Supporting the cultural fabric of Greater Grand Rapids

March 2, 2009
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As executive director of the Arts Council of Greater Grand Rapids, Caroline Older sees the council’s mission as serving as a kind of United Way for all the arts in the community — including theater, dance, art, the opera and symphony, museum offerings and arts education.

“Basically, we support the cultural fabric of the city,” Older said. “In order to attract people to a city like Grand Rapids, you need to offer them not only arts they can appreciate — the symphony, the opera and the Grand Rapids Art Museum — but also arts they can participate in in their spare time, such as a local theater group.”  

The Arts Council’s work is three-pronged. It offers strategic support for its member organizations and artists through workshops on topics ranging from how to write a better grant to how to build a better board or how to fundraise.

Secondly, it provides its member organizations with financial support, Older said.

“We fundraise, and anything we raise over and above our operating budget, we give as operating grants to our member organizations,” Older explained.

“Any nonprofit that has an operating budget of $1 million or less and is a member of the Arts Council can apply for an operating grant. We are probably the only institution in town that offers operating support, which is the most difficult support to get.” 

The council itself is funded through foundations, corporations and individual donors, as well as two small endowments. It also receives money from the Michigan Council for Arts & Cultural Affairs and distributes it in the form of mini-grants to nonprofit arts organizations in seven counties.     

And last but not least, the council raises money to support arts in the public schools — a completely separate fundraising mission, Older said. Local art teachers can apply for funding to support the programs and projects that fall outside their normal budgets.

Older discovered her love of the arts and art history while attending Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in art history.

“Williams is a small liberal arts college that has a very strong art history program and a wonderful art museum on campus,” Older recalled.

“While a student there, I started taking art history classes and just loved them, because art history was a way to learn about history, literature and music that provided me an avenue to learn so much about a period of history. Plus, I just loved the visual nature of artwork.” 

Upon graduating, she went to work as a curatorial assistant in American art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Va. She went on to earn a Ph.D. in the history of art at the University of California in Santa Barbara. Her concentration was on 19th and early 20th century American art. While a graduate student there, she served as a teaching assistant in the university’s art and architecture department.

After grad school, Older moved on to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and took the position of research assistant in American paintings and sculpture.

In 1999, Older was hired as the exhibitions coordinator and assistant registrar at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, where she managed the installation and de-installation of large-scale exhibitions at both the museum and outside venues. A couple of years later, she took the position of assistant manager for the patrons program at the New York Botanical Garden, where she coordinated patron events, including guest lectures, exhibition previews and the museum’s holiday open house.

By 2003, Older was back at the Whitney Museum of American Art, this time as major officer in charge of individual giving: She was responsible for $1 million in individual giving revenue and managed three patrons programs.

She most recently worked as director of development for the Art Academy of Cincinnati, where she was a member of the senior staff and the strategic planning board committees. She planned and coordinated all development events and did the marketing and public relations for development, admissions and community education. Her responsibilities included raising $280,000 a year for the academy’s annual fund, scholarships, exhibitions and special projects. She also managed the publication of the organization’s annual report, quarterly newsletter and student art calendar.

“We were very fortunate to have her,” said Gregory Allgire Smith, president of the Art Academy of Cincinnati. “She was great working with staff, faculty, trustees and people in the community. She’s able to be her own person and still work with a wide range of people, whether it’s scruffy art college kids or trustees and donors.”

When Older’s husband was notified by his company that he was to be transferred to Grand Rapids, the couple visited here in the spring of 2008 to check out the sights and art museums in West Michigan to make sure there was a large enough arts community for Caroline to continue her career.

“We were really pleased to find a small city with a very, very strong arts offering,” Older said. “We are fortunate in Grand Rapids to have a very philanthropic community.” 

She immediately began networking in the local art community and soon learned that the position of executive director of the Arts Council was about to open up. She interviewed for the job.

Older says she has had the pleasure to work on “all kinds of fun things” during her career in the arts world. One that instantly came to mind was the installation of a large scale exhibition for the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 2000 Biennial. As the exhibitions coordinator, she was in charge of bringing in art work from around the country, which meant coordinating with trucking and shipping companies, special installers and security companies.

One such work of art was an MG that had been painted by California artist Kim Dingle, to be installed on the third floor of the Whitney, a relatively small museum in the middle of New York City. First, she had to learn how to go about getting such a valuable car shipped to the museum. It was just after 9/11, so oversized tractor trailers could only come into the city between midnight and 5 a.m. The car was unloaded on Madison Avenue at 3 a.m., and Older drove the car through the museum’s front doors, which had been taken off their hinges. Older had ordered a special rigging platform to transfer the car to the elevator shaft to take it to its third floor designation.

Joanne Leonhardt Cassullo, a trustee and secretary of the Whitney Museum’s board of trustees, describes Older as “incredibly organized and dynamic” and a joy to work with.

“She was enthusiastic about everything. She was always calm even in the middle of the drama that goes on sometimes,” Cassullo said. “It was a pleasure spending time with her. When she left, I was so heartbroken because she was just so terrific. She loves art and she’s very knowledge about it.”

Gov. Jennifer Granholm recently cut arts and cultural affairs funding by $6.1 million. If the cut goes through, it will mean a 10 percent decrease in the Arts Council’s operating budget and its mini-grant program would be cut, as well, Older said.

“It has a direct impact on us, but it has an enormous impact on many of our partners in the community.”

The Arts Council has partnered with Art Serve, a Lansing advocacy group, to get the news out about the cuts and provide member organizations and artists with ways to contact the governor and legislature so they can voice their concerns. At the grassroots level, the council is seeking information from the nonprofits it supports about how the cuts will affect their operating budgets, the loss of jobs and the communities they serve. Older is working with the council’s anchor organizations to gather the same information.

“Every organization is fighting individually and fighting hard, but I think the Arts Council can be the collective voice and gather all the facts together so we can say, ‘Here’s the impact on the city as a whole.’”

Older and the Arts Council board are now concentrating on developing a contingency plan for fiscal 2010 in the event the cuts are made. Should those cuts be rescinded, the Arts Council will begin putting together a three-year plan.

Older said her goals for this year are to upgrade the council’s newsletter and Web site, re-engage donors, find ways to better serve the council’s large organization members, and evaluate how to best serve the arts community with the resources that it has.

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