For years, EmmaJean Woodyard says her efforts to spread awareness of Dearborn's arts scene felt "like a voice crying in the dark." But lately, her crusade is feeling a lot less lonely. Woodyard, the executive director of the Dearborn Community Fund (DCF) and past executive director of the Dearborn Community Arts Council (DCAC), says there's a new sense of energy and purpose around increasing visibility for Dearborn arts. She says one of the "key motivators" for that initiative is using the arts to drive overall economic growth in Dearborn.
Devon Akmon, director of the Arab American National Museum (AANM), describes a "weird version of a triple bottom line" that's starting to come into play when AANM and other Dearborn arts organizations plan new programming. "For us it was: How does it benefit the museum? How does it benefit the patron? And then how do we kick resources back into the community?" he says.
Ralph Valdez, executive director of the DCAC, says there's a growing sense that Dearborn could build upon its pre-existing resources to become a cultural destination along the lines of Ferndale, Royal Oak, or Birmingham. "I think they all have had their struggles to find their footing as arts communities, and I think they've all done pretty well," Valdez says. "I think Dearborn's next."
More than just Ford
To realize the vision of becoming an arts destination, Dearborn has some awareness hurdles to overcome first. Akmon says public perception often casts Dearborn as being essentially synonymous with Ford Motor Company, and perception of Dearborn's cultural scene often begins and ends with the Henry Ford. But the city is also home to the AANM, the Dearborn Symphony Orchestra (DSO), numerous galleries, the Ford Community and Performing Arts Center, and much more."When you look at the cultural assets, Dearborn is immensely rich," Akmon says. "It's just that, for whatever reason, it's often overlooked."
Valdez suggests that Dearborn's "deeply blue-collar" ethos can make arts a harder sell than in some cities. He says he's heard some artists express feeling "undervalued" in Dearborn compared to other cities, and that Dearborn residents may be more reluctant to spend money on cultural events. Valdez says Dearborn is in need of a self-image reassessment, but he already sees signs of that taking place. "The city is getting away from seeing itself as whatever heritage or stereotypes Dearborn has as a suburban extension of Detroit," he says. "I feel like it's starting to happen that there's more and more awareness of the quality of creativity that comes out of Dearborn, that is separate from Detroit but is also connected in a special way."
New ways to engage
That's thanks to some new initiatives and more collaborative mentalities among Dearborn's arts organizations. The most recent example is a month-long community-wide celebration of arts called Arts Dearborn, which debuted in April.