Meeuwsen Paints Hopeful Picture

May 12, 2003
| By Katy Rent |
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GRAND RAPIDS — Last summer Jeff Meeuwsen got the right phone call at the right time.

Meeuwsen, executive director of the Urban Institute of Contemporary Arts (UICA), had been working in corporate jobs for more than 10 years and when the UICA called and offered him the job as its executive director, he was more than willing to allow his creative side to take over.

Ever since walking into the UICA 12 years ago, the arts had been in the back of his mind and for some time he had been looking for a way to try a new career.

“A portion of me always wanted a greater creative and community-oriented experience,” said Meeuwsen. “I left a very good management position at an ad agency, went back to school to pursue a fine arts degree and started a design firm.”

Meeuwsen spent 11 years in advertising and market development, including eight years working for Amway Corp. For the last three years, Meeuwsen has been the principal of a landscaping design firm specializing in art furnishings and employing a number of emerging artists.

During this time he also served as regional manager for the Children’s Leukemia Foundation of Michigan and launched its West Michigan office.

Most recently, before starting with UICA, Meeuwsen was the supervisor of accounts and administration for Amway-owned Creative Resources Inc., an international ad agency.

One huge challenge facing Meeuwsen is the arts budget cuts Gov. Jennifer Granholm just handed down in March. Granholm cut grants to arts organizations by 50 percent.

“This to me is a painful cut. Make no mistake about it, I believe the arts are important — they make us more fully human and connect us not only to each other but to the genius of generations across the ages,” said Granholm. “They are very important, but perhaps not vital, in the same way that feeding a child is vital or that giving a senior his heart medication is vital.”

But UICA is feeling the pain of those cuts.

“The current round of funding cuts will cause great difficulty for many arts organizations. Nonprofits focused on nurturing the art of today and tomorrow, like UICA, are particularly challenged because much of the remaining federal funding is earmarked for historical programming,” said Meeuwsen. “We have had to reduce our already very lean operating budget by another 20 percent and we now have only three full-time staff members.”

UICA is still continuing to push forward and in the last year has given more than 200 artists from across the country the opportunity to show or perform their work. The organization’s film program has brought more than 50 foreign and alternative films to the area and provided art classes, workshops and studios to nearly 450 people.

What Meeuwsen now must do is look at UICA’s sources of funding in new ways.

“Whereas government funding was our most significant source of funds a few years ago, we are now looking to individuals for at least 30 percent of our funding,” said Meeuwsen. “The individual donor is more important than ever and membership is critical.”

Memberships are available for $20 to $500 per year, with the higher levels of donation adding discounts and more membership benefits. And now membership really has its perks. Because of the need to streamline communications, UICA only has enough funding to inform its membership about programs and services, while nonmembers are encouraged to use the Web site,, as a source of information.

The immediate challenge now is raising $50,000 per month to keep the small staff planning, promoting and maintaining a high quality of programming, most of which Meeuwsen said wouldn’t get accomplished without the help of volunteers.

While the individual sponsor is still as important as ever, Meeuwsen said the UICA also is looking to businesses for support.

“Business sponsors are very important now,” he said. “We hope to align our dynamic programming with like-minded business sponsors. For the right company, partnering with the largest multi-disciplinary contemporary arts organization in the state can make for incredible community relations and image enhancement.”

With that said, Meeuwsen welcomes memberships, donations and business partnerships of all shapes and sizes in an effort to keep an organization he holds true to his heart alive.

“I love the people who are the core of UICA. This is not a facility, it’s a community,” said Meeuwsen. “UICA’s mission is vital and its potential is amazing. The continued struggle for time and resources is very difficult, but my passion remains strong. We are all very fortunate that a rare and innately diverse organization like UICA exists in West Michigan.”           

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