What a Tolerant, Arts-Minded Community Looks Like

Gordon Bolar

The climate of tolerance and support of the arts varies greatly from community to community in America. Some of these differences are based on the demographics of cities vs. rural areas, or coastal vs. interior regions. In many communities, however, these differences can be based on other factors.

There might not be a model community for tolerance and support of the arts in America; nevertheless it is possible to identify some factors that contribute to making communities more tolerant and supportive. In doing so, it might be possible to get a picture of what a tolerant arts-minded community in America should look like.

I’ve worked in nonprofit development in the arts, education and public media while residing in seven communities, from Alaska to Rhode Island, Michigan to Louisiana. I’ve gained some perspective and experience in taking the political temperature and local climate of support for the arts. Evaluating communities in this way is not an exact science. I have, however, found it useful to focus on three concepts: inhibitors, indicators and outcomes.

Most recently, I lived in two Michigan cities: Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo. I could not help but compare these two communities after residing in each for a period of time. I took note of what worked and did not work in creating a tolerant, creative atmosphere.

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Twenty years ago, I relocated 50 miles south of Grand Rapids to Kalamazoo, where I reside today. My decision was based on an employment opportunity. While I lived in Grand Rapids, in the mid-to-late 1990s, I noted that the city and surrounding Kent County were at the center of several conservative causes, such as the Acton Institute, and businesses including Amway, founded by Jay Van Andel and Rich DeVos.

I observed the strong presence of the Dutch Reformed Church and repeatedly heard the saying “If you’re not Dutch, you’re not much.” I heard reports that some garages had drains inside so the car could be washed on Sunday. Although this was usually told as a joke, I suspected that there was some truth revealed about expected behavior in the suburbs on the Sabbath.

Inhibitors, indicators and outcomes,

My wife and I found the conservative climate of Grand Rapids to be limiting in several ways. She was asked, for instance, which church she belonged to in more than one workplace by her employer. I read the report in the newspaper of the suicide of a local high school teacher who had been fired after being outed as gay. I served as development director for a local public TV and radio station, and noted the strong pushback in comments for our local moderate talk-show host. This was partly the provocative nature of his topics, but I could not help but take note that local political winds blew decidedly from the right side in Grand Rapids.

Inhibitors to free political thought and creativity in Grand Rapids were palpable. Key inhibitors to achieving a supportive and tolerant community can include an active religious right, successful in efforts to roll back or stand in the way of free expression in the arts and politics. Lack of tolerance for diversity, inclusion, and LGBT populations also qualify as key inhibitors.

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To be fair, my experience in Grand Rapids occurred 20 years ago. Since that time, the community has progressed in some significant ways. At the time of our move, however, I heard from local residents in Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids that we might find a more tolerant community in Kalamazoo.

Through my work at public radio station WMUK-FM, my involvement in the arts, and my experience over almost two decades in Kalamazoo, I gained some insight into the reasons why it was a supportive and tolerant community. Wealth and corresponding generosity in support of culture, education and diversity were some of the more easily identifiable indicators.

Lack of tolerance qualifies as a key inhibitor.

Kalamazoo has also benefitted from the generosity of several wealthy families, the companies they founded, and the foundations they funded. W.E. Upjohn, Homer Stryker and their descendants were some of those who insured that their families, and company employees, had cultural and educational institutions worth attending in their backyard, rather than elsewhere. The continuing involvement of and support from descendants of the families connected to these major businesses and industries, as well as the creation of endowments or foundations, is also an important indicator in Kalamazoo and elsewhere.

It is worth observing that Grand Rapids also had investments in cultural and educational organizations from its wealthy families, including Van Andel, DeVos and Prince. In Grand Rapids, however, there has also been considerable faith-based support of church-related education and other conservative causes.

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Local financial support from donors of varying financial means has helped Kalamazoo achieve some significant outcomes. We have a first-rate cultural scene in a community about one-fourth the size of Grand Rapids. Organizations such as The Gilmore International Keyboard Festival, the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, and Western Michigan’s School of Music have made a significant impact on the local arts environment.

There are also no less than seven theater groups, more than one dance company and a lively visual arts scene with such museums and galleries as the Kalamazoo Institute of the Arts and the Richmond Center for the Visual Arts. The broad range of quality arts and cultural offerings in almost every arts discipline is perhaps the most remarkable outcome for Kalamazoo.

We have a first-rate cultural scene.

I should add that local support sustains WMUK, a public radio station with a news/classical format and an emphasis on local arts. This format is increasingly rare in an age in which public radio trends toward news/talk formats. Our station covered local cultural activity through stories, interviews and broadcasts of live concerts. My experience indicates that local arts as well as those who attend them can provide a moderating influence against obsessions with a round-the-clock news cycle of talking heads, tweets and rants.

The community’s emphasis on education also indicates a supportive and tolerant environment. The Kalamazoo Promise, funded by generous (and anonymous) local support, provides free college tuition for qualifying graduating high school seniors who have attended Kalamazoo public schools. Three higher educational institutions — Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo College and Kalamazoo Valley Community College — serve a variety of student needs here.

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Sometimes community indicators are grounded in historical precedent. Kalamazoo, for example, played an important role in establishing a precedent for the funding of public schools. In 1873, the Michigan Supreme Court upheld the right of the Kalamazoo Board of Education to use tax dollars in order to fund Kalamazoo Union High School. Contrast this decision nearly 150 years ago with the current plans of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (of Grand Rapids, by the way) to defund public education and to use public dollars to fund charter schools.

One of the indicators of tolerance in our community can be seen in the public and private support for diversity and inclusion, particularly regarding our LGBTQ community. Organizations serving this community, such as OutFront Kalamazoo and the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership, have been funded at least in part through local foundations.

Moderation against talking heads, tweets and rants.

In 2015, WMUK hosted StoryCorps’ “OutLoud” component to capture and archive the audio stories of the LGBT community in Kalamazoo. When I initially contacted StoryCorps to engage “OutLoud,” they were surprised to field a request from a community of 140,000 people in the nation’s interior. I assured them that “OutLoud” would be well received here and find many community partners. My assurances proved correct: “OutLoud” project is one of our positive community outcomes related to inclusion.

A positive outcome can also be seen in the ethnic and cultural diversity of leadership in nonprofit and educational institutions. I include here the administrative and/or artistic leadership of local nonprofits, including museums, the symphony, WMUK, Western Michigan University and Kalamazoo College. Another observed beneficial outcome is that diversity in programs, such as exhibitions, concerts, and outreach efforts, generally follows leadership.

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In the realm of politics, I found pushback or pressure from our listeners to be fairly moderate in my experience as general manager of WMUK. During the 2016 primaries, I fielded a half-dozen complaints from conservatives and about as many from liberals. Most of these were mild, civil comments stating that NPR needed to cover Trump, Sanders or Clinton either more or less. This differs greatly from more severe instances of political pushback reported to me by some of my public radio colleagues elsewhere in the country.

The station I managed is licensed to Western Michigan University’s board of trustees. I am pleased to report that the university’s administration consistently refrained from exerting pressure on either our programming or our news coverage — including stories in which the university is directly involved. I consider this a very positive indicator of a free press in our community and a tolerant atmosphere.

Is Kalamazoo an exception to the rule?

Recently, I retired from WMUK. I told those present at my retirement gathering that I felt extremely fortunate to have been part of a community that supported placing the arts and culture at the forefront of our programming. I also took pride that our station had found support for coverage of both local and national issues, some ripe with controversy, through NPR programs like “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered,” with little pressure or political pushback from local audiences.

The outcome of a pressure-free approach from the university enhances the listener’s trust. It strengthens the relationship of the university with the community.

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To be sure, we are not without differences of opinion in Kalamazoo. There have been rallies on the left and the right. But these have been largely peaceful gatherings avowing non-violence, such as the one in Bronson Park against Trump’s travel ban earlier this year.

In an America that seems to be at cross-purposes with itself, in a charged political climate in which the funding picture for arts and education may possibly be destabilized, some may wonder if Kalamazoo is an exception to the rule. Exception or not, questioning which factors make Kalamazoo a more tolerant and supportive community is worth doing. My conclusions as to why our community provides this kind of environment are admittedly based on observations and experiences. I share these, with my evaluation criteria. so that others might apply them to their own experiences in their respective communities.