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Inside Track: VanderHoff recognizes the value of collaboration
Grand Rapids Art Museum’s marketing director is helping transform the facility into city’s go-to site.
Kerri VanderHoff doesn’t like to work alone, and why would she when there are so many great people and organizations throughout Grand Rapids with whom she can collaborate?
VanderHoff said collaboration was one of the keys to her success as marketing and public relations director for the Grand Rapids Art Museum.
“It’s fun how everybody likes to work together here,” she said.
VanderHoff became the marketing and PR director for the museum in 2007, just a few months after the GRAM had relocated to its new home on Monroe Center next to Rosa Parks Circle. She helped to define the new facility’s identity, which included establishing an image as a collaborator and community partner.
“Collaborations are a little extra effort but the payoff is so great,” she said. “It really becomes a bigger part of the community and you get to work with some really interesting people.”
When asked, VanderHoff had a hard time narrowing down her favorite collaborations to just two because she said there have been so many good ones. However, when pressed, she chose GRAM on the Green, the annual holiday tree-lighting ceremony and Friday Night Conversations as highlights — yes, you counted right, that’s actually three.
“The tree-lighting ceremony — when we aligned that with the opening of Rosa Parks Circle, working with the parks and Downtown Alliance and many others — when we started to combine goals and missions, it just grew,” she said.
VanderHoff inherited responsibility for GRAM on the Green, another event she said just kept growing as more partnerships were added.
“I’d been collaborating with some of the members from the DDA and special events department, and we started a conversation about Friday nights and really pulling in the park, other activities and the retail environment,” she said.
The art museum had long held Friday Nights at GRAM, an after-hours social evening with live piano music, gallery talks and a cash bar held every Friday year-round. Starting in 2009, GRAM on the Green changed that indoor event to an expanded outdoor event during July and August.
Pretty soon the evening — a collaboration with Grand Rapids Parks & Recreation and the Downtown Alliance — included dancing in Rosa Parks Circle and a live band playing on the steps of the GRAM terrace, with people milling about, enjoying free activities such as a giant Jenga and sketching stations.
“It really brought the city to life, and it wouldn’t have grown into that without the collaborations from the city and really wonderful people who are interested in helping the city grow,” VanderHoff said.
Friday Night Conversations take place during a break in the music, and involve collaborations with local artists, poets, dancers and actors who perform.
“I believed art inspired art. … It’s really one big conversation,” VanderHoff said. “The goal is to open up the doors and be a catalyst for creative thinking and a platform, to some degree.”
VanderHoff was also responsible for Culture Pass GR — a program recognized with a national award from Americans for the Arts; Welcome Wreaths at the GRAM; the Michigan Film, Art & Literature Symposium; and a partnership with WOOD TV8 that involves broadcasting live at GRAM during ArtPrize.
She said looking at previous collaborations spearheaded by the GRAM gives some historical context for its newest collaboration: In January 2013, VanderHoff took on the job of GoSite project director.
The GoSite essentially will be a welcome center and information hub for visitors and residents housed in the GRAM’s former café space. Local organizations, institutions, government agencies and others all are involved in developing the 21st century information space. VanderHoff said two vital first steps were to form an advisory committee representative of all the different community stakeholders and an inclusion committee.
She has spent this year researching collaborative business theory, touring visitor centers around the country, and hosting community conversations to learn what the community wants the GoSite to be. She noted the idea for the GoSite is unique, and she hopes it will become a blueprint for what information centers can be.
Key features include: a centralized information center, collaborative and comfortable space, a starting point for exploring the city, an avenue for community engagement, interactive and innovative design and technology, flexible usage, comprehensive content and a space for fun.
“We do want it to feel very active and visual,” she said.
The GoSite will offer visitors a plethora of information including transportation options, an introduction to local sports teams and to arts and entertainment around town, and suggestions on what to do during a night out or a daylong excursion in Grand Rapids and its surrounding communities. It will also be a welcoming space for newbies to the community, from students to business professionals.
“We also want people to be able to get to know the Grand Rapids region as a whole — a little about the history, industry, entrepreneurship, philanthropy, culture, etc.,” she said. “We plan to incorporate in the design an area displaying ‘pillars of the community’ to help tell the story of our people and the place we call home.
“We also plan to create a framework for individuals and organizations to be able to participate in activities onsite. So visitors might enjoy things like a short performance by a Civic Theatre actor, a free sampling of appetizers from a local restaurant, or numerous other short programming opportunities that bring a little bit of metro GR to the center of downtown and encourage guests to go out and explore more.”
VanderHoff said the project is still evolving and she couldn’t be happier.
“I love big projects with lots of moving parts,” she said.
She also has a genuine love for Grand Rapids, the city she returned to after several years away.
Having grown up in Grand Rapids and attending both Creston and Northview high schools, VanderHoff found herself in the tough position of having to decline her acceptance to the University of Michigan due to lack of finances. She took a job with Mid Michigan Music instead and quickly began receiving promotions, becoming the company’s marketing director at age 25.
That position led her to upstate New York.
“It was interesting and (I had) great mentors along the way,” she said. “When you worked hard, the opportunities were there for you, and it was the music business, so that is fun too.”
Eventually, wanderlust took hold and she decided to make the cross-country move to Los Angeles, where she landed a job as one of two executive assistants to Amy Pascal, who at the time was president of Ted Turner’s movie studio.
“It was exciting, it was fast-paced — boy, did you learn a lot by being right there,” she said.
Her next move was into the world of international insurance, where she gained experience in international marketing.
Though she loved L.A., she felt a tug back to the Midwest, and her desire for a college degree led her back to West Michigan.
VanderHoff earned her communications degree from Grand Valley State University, and then, with the help of the McNair Scholars program, she earned a graduate degree in humanities with a focus on media studies at the University of Chicago.
“When I attained that degree, that is when I moved back to Grand Rapids and that is when the stars aligned,” she said, referring to joining the GRAM.
The GoSite is expected to open in summer 2014, and VanderHoff continues to welcome ideas for the new space.