A body of art is a sum of a thousand twisting gears moving together in simultaneous harmony. Everything must be perfectly in order for the final piece to be complete. Among the most important gears in this elaborate machine are space (the location in which the art takes place), people to witness the art and, most of the time, funding for the art to be made. While the artists themselves are vital to fueling the art machine, arts administrators are the machine’s main source of power. Arts administrators provide the ammunition so the three important gears listed above can move easily side by side.
“It was thrilling. It was terrifying. And still is,” Literati Bookstore owner Mike Gustafson said about opening the store in downtown Ann Arbor. The venue is home to hundreds of books and monthly literature events. When I asked Gustafson if he found support in the Ann Arbor community now, years after he and his wife realized their dream of opening up an independent bookstore, he didn’t hesitate to praise the community.
“The wonderful thing about Ann Arbor is, we didn’t have to invent the ‘buy local’ wheel,” he said, “There was and is a very strong ‘buy local’ movement and culture here in Ann Arbor, and we are one little aspect of that. This community values local businesses and its independent mindset.” Although the community values local business, that doesn’t mean his work is easy by any means. “Every year, we have to reinvent ourselves internally — staffing, communication, our own roles as owners. But the original passion — to be a bookstore that helps people find books that can change lives — remains the same.” Gustafson’s impassioned attitude does not simply apply to booksellers and stores. It is this passion for the art itself that all arts administrators share.
During my interview with Mary Steffek Blaske, executive director of the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra, the passion she had for both the music and the administration behind the orchestra pulsated through the room. “You need to have both hats. A hat of a for-profit with the heart of a non-profit. You’re running a business,” she said. “It’s amazing to work with a spirit that wants to be creative and serving people that way. You need to have the mechanisms that want to make it happen. There are so many layers — we are all working together. Whether it’s the orchestra, the musicians on stage, the board and the audience. We have to be working together. The artists know that we can’t do it without them and we can’t do it without us either.”
Steffek Blaske smiled at me, her eyes glimmering with confidence in the seamless process of art creation. While her passion for the orchestra was riveting to witness, it also made me a bit melancholic. I hear of people going to football games all the time, but the phrase, “Want to go to the orchestra?” isn’t tossed around in nearly enough of my conversations. When I expressed this concern to her, she shook her head knowingly.
“Arts and culture in Washtenaw County fill up the Michigan Stadium more times in a season than the football does,” Steffek Blaske said. “We are hard-wired as human beings to make sounds, to make sounds together. Even if it’s sitting here at a coffee shop hearing the music, the voices. Going to a concert and watching this story happen with sound is beautiful. It’s something people don’t want to miss out on.”
However, bringing people in to witness the orchestra takes a certain type of strategic planning. Administratively, she explained to me that the orchestra tries to draw in people from every stage of life. They do this through niche programming. The orchestra puts on programming specifically meant for elementary, middle and high schoolers as well as concerts for the elderly and everywhere in between.
I asked her to delve further into her children’s programs, and her face lit up with joy. “It’s so important to have artistic education engagements. To give kids, who are like sponges, this gift, which they might have not been able to find on their own,” she said. “Exposing kids to artistic works at an early age has the potential to inspire them to create art of their own.”
And again, the balancing act of a fiery passion or a “non-profit heart” overcame Steffek Blaske. “It’s about humanity and making everybody have a chance to be their best selves,” she said. Soon enough, though, her “for-profit” hat was quickly donned. “And all this sounds great but, because of the way arts are structured, they need to be funded. That is why you need the organizational savvy of arts administrators,” she said. “How do you make the two circles, artist and administrator, intersect in a Venn diagram? This is real meaningful work. You need the board to be out there letting people know that what we do has value.”
Funding is a huge part of arts administration and the creation of arts in general. As much as we’d like to create everything our imagination can think of, a lot of this can only be done if we possess the proper funding.
Mary Cambruzzi, owner of Kerrytown store Found which features art made from recylced materials, told me about her attention to funding. “With a store this size, you have to have enough product turning over all the time in order to have the numbers work,” she said. Cambruzzis focus on the numbers allows Found to be successful. The store expands each year with new products and artisans.
Cambruzzi said it can be difficult to pursue artists and ideas because she is also trying to run the business. “At some point, I hit a stride about six or seven years into it … Where we were constantly evolving what we had, I had a good sense of what’s going to sell and what isn’t,” she said. Similar to the passion of the artists whose work she chooses to sell in her store, Cambruzzi holds a deep sense of passion for her work with administering arts. “With Found, you have a person you can count on to care about the stuff they’re putting in their space. I care about the stuff, whether it’s imported or from Ann Arbor, I care deeply about the stuff we put in our space,” she said.
Caring deeply is a common thread I found in all three of these arts administrators. Crunching numbers, publicizing and strategizing allow the deep care to be illuminated for all to see. Arts administration requires an individual who is quick on their toes and who has great personable skills. And most importantly, who cares deeply about the finished work. The gears of a piece of art are endlessly shifting and molding to fit into one another. It is under the oversight of arts administrators that these gears move smoothly in order to create a well-oiled final artistic machine.