Arts Council 101 – GFAC History I

Greetings! As you may have read, GFAC has been involved for the past few years in a development project called the BEST Funding Collaborative. BEST stands for Building Equity Sustainability and Trust. The BEST program is funded by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the Ruth Mott Foundation, the Community Foundation of Greater Flint and the United Way. The goal of the BEST project is to build the capacity of participating organizations and position them for growth. GFAC was the only arts organization in the pilot group of BEST. Over the past three years BEST has assisted us in evaluating ourselves, getting the evaluations of others, improving our technology, strategic planning and most recently assessing our capacity to grow. One of the recurring themes from our research is that most people know that GFAC exists and have a high opinion of us, however they don’t really know all that we do and they don’t understand our mission.

Many talks with members of the GFAC staff have lead to the creation of this column which I will write for the next six months or so. We want our membership to be well informed about GFAC. And we want you to be able to talk about us to others. We want you to be our ambassadors to the community. The only way you can help us with this is to be schooled in artscouncilology. Well, everyone is making up new words these days so I may as well join in the fun.

Understanding an organization begins with learning where it started. This first article is an almost accurate brief history of the beginning years of Greater Flint Arts Council. If you can fill in some of the missing history, or if we are not entirely accurate, please send a letter. Let the story begin. Once upon a time, in a land not far from here…

Arts Council: A service agency established to foster the health and growth of arts and cultural programming within their defined service area.

Prior to his death in 1963, President John F. Kennedy laid the ground work for a national agency which would foster the growth of arts and cultural programs throughout the United States. Tragically, President Kennedy did not live to see his dream fulfilled. Posthumously and in his honor, Congress founded the National Endowment for the Arts. Within a couple years individual states responded with the establishment of state arts councils and in 1965 Michigan opened the Michigan Council for the Arts. Soon after, local municipalities responded by forming local arts councils. There were local arts council movements prior to the 1960’s, however the 1960’s movement was the strongest and most of the arts councils in Michigan were founded in the late 1960’s.

The City of Flint was soon to follow when a local group of citizens established Greater Flint Arts Council, incorporated on October 11, 1967. Among them were Forest Alter, Ruth E. Steffe, Ronald H. Tali, Werner Graf, Helen Hardy Brown and Arthur H. Sarvis who all signed the charter and became the first GFAC board of trustees. Ruth E. Steffe is listed as the first Resident Agent. We assume she was also the first GFAC Board President. Assets were listed as $100 cash. With a mission of “the coordination, education, promotion and development of cultural activities in the City of Flint, Genesee County and surrounding areas,” they met in private homes and buildings operated by Flint Community Schools. The first registered office of GFAC is recorded in 1973 as 803 Citizens Bank Building. We assume it was the business office of GFAC President, Mourice D. Frost. In 1977 their office was listed as 924 East Sixth Street presumably the business office of then President, Ann Elgood. Shirley McNally became GFAC President in 1980. In 1984 Jack LeSage became president.

In the mid 1970’s Greater Flint Arts Council hired their first Director, Lynne Smith who continued on to become the Director of the Michigan Association of Community Arts Agencies (MACAA). She was succeeded by Sarah Warner who helped GFAC open their first store front gallery at 420 S. Saginaw Street, the former home of Roberts David Allan clothing store. It was during this time in the early to mid 1980’s when GFAC entered into some extensive long range strategic planning. We produced two conferences in 1981 and again in 1985 called “Where’s Art?.” It was during the Where’s Art Conferences that our current mission was forged…”to be a catalyst of and advocate for increased artistic and cultural enrichment of our ethnically diverse community.” GFAC would focus our energies on community cultural assessment, cultural diversity, communications, advocacy, arts education, technical assistance, funding and exhibitions. An involved group of artists converged at GFAC at this time and many new projects were seen including BRIX magazine, post cards, coloring books, cultural directories and an artist directory. Also at this time other agencies began to incubate from within the membership and the Buckham Alley Theater and Buckham Gallery were conceived. Sarah Warner was hired as Development Manager for the Flint Institute of Arts and Jan Murdock succeeded Sarah as Executive Director of GFAC in 1990. The Arts Council was moved to a storefront space in the Capitol Theater Building, 130 E. Second Street. Formerly the development professional for GFAC, Jan began many innovative new programs including Regional Regranting, ARTSHARE, City Arts Team and Alley Oop, a summer festival in Brush Alley. Jan Murdock took a position with the Flint Community Schools in 1993 and the search for a new director began.

Keep an eye out for the June issue of Where’s Art where the GFAC story will continue…

Greg Fiedler