborn, and he has been a tenant there since last year.


Goines expresses strong interest in engaging with his new community, potentially through opening a new metalworking facility that could serve his own artistic needs while also offering facilities and education for other artists. He's taken Growth Center classes to start figuring out how to realize that concept.


"I'm an artist and I've been running a nonprofit, but my skills in developing business plans and various aspects of what we're doing can certainly be strengthened," he says.


Goines summarizes the thoughts of many stakeholders in Dearborn's arts scene when he assesses the road ahead for Dearborn artists to begin creating a significant economic impact in their city.


"I think there's a lot of untapped potential still and a lot of things that take the time to lay the groundwork for," he says. "A lot of that has been done and now it's about trying to put things in motion and network and make connections between businesses and the community."


Read more articles by Patrick Dunn.

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere
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