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Inside Track: The circle of life
As executive director of Festival of the Arts, David Abbott looks to showcase different cultures he experienced attending the event as a child.
Jacobson’s department store was where it all started.
The once prominent department store was where David Abbott’s mother worked, and where Abbott unearthed a passion for fashion.
“Really, what I wanted to do all of my life as a kid was to work in a really nice clothing store,” Abbott said. “My mom worked part time for Jacobson’s, which was in East Grand Rapids. To walk in, I thought that environment was incredibly magical.”
Although the department store has been out of operation for more than a decade, his passion has blossomed into creative opportunities that have taken him through different paths in life, leading him back to Grand Rapids.
Abbott was named the first executive director of the Festival of the Arts earlier this month. For more than 40 years, volunteers ran the festival. Now, Abbott will assume the leadership position of the same three-day festival that he visited as a child.
The Grand Rapids native said the festival, which takes place June 1-3, exposed him to different arts and cultures at an early age.
“Festival still brings 350,000 people during the course of three days,” Abbott said. “It is a monumental event for our community. I was a part of the (festival’s) glue-in (activity) and took all kinds of furniture and glued them together, and I thought I had a masterpiece. You could do anything you wanted to do, there was no wrong. That is one of the great joys of the festival, watching kids experience something that is hands-on without being told you are doing it wrong.
“There are a lot of people who talk about the food booths. As a child, it was the first time I ever experienced any food beyond what was served on my family’s table. I had no idea what souvlaki was as a 6-year-old and, yet, I learned.”
Abbott said he will be listening to people’s festival experiences and attempt to bring back some of those nostalgic moments that brought joy to many visitors.
The part-time position helps him to carry on his professional career that mounted different responsibilities. This fall, like the five previous fall semesters, Abbott will be lecturing at Kendall College of Arts and Design’s Collaborative Design class.
In addition to his role as an adjunct professor and director of Festival of the Arts, he also is an independent brand consultant. Those opportunities, Abbott said, are a collaboration of relationships he has fostered throughout his life, which he said has prepared him to lead the Festival of the Arts.
Throughout his life, he has built business relationships and relied on those relationships.
Abbott said he learned at an early age from Mary Ann Maloney, the former owner of the now-closed Mary Ann’s Chocolates where he worked during his teenage years, how to build customer relationships and how to provide hospitality within a store.
Abbott went to Central Michigan University to pursue a career in clothing and textiles. After graduation, he was diagnosed with cancer twice in his 20s.
“The first time I had cancer, it was more of, ‘I just wanted to get through this and get on,’” Abbott said. “I didn’t spend time in the contemplation of, ‘Why me?’”
He received the treatment he needed and continued his profession working at Dayton Hudson (renamed Macy’s) and learned from Judy McCabe, the store manager.
“Judy McCabe was one of the most influential leaders within that company,” Abbott said. “She understood the value of presence. I knew how to provide hospitality, but I needed to understand how to create presence, and Judy taught me that.”
Thereafter, he worked at A.K. Rikk’s, a luxury retailer of men’s and women’s clothing, for over 16 years. Within that time, Abbott also frequented New York clothing shows to purchase high-end outfits to sell at the store.
Abbott worked himself up the ranks and became the general manager of the store. He later purchased the business from Rick Gaby. However, he sold the company back to Gaby about a year and a half later and continued to work there.
“I had a wonderful opportunity to meet a lot of the leadership within this city,” Abbott said. “We were the store to go to; A.K. Rikk’s was the store and still remains that store.”
Abbott later left Michigan to work in Philadelphia.
“When I made that decision of, ‘Gosh, I have lived here all of my life and I haven’t lived somewhere else,’” Abbott said. “I don't want to die in the city that I am born in without experience living somewhere else.”
It was there where he helped to start a family-owned contemporary business for men and women.
Shortly after, Abbott was recruited to work at Holt Renfrew, a luxury department store in Canada, as a senior buyer of $35 million in sales of men’s shoes and accessories, such as belts, sunglasses, jewelry, luggage, wallets and more.
As part of his role, he traveled to clothing shows and purchased products from Gucci, Ferragamo and other clothing lines.
When the stock market crashed, the luxury market was affected. Abbott was one of many laid off at Holt Renfrew.
During that time, he was battling another bout with cancer. In his 40s, he suffered from the disease three times.
“The fourth and fifth time was the largest toll on me physically because of the chemotherapy, radiation and surgery,” Abbott said. “All of that was a really monumental thing.”
Throughout that time, he stayed in Canada for treatment. He said he relied on his faith and encouragement from his church family, a church where he served as a youth pastor. He said he also felt the sincere messages of encouragement from his Facebook friends.
After he recovered, Abbott returned to Grand Rapids just in time for the debut of ArtPrize. He was first tasked to create a souvenir store that was in the Old Federal Building and later became the development director of ArtPrize.
He struck up a relationship with Leann Arkema, the executive director of Gilda’s Club at the time. Gilda’s Club is an organization that provides free health care support to families and friends who are affected by cancer.
When Abbott met with Arkema, he expressed his desire to use his sales experience to encourage people to invest in the community.
It was during that time Abbott suggested doing LaughFest, a festival of laughter, to commemorate the organization’s 10th anniversary in 2011. Abbott continued to work at ArtPrize, but he was volunteering at Gilda’s Club in the meantime. He, along with the Gilda’s Club committee members, helped plan the first LaughFest.
“I ended up leaving ArtPrize to work for LaughFest after three years because I am a cancer survivor,” Abbott said. “I have survived cancer five times. Leann really wanted me to bring that personal story and my talent to LaughFest and to help them to expand it.”
After two and a half years, he left LaughFest to join Kathy Crosby at Goodwill. During his time at Goodwill, Abbott sought mentorship from Crosby to learn more about how to bring the best out of others and to understand how community collaboration happens. Abbott said he also wanted to learn how to curate a good group of leaders he feels is an appropriate cross section of the city.
“So, when you put people together like my mother, Mary Ann Maloney from the chocolate store when I was 16, Judy McCabe from Hudson’s, Kathy Crosby at Goodwill, Deb Bailey at Steelcase, who is another great friend and mentor of mine … my sixth-grade English teacher, I am blessed that I have had really, really good influential people,” he said.