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Downtown arts organization considers options for change

Community is asked to vote on seven scenarios for Avenue for the Arts.

December 4, 2015
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As it concludes its 10th anniversary this month, a downtown arts organization that has helped revitalize South Division Avenue is thinking about how it will operate in the future.

Avenue for the Arts, a program of Dwelling Place, has drafted seven possible scenarios for how best to continue its work and is asking for input from the community.

“This is the 10-year anniversary of the Avenue for the Arts programming, and over the course of the year, we’ve been looking at what the future of the Avenue programming will be and could be,” said Jenn Schaub, Avenue for the Arts coordinator, Dwelling Place.

The organization’s advisory committee drafted seven scenarios and is asking stakeholders to vote on the three options they like best:

  • An independent nonprofit organization with programming similar to 2015.
  • A neighborhood association.
  • Dissolution.
  • An educational partnership supported by one or more universities.
  • A community arts center.
  • Remaining part of Dwelling Place.
  • Becoming a business.

“It’s an exploratory process. Let’s choose wildly different outcomes and explore them,” Schaub said.

The advisory committee selected the scenarios based on what members felt are the strengths of Avenue for the Arts and what might be the “next level” for the organization.

Community members can make their selections through an online survey at The survey also includes a handful of questions regarding people’s knowledge and participation with Avenue for the Arts.

Schaub said the goal of the questions is to get an “in the moment snapshot” of Avenue for the Arts.

“We wanted to have a clear vision from the community of what makes up Avenue for the Arts,” she said.

As part of that effort, Avenue for the Arts put together a comprehensive annual report for the current year, highlighting the work of the organization.

The program has grown since its inception to include monthly and annual events, such as First Fridays, The Market, Free Radical, Art.Downtown., and its Learning Lab Internship program, among others.

According to the report, in 2015, the organization hosted six educational events, saw 284 artists participate in its programming, held 14 panel discussions and conversations, and launched an eight-week business course for artists in collaboration with the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Grand Valley State University.

Avenue for the Arts also opened its headquarters at 307 S. Division Ave.

In the past year, the organization has celebrated the announcement of 10 new businesses coming to the neighborhood, with nine of them falling into the retail or gallery category.

“I personally think the Avenue for the Arts is an amazing incubator,” Schaub said. “The businesses coming into the corridor are either experimental or niche businesses.”

She said the work/live spaces that have come into the area in the last decade provide a model that helps these types of businesses flourish.

“Sometimes it sticks and sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s still a place in Grand Rapids, because of live/work options, where experimental possibilities still exist,” she said.

Schaub said the survey is going well, with approximately 100 people having taken it as of last week.

She also noted the dissolution of Avenue for the Arts is the least popular of the choices, so far, receiving no votes. “People are very invested in the program,” she said.

Schaub is careful to point out the effort being undertaken is not a strategic planning process.

“When we started to engage with the community, it was to help steer the advisory committee actions, but also with the intention that it’s not a strategic planning process,” she said.

The advisory committee plans to use the findings as a guidance tool as it looks toward creating the organization’s future.

For instance, Schaub said if the majority opinion is to continue Avenue for the Arts under Dwelling Place, it will be a powerful tool to use in gaining support for that process, whereas if people vote to see the organization become a community arts center, changes would need to be made to accomplish that scenario.

“Our current space isn’t large enough to be a community arts center,” she said. “And, we would build different financial supports.”

Schaub said the ultimate goal isn’t to have one scenario win out over all the others.

“If we come up with multiple outcomes, then (we’ll look at) what are the overlapping areas,” she said. “If the community says, ‘Here are three things we are interested in,’ then we can look at the short-term steps to move toward that, and that helps us think strategically.”

She said another purpose of the survey is to find out what programming people like best.

“It’s confirming what we expected,” Schaub said. “Education events are going strong and people want more of them.”

The survey will close at the end of this week. In January and February, there will be a handful of meetings with small stakeholder groups to gather more input, and by April, a final report will be released.

“We are going to be analyzing the top outcomes and preparing a report for the community,” Schaub said.

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