Our Executive Director Michelle Williams sends out a quarterly update letter to the greater Arts Council family. Read on for her take on all of the latest happenings at the Arts Council and the Tannery, and a look ahead at the future.

October 23, 2017

Today is the first day of my 9th year at the Arts Council.

This is the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere, and it’s the longest time I’ve stayed at a job. As the daughter of a symphony conductor father and a composer mother, and then as a musical theater professional who spent many years touring, I’ve lived most of my life on the road or in brief stopovers in cities and towns across the country and around the world.

Looking back on the last eight years, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for what I’ve learned, for what I’ve had the opportunity to do, and most importantly, for the people with whom I’ve been lucky to spend my time. This life—working at the Arts Council, living in Santa Cruz with my husband and two boys—is the stuff of dreams, and even when it is incredibly hard, I am so grateful.

Today, the skies are hazy from the wildfires close by, and the future is hazy because of the uncertainty that riddles our country, but I am grounded, focused, and deeply committed to our work. I’ve never been more clear about how important the arts are for healing, connecting, and strengthening our community. Late this summer, the Arts Council board approved an ambitious new five-year strategic plan, and I’m writing to share with you about how that plan shapes our work moving forward. A five-year plan has many goals. Today I’ll focus on one exciting element, which is fueling our tremendous growth and which marks a new era for the Arts Council: our work at the Tannery Arts Center.

We moved to the Tannery in 2012. This multi-phased, 10+ year project is now a campus that houses 100 affordable live/work artist lofts, 28 market-rate working studios, a performing arts center, and the Arts Council office. The Tannery community is extraordinary—and challenged. We are in an industrial neighborhood that struggles with safety issues and negative perceptions. And though the Tannery was brimming with promise when Phase One opened in 2009, no entity was designated to oversee the Tannery’s internal cohesion and external success. This led to frustration and disappointment by both residents and visitors.

And then in July 2015, we experienced the terrible tragedy. This incident rocked the community and catapulted this fledgling, first-of-its-kind arts campus to the national spotlight with the worst possible story. Enrollment in classes plummeted, commercial foot traffic halted, and relationships were strained to the limit. The Arts Council brought the Tannery together to navigate this terrible time—and together, we found our way through, in part through creating the Tannery Community Plan.

The creation of the Tannery Community Plan was sparked by repeated requests for the Arts Council to fill the much-needed leadership role at this campus. We were willing to assume this role only if we had the blessing and buy-in of this community, and the resources needed to be successful. We spent a year engaging with and listening to the tenants here as well as businesses in the Harvey West Neighborhood and leaders across our county. We wanted to uncover the promise of this campus, and to re articulate the vision for the Tannery.

The resulting Tannery Community Plan clarifies what the Tannery needs: leadership, community building, superlative programming, and excellent communications and marketing. Community members and funders alike have enthusiastically embraced the plan, and as a result, we have raised the bulk of the resources we need to implement the Tannery plan for its first three years. We’ve hired a new staff team and are excited to dig in to the work of helping the Tannery thrive.

This is the “what” of the work—what we are doing here on campus. I also want to share the “why”. We are investing in the Tannery because we’ve seen what happens when this campus is fully activated for the benefit of the community. The Tannery is home to Fulbright scholars, Burning Man artists, and creatives in every imaginable medium. About 270 artists and family members live in the affordable live/work lofts, including 42 children. Sixty-six artists, representing 21 different disciplines, use the working studios, which include 5 artist cooperatives. Ten studios offer educational programs. The sheer volume of creativity is mind-blowing.

When we’ve put our organizational power behind superlative experiences—Ebb & Flow being a great example—and we see thousands of people come together in the spirit of friendship, inspiration, and community, we know we are strengthening our county. The Tannery is a beautiful and welcoming canvas for us to create these kinds of experiences for people from all across Santa Cruz County and far beyond.

We are investing in the Tannery Arts Center’s great potential. The confluence of so many creatives coupled with a beautiful public space underlines its promise: a livable community for artists struggling with skyrocketing housing costs, a welcoming and dynamic gathering place for the greater community, an arts destination, and a model for multi-faceted arts campuses around the world.

We are doing this for you—and because of you. None of this work is possible without your friendship, partnership, and support. As I look back on the last eight years, and look ahead to what’s next, I know the reason I’m still here, and still devoted to the Arts Council, is you. The staff team, the board members, the community members, partners, donors—in other words, my fellow collaborators, dreamers, thinkers, and do-ers: you keep me fired up, focused, and inspired. Thank you for your devotion to the Arts Council. I hope to see you at the Tannery soon!

In love and gratitude,

Michelle Williams
Executive Director

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