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New Year brings bigger, bolder emphasis on local art scene

Rachelle & Phil.jpg
Courtesy/Arts United
Reinking & Slane are excited for the busy pace this year's Arts United projects promise.

As Fort Wayne’s arts and cultural skyline continued to grow and flourish in 2022, Arts United has been busily preparing for an equally active new year.

The organization's Director of Communications, Rachelle Reinking, is relieved to be on this side of the new normal following the years of pandemic setbacks.

But Regional Arts Council Director, Phil Slane, is quick to point out that there is still much to be done.

And together they report that the team has hit the ground running.

Here WBOI’s Julia Meek discusses Northeast Indiana's "State of the Arts" and some of last year’s highlights with Reinking and Slane, what the organization is currently focusing on and how it continues to live up to its motto, “Art Unites Us."

You can learn more and become involved at the Arts United website.
Below is a transcript of our conversation:

Julia Meek: Rachelle Reinking, Phil Slane, welcome.

Rachelle Reinking: Hi Julia.

Phil Slane: Hi Julia.

Julia Meek: Arts United promised a very busy 2022 segwaying right into an even busier 2023. So promise kept?

Rachelle Reinking: I really think so yeah. (chuckles)

Phil Slane: This definitely was an incredibly busy year, lots of great work within the community, lots of organizations, arts and cultural organizations within the community doing great work, especially as we continue to kind of recover from, you know, the ongoing pandemic that everybody's sort of suffered from.

Julia Meek: And okay. 2022, as you indicate, was a big year as audiences and programming are back, Phil. How did this directly drive your Member Services goals, you would be right on top of all that--any brand new additions?

Phil Slane: Well, it impacted everything in a very, very positive way. Arts and culture organizations, especially the performing ones saw very, very drastic decreases in attendance during the pandemic. This past fall, we've seen not only recovery, but growth beyond some of the pre pandemic numbers.

So that was incredibly encouraging to see from the Member Services standpoint. Yeah, that recovery has allowed us to do some very exciting things with the member organizations that participate in those services, and has given us I think, some exciting things to look towards in the future as well, when it comes to the resources and the opportunities that we can make available to this.

Julia Meek: And they're all raring to go. They're picking it up and carrying it forward?

Phil Slane: Exactly. I think everybody's kind of experienced the pandemic and the recovery in different ways. But I think if you look over this past year, it has definitely been a case of everybody kind of banding together. And everybody seeing that success and recovery kind of rise along the same line.

Julia Meek: Fantastic. And Rachel, your own Arts Unites U s segment brought so many creatives into the spotlight during that interim period. What was the direct result with all of that would you say?

Rachelle Reinking: Honestly, there's been such good reception to the entire progra. I was surprised by people who were coming up to me to compliment the stories that we were telling. I'm thrilled that I'm able to share all of these different individuals that make up our community. It's a fun project. I'm glad that I started the endeavor.

Julia Meek: And if I understand correctly, you are also bringing that endeavor squarely into the new year in exciting ways.

Rachelle Reinking: Yeah, stay tuned for that. But yes, it's going to continue. And I'm really looking forward to sharing some more about Arts United staff as well, because we do have some fascinating people who are in other artistic pursuits in other ways beyond their nine to five or not so nine to five job at Arts United. It's just like, in a way being able to say, "oh, have you seen that TV show that I love, you should really see it." Okay, same thing, but it's about the grassroots people here in the community and you're able to showcase that. People really should know about these people. They're doing incredible work here. And so I'm glad that I've you know, helped to create that platform to share it.

Julia Meek: Expediting the storytelling. Yes. Now speaking of good stories, two things, the Advocacy Summit and the Traditional Arts Indiana Partnership for the Allen County Folk Life Study--those are right there in your field of expertise, Phil.

Phil Slane: Yeah. (chuckles)

Julia Meek: Very, very briefly, what did these look like? And how do they benefit the community?

Phil Slane: The Folk Life Study that we did with Traditional Arts Indiana was a fantastic program, really looking at diverse groups within the community and giving them the tools and the resources that they need in order to be able to document various kinds of artistic practices that are unique to those cultures and those communities.

This past year, the program that we ran is focused specifically on dance. So various different kinds of dance related to different communities within the Fort Wayne area. So we had a group from the African American community, the Mon and the Muslim community, the Indian community, the Miami Native American community, it was really an all-encompassing look at the ways that dance is incorporated into each of those different cultures, which culminated in that presentation that individual scholars from each of those communities presented at our Taste of the Arts Festival this past fall.

It was a very cool program, a great opportunity to learn from those artists in those communities about the things that make those communities really unique and special and important, I think, to the Fort Wayne area.

Julia Meek: And music and then the movement that goes with it being such a wonderful way to learn about and respect the peoples of the world. Andt had to make you feel, well art unites us right?

Phil Slane: Exactly. Well, and it's interesting you look at those groups and so often language as itself is a barrier. But what this you know, Traditional Arts Indiana program really looked at is how does art you know, is how does "art unite us"--(laughs) it is that unifying factor that kind of bridges, various different communities.

Julia Meek: That is so exciting, Phil, real quick word on the Advocacy Summit now.

Phil Slane: Yes. So the Advocacy Summit was incredibly excited too. The Summit Series is essentially a series of professional development opportunities that we're making available to the member organizations who participate in the Member Services Program and the Regional Arts Council of Northeast Indiana.

Julia Meek: And how many approximately does that entail?

Phil Slane: Right now I believe we've got 46 organizations from across northeast Indiana. So that includes the Wagon WheelTheatre out in Warsaw, the Honeywell Foundation down in Wabash, the Auburn cord Duesenberg Museum up in Auburn...

Julia Meek: Nice little circle, yes.

Phil Slane: It is; it's a great community of organizations. And so we love being able to present those development opportunities based on their feedback and what they're saying would be helpful. The Advocacy Summit that we did this past fall was was an incredible opportunity to partner together with local government to learn about, you know, what exactly arts organizations can do when it comes to advocating for arts and culture.

Julia Meek: And that sounds like something that we will be watching to see the results of, as we do continue now in 2023.

Phil Slane: Most definitely. And that was a major focus of that Summit for us was making sure that those folks had the tools that they needed to be successful here in the upcoming year.

Julia Meek: And speaking of collaboration, Rachelle, what are some of the biggest, brightest cultural district activations of 2022 that you enjoyed?

Rachelle Reinking: Well, of course, the Taste of the Arts Festival coming back again on campus. I love to say that every year is the best year ever. And I still feel like that's true. But having some of the additions that we had in the last year where we did expand different forms of art--with the fashion show that happened on the landing, with the Allen County Folklife Study where we had the scholars perform the different types of dances.

It really exposed people to a whole different side of the community that they don't necessarily get to see all the time. And again, bridging those gaps together was great to see happening at our campus. The other couple of things that we were really excited about last year included our participation in Night of Lights for the first time, that was exciting to have that collaboration.

You know, starting at the History Center, walking over to the arts United Center, where the ballet had their Kris Kringle village happening all at once was a fabulous way to kind of light up the campus in a new way, something we hope that can continue in the future, as well as a project that is very near and dear to my heart, which was our first ever Arts Campus Fort Wayne Season brochure that showcased all of the events and activities and organizations that have programming on our campus so that people can really see how many different experiences you're able to encounter at Arts Campus, Fort Wayne.

Julia Meek: First time doing Night of Lights, what did it feel like to jump into a well established, city-wide celebration like that and virtually be one of the stars on the Christmas tree?

Rachelle Reinking: If I can be so bold, I would say illuminating? (laughs)

Julia Meek: Oh, please do thank you for that! (chuckles)

Rachelle Reinking: Absolutely. Just being able to connect in that way to something that the public always looks forward to, one of those great traditions here in the city, was just really special to see that come together in a new way on campus. So many different types of people show up just like at the Taste of the Arts Festival. And that's what I really, really love to see.

Julia Meek: Great! Now all this speaks to a truly crazy busy last year, 2022. What do you think the whole new normal has contributed to how you're thinking and moving forward? What could you do now that you couldn't, didn't, before the whole pandemic struck?

Phil Slane: I think there are a lot of ways that the new normal has created new opportunities for Arts United in particular to positively impact the arts and culture community within Fort Wayne, the creation of a lot of digital and virtual programming is oftentimes programming that organizations are continuing to offer because they realize that they have created new audiences for them that are interested in seeing that kind of programming continuing develop even beyond what it was.

One of the other ways that Arts United has been particularly impactful. I think with the arts and culture community is really having a large focus on resilience and making sure that the arts and culture community is stronger for when the next, the next pandemic, the next economic downturn would happen to come along. We're really active throughout the pandemic with our Arts and Culture Resilience Fund, which helped to supplement some of the funding that organizations were losing, whether through donors or through other sources of support from within the community.

And we've taken that I think a step further, especially as we look at our relationships with arts and culture organizations in the community figuring out what exactly that next step is, that's going to make them stronger as we progress even further into the future.

Julia Meek: And Rachel, you're carrying a lot of these same good ideas forward through the Arts and Culture campus, aren't you?

Rachelle Reinking: Absolutely looking really at what does sustainability mean, not only for our own organization, but how are we helping other organizations to position themselves in a way that's going to create success.

Julia Meek: And now New one milestone right out of the gate? Your beloved and fearless leader Susan Mendenhall is passing that torch, moving along, we wish her well. How are you hitting the ground running with all of this activity that we are discussing that is in store for 2023?

Rachelle Reinking: Well thankfully, because of Susan, we are in such a great position with her leadership to continue our work; being a able to have the co-workers that we do with a strong foundation, we really laid the groundwork in the years leading up to this.

We honestly couldn't be in a better position for her to leave, despite us, of course, missing her because she's contributed so much over the years that she's really empowered all of us as staff to be our own different types of leaders. And you know, that's really what a good leader always makes anyway.

With all of the people that we have on our team, we are in such a great position and we're moving confidently forward. We have our gameplan, being able to have the groundwork laid down already with all of the different moving pieces that is part of being Arts United as an organization, everything is moving forward. And...

Julia Meek: Upward?

Rachelle Reinking: Yes, absolutely!

Julia Meek: Okay, then what can we expect to see, taste, feel, enjoy down on that Arts Campus as well as all through town?

Phil Slane: Well, there are a lot of things coming up on the horizon for our regional arts council and our Member Services program, we've got a couple of different professional development opportunities planned here for 2023, looking at digital marketing and fundraising as the first one that will be coming up here in March.

That's a particular area that a lot of organizations are acknowledging that, you know, there's room for improvement there and room for the development of new resources and technology and processes that I think will help those organizations to hopefully see the success that a lot of them saw in 2022 really grow into even greater success if we can be looking at that possibility in 2023.

Rachelle Reinking: Yeah! 2023, we've got the return of the Arts United awards, having that celebration about those people who have contributed through arts and culture to our community in significant ways, as well as the 2023 Taste of the Arts Festival, mark your calendars,

Julia Meek: There's plenty going on all over town, art centrically.

Rachelle Reinking: Oh yeah!

Julia Meek: So Rachel, some of us can remember the original PAC, the Performing Arts Center,now we call it the Arts United Center's opening some 60 years ago. So what's in store with the renovation you're working toward?

Rachelle Reinking: We're really looking forward to the potential of modernizing the Arts United Center, creating this newfound accessibility in ways that we didn't have pre ADA in September of 1973 when it opened, and really positioning it as its role in the community as a communities theater.

It's our community's theater, it's locally made talent, locally produced creativity for the local people to enjoy and experience. And with that, we've had some nice wins in the last year. We were thrilled to be approved regionally for the 6 million in ready funding. That was a large, large piece of the puzzle, of course, and having the commitment from the city, the CIB and the county as part of the matching funds.

So that was one of the largest pieces moving forward last year as part of this project. And we'll be continuing on in 2023. I'm sure we will be back to chat more about it later in the year. But we are moving forward. And of course, those many moving pieces of the puzzle continue on, but it's really thrilling to know where we're going in the future.

Julia Meek: It is! And good luck on all of that; we look forward to an update as the months roll by. I am kind of curious, does the pace over there ever get too crazy, even for the two of you? Or is that what you run on?

Phil Slane: For me? I'd say it's a bit of both. (chuckles) I think one of the great things about Arts United, I'm a little bit fresher to the scene I just started back in August of 2021. So I've been around to the group long enough to see the passion, the enthusiasm, that they're really staff wide for arts and culture in the community.

And so I think a large part of that is what keeps everybody going. But I think at the same time, you know, we're a very close knit community of individuals as well and not afraid to say, you know, hey, I might be doing too much at the moment. It's very much a team effort.

And I think that's one of the greatest things about it is that, you know, we're very comfortable leaning on each other and having those frank conversations to make sure that as things are staying busy, we're still taking care of ourselves as well.

Julia Meek: And Rachel, I'll ask you, as the veteran and wonderful example of great co-worker and team effort. How do you keep calm and art centric on?

Rachelle Reinking: A lot of it does have to do with the collaboration between my colleagues. We have a fantastic team. We also have an amazing board of directors that is really supportive of all of the work that we do and continues to be very engaged. And being able to rely on each other and be able to bounce off ideas has been crucial as we came out of the year 2020 especially.

I think being the creative group that we are helps us along the way to continue innovating bringing new ideas to the table and also providing that culture of comfort knowing that we're going to be able to rely on each other when we need to. Really, I just rounded five years in October. So I'm very happy to being part of this fantastic team that has continued to expand the work that we do as an organization.

Julia Meek: Well, living proof: "Art unites us." And last question, what can everyone listening right now do to truly further and promote and have in their heart the cause of the art that does, in fact, unite us in 2023?

Rachelle Reinking: More than anything, being able to not only experience arts and culture here in Fort Wayne, northeast Indiana, but also donating, whether it's your time or monetarily is huge as we come out of the hole of the pandemic and 2020 we still are progressing forward, we're looking at the resiliency of arts and culture organizations as a whole.

And that's trending nationally as well. Being able to support that in our own community is going to help continue the creative economy and help us to really keep the amazing things that people are doing here alive and well.

Phil Slane: Yeah, absolutely agree. You know, the organizations within the community, I think, have seen a really positive impact in recovery this past year, but there's most definitely still work to be done.

And you know, since advocacy, I think is such an important thing for arts and culture organizations this coming year, take a brief moment to write a letter to your local representatives, your state representatives, those two groups of individuals in particular have a lot of opportunities to positively support and impact arts and culture not just in Fort Wayne but across the state.

And I think at the end of the day, we can count on the Fort Wayne community to really come through on that and show how much arts and culture really just needs to be at the forefront of, of our priorities here in the next couple of years.

Julia Meek: Rachelle Reinking and Phil Slane are Directors of Arts United's Communications and Regional Arts Council, respectively. Thanks so much for sharing your story and your artcentricity, folks, carry it on.

Rachelle Reinking: Thank you, Julia.

Phil Slane: Thank you so much, Julia.

A Fort Wayne native, Julia is a radio host, graphic artist, and community volunteer, who has contributed to NIPR both on- and off-air for forty years. Besides being WBOI's arts & culture reporter, she currently co-produces and hosts Folktales and Meet the Music.