Arts Council 101 – GFAC History III

Arts Council: A service agency established to foster the health and growth of arts and cultural programming within their defined service area. All disciplines of the arts are included: Music, Dance, Literature, Theater and Visual Arts.

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 began in the May 2006 issue and will appear for the next six months to a year. 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. The first article, in the May 2006 issue, was an almost accurate brief history of the beginning years of Greater Flint Arts Council. The second part of the story published in the June issue began the recent history and is the part I know the most about as it includes the years I have been employed here. This third installment will continue with recent history and a project that profoundly changed GFAC’s future. If you can fill in some of the missing history, or if we are not entirely accurate, please send a letter or email. Let the story continue…and the mama bear said: “someone has been eating my porridge.”…

In 1994 and 1995, GFAC continued to expand on existing programming. The Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs began an expansion of the Regional Regranting Program in which GFAC was the representative for Lapeer, Shiawassee and Genesee Counties. We were also providing much needed physical improvements to art spaces by representing the City of Flint as a re-granter for the State Equity Program. One example which comes to mind were the building of an actors dressing room and lobby improvements at the Buckham Alley Theater.

At this time GFAC was in the final stages of strategic planning and board development. Some of the key issues which were being discussed were the forming of a Public Relations and Marketing Committee as a standing committee of the Board and expansion of GFAC’s physical space. Unknown to us at that time, fate would soon be kind to us through an unfortunate disaster at a local downtown business.

One of the issues discussed through the strategic planning process was that GFAC did not have sufficient multi-purpose space to implement existing programs. We also needed office space where personnel could work without distraction. We could not afford market rates for rent. We had almost no assets and no cash reserve.

In the spring of 1995 a fire broke out in the Peerless Furniture Store at 816 S. Saginaw Street. The Peerless Store occupied two buildings side by side. One of the buildings burned to the ground. The remaining building had a mural painted on the side of it which was cherished by generations of local citizens, the Vernors Mural. In September of 1995, the Peerless Company announced its intentions to build a new store in the fashionable shopping district in Flint Township. The building on Saginaw Street would be demolished. Lost would be the famous Vernors Mural painted by local artist, John Gonsowski in 1932. The GFAC Urban Walls Committee had the mural restored in 1979 using Mr. Gonsowski as a consultant. After several weeks of community outcries to save the mural on the side of the building GFAC called a town hall meeting to measure community support and to dialogue about possible solutions. More than eighty people attended the town hall meeting and all those present committed to serve. It was decided unanimously that the best way to save the Vernors Mural would be to purchase the building and make it the permanent home of the Greater Flint Arts Council.

With strong community support, GFAC began a campaign to “save the Gnomes’ home.” We approached the owners of the building and entered into an agreement to raise the full purchase price by March of 1996. Committee members raised half of the funding and the other half was given as a match from the Cadbury Beverage Company, the distributors of Vernors products. Then came the big question: “Where would a small non-profit with no assets find more than $300,000 for building renovations?” We put the Gnomes to work and they began to unravel a plan which would lead us to success.

We discovered a program offered by HUD through the City of Flint called the Community Block Development Program (CDBG). In order to gain a CDBG award, we would have to convince a group called the City Wide Advisory Council (CWAC) that our project would greatly improve the lives of community residents. To our delight, the CWAC, the Mayor of Flint, Woodrow Stanley and the Flint City Council lead by President, Scott Kincaid all agreed that GFAC could be a gem for the City of Flint with expanded facilities in the heart of downtown Flint. We were awarded nearly $200,000 over a three year period.

The year 1996 also yielded a great surprise on the state government level. The State of Michigan ended the year with a large surplus of funds and Governor John Engler awarded the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs (MCACA) ten million dollars for capital improvements to art spaces throughout the state of Michigan. Also to our delight, MCACA thought Flint could use an expanded arts council and they awarded $114,000 to GFAC.

To make a long construction story short, GFAC opened with 6,000 square feet of art space, offices and work space, to the public with a packed house of more than 400 visitors in March of 1998. A new era for GFAC had begun.

In the next issue of Where’s Art I will begin the story of how our new presence in the community began a wellspring of growth in GFAC programs, services and community participation.

Greg Fiedler