Back Story

Kristen Chesak

Executive Director, Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo
encore-magazine-back-story-Kristen-Chesak
Kristen Chesak, Executive Director, Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo

© 2019 Encore Publications/Brian Powers

For half a century, the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo has worked diligently to support artists and promote art in the Kalamazoo community, but it wasn’t until this year that the organization determined it needed to evolve so it could bring art to everyone in the community.

When the organization announced its new mission, vision and core values this summer, at the top of the list of values was access, which Chesak says is about making the Arts Council and the arts in general inclusive to all.

“We have to ask, what are these invisible stop signs that we have that make people think that the Arts Council is not for them?” Chesak says. “To be able to do that, we have to look at ourselves first and say, ‘What is it that we do that is not equitable? What is it that we do that's not inclusive and how do we start to change our behaviors?’ Because, as an organization, we have a lot of organizational unconscious bias. A lot of it's learned, and a lot of it is because we've always done it this way.”

How did you get here?

I was born in El Paso (Texas) and grew up in Seattle. I originally came here to go to Kalamazoo College for biology and ended up in theater. I got an internship at the Civic Theatre right after my undergrad and then was going to leave and go back to Seattle, but I was offered a full-time position at the Civic. I had, like, three or four positions through there, all the way up to executive director, until about four years ago, when I moved to the Arts Council.

What made you want to leave the theater?

I had been with the same organization for 22 years, and we were doing a lot of good work and we survived pretty well through the recession. But I was starting to feel like I was making decisions based on a recession economy as opposed to “Now we're starting to recover and what are the new next great ideas and how can we reinvigorate and move forward?” And that was a good trigger for me to take stock and ask, what are my passions? What do I want to do? How do I want to go through the second part of my career?

This job became available, and I felt drawn to the idea of supporting other artists in town and being a voice to advocate that creative experiences in art are not just for certain people — those who have extra time and extra money — but need to be integrated in all that we do. The ability to create and the ability to have a creative expression should be infused into everything that we do. It should be infused into businesses and into your daily life with your family as opposed to just making time for it.

How do you change the thinking about access to art?

When I was going through school, we were taught that that arts audiences were basically middle-age, upper-class whites with the additional monies to be able to attend arts events, and so that's what you're programming to. But a study done three years ago shows (that) who is actually seeking out cultural, artistic experiences and creative experiences are young families, women (in general), and women of color (in particular). So, to me, that signals a need for us to look at programming and access and who we are trying to connect with and get rid of this old idea that there's only a certain segment of the population that has the money and the time to be able to partake of art.

But we also have to eliminate the barriers and biases that keep people from participating in creative experiences. In order to do that, we have to start listening. One of our other new core values is dialogue. We need to start listening to what it is that we do that is working and what's not working in terms of the needs of the different constituencies in our community.

It’s starting to happen. Theatre Kalamazoo has taken on this initiative of sensory-friendly theater performances for a segment of our population that can't deal with loud noises or certain sights or sounds. Sensory-friendly performances means that they get to participate in that program and that you get to participate as a family. You don't have to leave a family member at home to go see a show, which is fantastic.

What do you like the most about what you do?

I learn something new every day. When I have an artist sit and talk to me about their project, the excitement for me is to listen to their passion about what they want to create. I get to help them, and I think that's awesome. There have been some projects that have come through here where I just think, “Oh, my God, there are some brilliant people in this community that are doing some absolutely fascinating work.”

What do you do when you aren’t working?

My vocation has become my avocation. I do some lighting and sound design on the side, which is the craft I learned. It allows me to connect with artists on a different level, which I think is fun.

Interview by Marie Lee and edited for clarity and length

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All Ears

"...we also have to eliminate the barriers and biases that keep people from participating in creative experiences. In order to do that, we have to start listening. One of our other new core values is dialogue. We need to start listening to what it is that we do that is working and what's not working in terms of the needs of the different constituencies in our community."

— Kristen Chesak, Executive Director, Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo