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Posted on Wed, May 1, 2013 : 3:01 p.m.

Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation launches Cultural Economic Development initiative

By Jenn McKee

On Tuesday, the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation released its 2012 annual report, which included a new strategy intended to “spur community prosperity by advancing the local arts and culture sector.”

To this end, AAACF trustees, in the spring of 2012, engaged more than 50 “local business leaders, representatives from arts and culture organizations, individual artists, and government and education officials” in a conversation about where the local arts and culture sector’s biggest needs lie.

Three primary needs surfaced: “A wider group of community stakeholders that are actively invested in supporting the sector and who can help build upon the Washtenaw Cultural Plan; data that demonstrate the economic impact of arts and cultural activities; access to low-cost capital to help organizations innovate, expand, manage risk, and invest in revenue generating activities.”

The foundation is launching a new strategic initiative, called Cultural Economic Development, which aims to bring community stakeholders together to coordinate and implement ideas; to research and share data that links economic growth to arts and culture; and to leverage and mobilize private resources in creative ways.

“We’ve actually been helping arts organizations for decades,” said AAACF Chief Operating Officer and Vice President for Community Investment Neel Hajra in an interview Wednesday. “I just see this as the next step.”

AAACF began, in 1963, as an organization that provided funds for a wide range of community needs, and a vehicle for community members to “give back.” Since its founding, AAACF has locally awarded more than $30 million in grants and scholarships in the areas of the arts, education, the environment, health and human services, seniors, and youth programs.

In the past, local arts and culture organizations proposed ideas and competed for AAACF funds, so the CED initiative aims to blaze a new path, one that would proactively bridge prospective donors with local arts and culture organizations in new and creative ways.

“With (CED), we hope to not just fund 12 organizations or programs, but to bolster the sector as a whole,” said Hajra.

Hajra believes it will take a couple of years to identify local groups and individuals that will be crucial to CED’s goals—be it the Downtown Development Authority, Spark, the county, etc.—but he’s optimistic that AAACF is pointed in the right direction.

“There are lots of folks out there who are looking to support the arts sector in different ways,” said Hajra. “Before we dive into specifics, we don’t want to be alone out there, saying, ‘Here’s the right answer.’ Also, it’s worth mentioning that our work is always linked to economic development. There’s a proven, strong link between arts and culture and economic prosperity. … To me, it’s actually complementary to the health and human services work we do. … When you strengthen the local economy, fewer people fall into social safety net.”

Jenn McKee is an entertainment reporter for Reach her at or 734-623-2546, and follow her on Twitter @jennmckee.