Behind the Curtain
Why Arts Midwest may be the most important arts organization you’ve never heard of
IN THE FALL OF 2002, David Fraher and Susan Chandler were called from Minneapolis to Washington, D.C., to meet with Dana Gioia, the poet and former businessman who had recently been nominated by President George W. Bush to head the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA had a problem, Gioia explained. ¶ Created by Congress in 1965 to fund the performing and visual arts, the NEA had become a casualty of the previous two decades’ culture wars. Lawmakers had excoriated the NEA’s leadership for funding an exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic nude photography and for sponsoring a contest that awarded honors to the creator of Piss Christ, a crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine. Its budget had been stripped by more than 40 percent, its staff reduced by half. At one point, the U.S. House of Representatives had voted to wipe out the NEA altogether. (It was spared by the Senate.) Gioia needed to restore the country’s confidence in the value of the NEA, and hoped to do so by reaching as many Americans as possible with unimpeachably good art. So he called Fraher and Chandler, who run Arts Midwest, an organization that operates so far behind the scenes that to trace its influence you would have to examine the credits printed in small type at the bottom of playbills or exhibition brochures.
THE ARTS MIDWEST offices are in the Uptown neighborhood, next door to the Uptown Theater, where an eclectic staff of roughly 20 taps away at Macintosh computers in high-ceilinged, warehouse-like spaces. Recently, the organization expanded into adjacent offices, nearly doubling its floor space.
Fraher, genial, silver-bearded, and well-read—“a real intellectual,” says Gioia—heads the organization and has been here since 1983; his office walls are covered with the works of Midwestern artists he’s showcased in exhibitions over the years. Chandler, the assistant director, arrived three years later, her crisp suits and pixie haircut giving her the air of a contemporary-art curator. Gioia calls the duo the “poster kids for sound management and hard work in the arts,” and indeed they project the modish yet no-nonsense appearance of a specific kind of artist, the kind who gets things done.
Arts Midwest is one of six regional organizations created by state arts agencies and the NEA in the 1970s. Their purpose was to bring exhibitions, theater productions, and other programs to communities outside major urban areas. (Kansas City–based Mid-America Arts Alliance, known for putting together art-exhibit tours, was the first regional organization to form, in 1972.) The organizations were expected to think regionally, without regard for state borders. Arts Midwest, established in the early 1980s, covers nine states, from Ohio to the Dakotas, with its programming. Roughly 51 percent of its core annual budget, or about $1.2 million, comes from the NEA, with the rest provided by foundations, private donations, and state arts agencies.
Fraher and Chandler estimate that their programs reach about a million Midwesterners each year—and if you live almost anywhere in the region, you may be among the beneficiaries. In the late 1990s, for example, Fraher was influential in convincing the Guthrie Theater to resume its popular tours of the state. But the group’s programs reach far beyond its ostensible territory: Fraher and Chandler have backed art exhibitions that sent the work of high-profile Midwestern artists (such as Maya Lin, an Ohio native and creator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington) across America and to Europe. Chandler says such efforts help chip away at the region’s reputation as “flyover country.”
Over the years, Fraher and Chandler have accumulated a global database of contacts in the arts world and in government agencies. And they have developed a reputation for taking, as Fraher puts it, “well-managed” risks. “They are one of the more aggressive regional arts organizations,” says Minneapolis photographer Wing Young Huie. Thanks to a contact Fraher has at the Chinese Ministry of Culture, Huie’s images of Asian Americans will be on exhibit in China this summer.
No doubt NEA officials were familiar with the agency’s reputation when a proposal arrived on their desks in late 2002: Arts Midwest wanted to send six theater companies across the country to perform Shakespeare plays. The officials liked the idea. In fact, the pilot program for what is now called Shakespeare in American Communities impressed them so much that after Fraher quoted them $650,000 to launch the program they called him back to offer $1.2 million.
When Gioia, who was officially installed in January 2003, learned of the Shakespeare initiative, he saw it as exactly the kind of program that could embody a revitalized NEA: No lawmaker could dispute the value of Shakespeare. And if the program was a success, it would boost the NEA’s political standing. “Dana wanted to be able to walk into any senator’s office and say, ‘We are in your state,’” Fraher says. But the program in its current state was too small. Gioia needed Arts Midwest to ramp things up. He wanted Shakespeare in every state and, eventually, every congressional district—a thought that panicked Fraher and Chandler as they considered the logistics involved with getting theater troupes to such far-flung locales as Hawaii and Alaska. “I think they justifiably wanted to throw me out of a window,” Gioia recalls.
Within the year, however, Fraher and Chandler managed to hit every state with Shakespeare. They continue to duplicate the feat. (“You learn a lot about gerrymandering,” Fraher jokes of the work.) A curriculum that Arts Midwest designed around the Shakespeare program is now estimated to have reached some 23 million students, Gioia says, making it “arguably the largest arts education program in American history.”
FRAHER AND CHANDLER aren’t politicians. But they understand that art has a political component—at least when it comes to public funding. In today’s world, arts organizations have to do more than just create new works. For better or worse, they must also spend time communicating the public value in what they do. “Arts Midwest pioneered the recognition of this concept and ran with the ball,” says Rory MacPherson, senior program officer at the Wallace Foundation in New York. Arts Midwest has published a book on the topic, and until recently managed a series of national training sessions for arts groups on how to communicate public value.
In 2005, Arts Midwest won a contract to stage tours of NEA’s long-standing Jazz Masters program. That same year, Fraher and Chandler were selected to launch the Big Read, a program that Gioia created to engage communities in reading (a single book is selected for a community, which then comes together to discuss the work). Recently, they expanded the Big Read, in conjunction with the State Department, to Egypt and Russia. As Gioia hoped, the work of Arts Midwest has proven politically valuable. In the last few years, Congress has approved massive funding increases for NEA, giving the agency the largest budget in its history, and approving $50 million more for the agency in stimulus funds. “Congress loves the Shakespeare program and the Big Read,” says Gioia, who presented Fraher and Chandler with a coveted chairman’s medal in January. Earlier this year, Gioia stepped down from his position at NEA, taking a job with Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington (his replacement was yet to be named at presstime). But Fraher and Chandler say they’re excited about working with the new administration, which so far appears friendly to the arts. “If they have an idea, we’ll figure out a way to get there,” says Chandler. “We’re always shovel-ready.”
Tim Gihring is senior writer and arts editor at Minnesota Monthly.