Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
The artists, musicians, and actors who make up Battle Creek’s creatives will have greater access to the resources they need to grow their crafts and careers through the Arts and Culture Collaborative of Battle Creek that launches this month.
Vania Word, Executive Director of the ACCBC, says the organization will create a pipeline to support the city’s creative professionals, something that is long overdue.
“We are artists. We have lived the struggle of art not seen as an economic driver, but as a hobby,” says Word, a co-founder of the Blvcksheep Music Labe
l. “The reality is that without creative careers a city will fail. If you’re building anything you have to consult an artist. The idea with the collaborative is to collectively get together and build resources people can tap into.”
As an example, she says, “When the Art Center of Battle Creek wants to have a certain event, we could talk with them and help them reach the demographic they’re trying to reach or promoting events with 'What A Do Theatre,' there is a gap there.”
The ACCBC was established to provide support to any arts organization or creative in the community with a focus on developing opportunities for historically marginalized people -- those artists, creators, and entrepreneurs that identify as disabled, Black, Indigenous, or Persons of Color; those who identify as LGBTQIA+; and those who are ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Restrained, Employed) or living below the poverty level, says a press release from the ACCBC.
“We have large institutions that handle ridiculously large amounts of money to do large projects,” Word says. “We also need a small entity like ours so if you want to plant flowers in your park and need funds to do that, we can help you find those resources. Available grants in the community right now have a lot of red tape. We’re saying, ‘Let’s make this process a little more simple and see what happens when you give people what they need.'”
Teaira Gray, a local graphic artist, says she is excited.
“There are so many great ideas buzzing around within the group that is creating this,” she says in a press release about the ACCBC. Her collaborator Duncan Holmes says that “the ACC will give artists a space to work. Outside of people who go to school, not everyone has a space or environment to create/work. Just like how a basketball player needs a gym, artists need a studio.”
The Arts Collaborative will be headquartered inside First Congregational Church which is in the midst of re-imagining its building management model and transitioning to a cooperative management model, says Jaimie Fales-Brown, FCC Executive Director. They say the ACCBC will be one of the members of the cooperative building management along with other individuals and organizations. As the Collective gets up and running, Fales says meetings about the co-op are also taking place.
“We're in a position where we’re dealing with changes that are impacting so many religious institutions across the country and we’re having to be creative and work with our mission, vision, and values,” says FCC Pastor Nate Craddock of housing the ACCBC. “Supporting the arts and opportunities for young creatives who are historically underrepresented parts of our population represents our commitment to justice, especially young black artists from our city..”
Battle Creek artists gathered in 2022 to brainstorm about and plan the new collaborative.
Craddock says it’s not just about letting someone use their space, but about entering "into a partnership with collectives of artists working with artists and creators to serve underserved groups.” He says this is a visible example of embodying God’s love to provide resources and opportunities for people “in our walk of faith.”
Being an incubator for new things is not new for FCC, Craddock says. Since the church’s founding in 1836, it has served as the first home of the Battle Creek Symphony Orchestra and also had the city’s first library, among other firsts.
“We’ve had a pioneer spirit since the beginning of our existence,” Craddock says. “We’re moving from being a downtown fixture and the country club-type of setting that was still around during the early 2000s into being more of this adventurous, pioneering, and experimental type of community. Our faith calls us to bring into being new things. We are finding ways to use our resources and stewarding them for our congregation and the betterment of the entire Battle Creek community.”
The relationship between FCC and Blvcksheep began in 2017 when the church’s former pastor, Tom Ryberg, who was the pianist for Minor Element
, a local jazz fusion band that’s part of Blvcksheep, asked Fales if they could use the church for Sunday evening rehearsals.
“We were in the process of transforming our space into a community hub that allowed them to use the Rehearsal Room which enabled them to come and go as they needed,” Fales says. “This is unique for a lot of churches, but that’s part of our radical hospitality to give groups like them access that may not be available elsewhere.”
They say radical hospitality is built on a foundation of solidarity, not condescension as a foundation for building trusted relationships with institutions. Fales says that Minor Element has taken ownership of the space and is a good partner.
“(Minor Element) operated here for several years and eventually Blvcksheep and other artists started using our spaces. It just made sense for the Collective to get started here,” Fales says. “We need them as much as they need us.”
The music industry was one of the hardest hit when the pandemic forced the cancellation of income-generating gigs, shows, events, and tours, says James McGee, a local rapper who goes by The Allah.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, the arts and culture industry contributes $878 billion to our national economy, employing over 5 million people, and arts and culture revenue is 4.5% of the total GDP. However, during the pandemic, live performance employment dropped 38% and music sector employment dropped 42% nationally, according to the Department of Labor. Despite a nearly decade-long call for the creation of a ‘culture of vitality’ to help usher in more traditional economic growth and attract workers to the region, local funding priorities have shifted away from prioritizing art and culture programming, leaving a void.
“Covid magnified the [issues] we already had going on,” McGee says. “It became more critical than ever for musicians to find ways to diversify, using online platforms, and to explore new revenue models and investment tools to rebuild with a sense of sustainability following the shutdown.”
As McGee and his fellow local artists were exploring new paths toward sustainability, Word applied for and received American Rescue Plan (ARPA) emergency grant funding by making a case that the arts economy had been devastated in the pandemic, and needed financial help to recover and build the resilience of Battle Creek’s music, culture, and night-time economy. The ACCBC received almost $350,000 from an $8 million pool of ARPA funds the city had set aside to assist with community-based projects
In the ARPA application, Word proposed to both support a sector that has been adversely impacted, but also one that offers unmatched opportunities to create jobs, drive revenue, attract and retain talent and support all residents in an ethical, diverse, and inclusive manner.
“What we need to do now is ensure that creatives and artists are seen as change makers and leaders and give them the opportunity to create opportunities unabashedly,” she says.
Among the additional resources the ACCBC will have available to its members to create these opportunities is a library of art equipment and software. There also will be a curated online job board that will match local organizations and businesses with graphic designers, event planners, and other creatives, something that Word says is among the best tools to support artists.
“The ACCBC will have those who truly care about bringing something new to Battle Creek and helping each other by offering a space to create, give/get advice, and so much more. I think it will grow to be a staple of our community and help make a huge impact on Battle Creek,” Gray says in the press release.
There are 31 dedicated arts councils in cities throughout Michigan, including Cadillac, Holland, and Kalamazoo
. Word says the main mission of these entities is to support the ongoing work of arts and culture organizations in their communities and ensure the continuation of events and programs created by these arts and culture groups.
Ideas were generated for the new artists' collaborative at a gathering in 2022.
“To me, it’s very visible from the standpoint of someone who lives here and is a creative person that there is a lack of industry surrounding arts and culture,” she says. “We have tons of artists here who need space to create.”
The business of collaborating and creating
Conversations about the ACCBC began five or six years between a group of creatives in Battle Creek and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Word says officials with the WKKF asked the group to put a plan together to see where the idea would go from there.
The WKKF awarded the Collaborative a one-year grant totaling $145,000. A portion of these funds was used to cover the cost of working with Sound Diplomacy
, a global research and strategy consultancy, committed to building and supporting sustainable ecosystems that bring economic development to people, places, and cities.
Sound Diplomacy’s work includes taking a deep dive into the Battle Creek community and identifying opportunities to fill gaps, says Jamie Schriner, Program Officer with the WKKF. She says the grant also will be used to provide technical assistance, mentoring, networking, and collaborative opportunities and pull underground groups and all of the pieces together and provide a space for that work.
The ACCBC’s first collaboration since launching is alongside Color the Creek and the Art Center of Battle Creek. The three organizations have come together to support the launch of Que Calor
(What's Hot?), a quarterly art mentorship/gallery series aimed at introducing the community to featured artists in the industry while also giving local artists a platform to exhibit alongside and learn from, the featured artist.
Que Calor was created by Café Rica owners Tristan and Jackson Bredehoft who have made an intentional effort to display works by local artists on the walls of their business in downtown Battle Creek.
The first installment of Que Calor is scheduled to take place from 8 to 10 p.m. on Saturday (April 15) inside Café Rica with featured artist Haley Scott
, whose stage name is Sugar Milk.
The Collaborative will also work with Blvcksheep and Battle Creek Public Schools to introduce students to the Arts as a career path through the “Art Bash” event. The day of interaction will feature Battle Creek professionals demonstrating theater, painting, several types of music, and graphic design.
There will also be ACCBC open houses throughout 2023 encouraging artists and creatives to interact to build collaboration in Battle Creek.
“Knowing other artists, especially locally, is important because... for me, some of the best art that I've created and the best art that I've witnessed and experienced came from a collaborative process,” says Jaz Bolar, an area hip-hot artist, in a press release.
“Battle Creek has a very strong arts community, but it’s mostly underground,” Schriner says. “My work is focused on community economic development and really trying to lift up all of the incredible opportunities in Battle Creek. We know we need a strong school system and small business community, but we also need interesting places where people want to be. We’re really trying to create interesting and exciting places for people of all ages, backgrounds, and demographics in Battle Creek.”
By supporting the ACCBC, Schriner says the WKKF is supporting “groups of Battle Creek folks and artists coming together. This creates a mechanism to support artists who are small business owners. Overall, we are just trying to make Battle Creek a wonderful place for all of its residents.”
The work of the Collective complements the elements of a comprehensive plan for Battle Creek developed by the WKKF along with consultants which identified placemaking as among the areas of focus, Schriner says.
Battle Creek artists gathered in 2022 to brainstorm about and plan the new collaborative.
Critical to this placemaking is the infrastructure component to “remedy years and years of a lack of support for our arts organizations,” Word says. “Arts and culture organizations and events need more support. A lot of people talk about the fact that people leave Battle Creek because they don’t feel like there’s a lot here for them. We have to be OK with letting people leave, but while we are here let’s create a culture of vitality while someone is here.”
In addition to working with new creatives and organizations that support their work, Word says the ACCBC also will work with existing entities already doing that work.
“This is more of a callout to our community,” she says. “There are a lot of awesome things already happening but the pathway to get to funding and resources is a long and arduous one.”
The ACCBC will have resources available to artists who may need help writing a grant to get funding. This could involve working with a writer to collaborate on a grant.
“This whole project is just a massive collaboration,” Word says. “We all have strengths and weaknesses but we can work together and more easily put on events. There are a lot of people putting on events and doing things for the community, but they’re not being paid for what they do. We are creatives and we understand how to problem solve in a natural and organic way.”
Efforts like those being undertaken by the ACCBC will put the decision-making power back into the hands of the community and its creatives who make decisions together, Schriner says.
“I don’t know what artists need to move forward,” Schriner says. “I do know that artists can’t make a mortgage payment or put food on the table with exposure alone. The ACCBC is operating within our parameters on how best to support the community. Instead of me picking and choosing events to fund, they will have that ability and will be making those choices. I shouldn’t be making decisions on behalf of artists.”
Word says the ACCBC will have an advisory board made up of creatives who will offer ideas about the direction of the organization, how it should position itself in the community, and the projects it should be working on.
“This is a first stab. We’re just scratching the surface on the art side of things,” she says. “We will grow it and master it to the point that it becomes a community staple and add on after that. This is all about how we play the role of connector and connect people who have a passion to create to people who need that.”