#33: The role of cultural affairs in a thriving community with Michelle Isabelle-Stark, Arlington County Cultural Affairs

This is a special episode brought to you by Arlington Economic Development in Arlington, Virginia. Since 1996, when Arlington Cultural Affairs ‘Arts Incubator’ was the first government arts program to win an Innovations in American Government Award from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and the Ford Foundation, support for arts organizations set the path for a thriving cultural sector. Today we’re going to talk about the role of cultural affairs and the arts in a thriving community, and to help me discuss this topic, I’d like to welcome Michelle Isabelle-Stark Director, O County Cultural Affairs Division.


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Greg Kihlstrom:
This is a special episode brought to you by Arlington Economic Development in Arlington, Virginia. Since 1996, when Arlington Cultural Affairs Arts Incubator was the first government arts program to win an Innovations in American Government Award from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and the Ford Foundation, support for arts organizations set the path for a thriving cultural sector. Today we’re going to talk about the role of cultural affairs and the arts in a thriving community. And to help me discuss this topic, I’d like to welcome Michelle Isabelle-Stark, Director, Arlington County Cultural Affairs Division. Michelle, welcome to the show.

Michelle Isabelle-Stark: Hi, Greg. It’s great to be here.

Greg Kihlstrom: Yeah, looking forward to talking about this with you. Why don’t we get started with you giving a little background on yourself and your role at Arlington County Cultural Affairs Division.

Michelle Isabelle-Stark: Sure. So I have been in Arlington Cultural Affairs now for 10 years this coming November 2024. And actually in preparation for this interview, I was thinking about how my journey, professional and personal, brought me here to Arlington. And it’s really interesting because I started my professional life as a dancer. I went from that to becoming a printed circuit board designer. I worked a little in tech transfer as a business advisor, and then I came to economic development and local government. First in Suffolk County, Long Island, where I was the cultural affairs director and also the film commissioner. And so I’ve had this breadth of experience throughout my life, professional life, and as I was thinking about what is the through line through all these various experiences, it’s really this intersection of art, technology, and problem solving. And I think that is what I bring to the role as Director of Cultural Affairs. This is my second position in a Department of Economic Development that has a Cultural Affairs Office. So my role here as a Cultural Affairs Director within Arlington Economic Development is to align our programs and resources with AED’s strategic direction. which is currently the development of Arlington as an all-in destination for job creators, thinkers, entrepreneurs, and creatives. And that work that we do is expressed in our mission, which is to create, support, and promote the arts connecting artists and community to reflect the diversity of Arlington. And really, the bottom line for all this is it means elevating our work as placemakers through our permanent public art, temporary public art, and all the activations that we do across the county.

Greg Kihlstrom: Great, great. Yeah, that’s, that’s great. And really, really interesting diverse background there as well. So that’s, I’m sure that that contributes to some of your perspectives on things. So I wanted to start with just, you know, how Cultural Affairs has maintained and grown. You know, I mentioned, I mentioned the, you know, the grant early on, you know, back in 1996. But, you know, I wanted to talk with you a little bit about how Cultural Affairs has maintained and grown that foundation over the years. So do you want to talk about some of the, some of the programs that Cultural Affairs has been a part of?

Michelle Isabelle-Stark: Sure. So in cultural affairs, we view the artist as central to all the work we do. We are serving the artist. And as I said, in our mission, we are connecting the artists with our community. And through that work, we are reflecting the diversity of Arlington. So every program that we have, whether it’s public art, Whether it’s creating a festival or a music series, whether it’s working in our art truck, which is a mobile platform for the arts, we are always thinking about how the artist is working in our community. And that community can be our residential community, our visitor community, or our business community. Some specific projects which I’m, or actually one of our strong programs is the public art program, which I believe was mentioned. We’re in our 40th anniversary of public art here in Arlington, and we are a leader in developing and producing public art within a government setting. And in a small community like Arlington, which is 26 square miles, very compact and dense, we have an extraordinary collection of almost 80 permanent public artworks. And this allows, I think, our residents, our visitor community, our employees, businesses, to experience art every day, no matter where they are. I look at public art as the most accessible type of art that we have in this country. You don’t have to pay for it. It’s in public space, so it’s free for everyone to enjoy. And of course, we can add to the experience of having public art in our communities by adding programming. We can add interpretation programming. Our public art collection here in Arlington can be enjoyed through various tours, whether on bicycle or on foot or by car if you choose. So it is one of the, I think, constants and one of the models that Arlington has produced. You mentioned the incubator project that Arlington did in 1996. That was a groundbreaking concept back in the day. And of course, incubators are used to combine services, to make services more efficient for small businesses, for small arts organizations, so that they can grow and then become enterprises on their own. And we did have great success with Signature Theater growing out of that incubator model. And we also now incubate individual artists. We’re really excited about an artist in residency program that was created in 2019. And we just received recently a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, $150,000 to continue that artist in residence program. We started incubating arts organizations and over the 30 years that have passed between 1996 and today, almost 30 years, what we see is, again, more focus on individual artists and how they operate within organizations. There’s a lot of crossover where you will have artists working, let’s say, for a theater company, but they’re also working as maybe a graphic designer in the commercial sector. And so there’s a lot of connection both in Arlington between our businesses that utilize artists with our theater companies or dance companies, individual artists. And also you see that regionally. There’s a lot of crossover that’s happening. And of course, technology has boosted possibilities for that over 30 years. So I see a lot more happening at that level. Again, that atomic, I call it the atomic element of the art, the artist, and how they operate in a regional economy and in a region.

Michelle Isabelle-Stark: So I think we are nimble. We are flexible, even though we’re a government agency, there’s a lot of flexibility and adaptability that’s built into our culture. And we see that just with, I’m thinking about through the pandemic and how our arts organizations and artists responded to that crisis. And it’s really astonishing to me that in that moment of crisis, innovation really popped up. And what was a tragic event, and it was a tragic period of time for our country, our artists really stepped up and figured out a way to continue connecting to the public and to each other. And to me, that was like the hallmark or the apex of this ability for our arts community to make transitions, to adapt to changing situations. Yes, it was an uncomfortable period, and we’re continuing to come out of that that crisis period, both for our economy and for people, you know, in general. And we probably have a long way to go and are never going back, I think, pre-pandemic. I don’t think we can return to that. So for me, I mean, the arts are always about looking forward. What is the next movement? What is the next technology that’s coming up that’s going to help us transition, transform, and move forward in the arts? And you’ve seen that with every era through time, how artists adapt technology quickly and figure out what to do with it to create. And you’ll probably see that with AI as well.

Greg Kihlstrom: Yeah. Yeah. What about collaborations with the communities? You know, what, what are some of the ways that you’ve been able to do that?

Michelle Isabelle-Stark: So when you say community, I think of, um, we have multiples of community within Arlington. It’s even though it’s such a small area, you know, like I said, 26 square miles. I was astonished when I first came here to find out the number of languages that are spoken in our public schools. I think it’s about a hundred. And one of the interesting things for me working in the arts field has been to look at ways that we can connect with all this diversity and tap into it, right? For the benefit of our entire community. And I think one of the projects that we recently completed that demonstrates that would be our artists in residence program, with the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing. And our public art team created this residency program using public art dollars. So we get public art dollars through site plan processes where developers contribute a certain amount of money to our public art fund. And that includes our affordable housing community when they do their projects. So we were thinking about how do we take these funds and use it for the benefit of the community? You have these, you know, affordable housing communities. And Angela Adams and others came up, she’s our public art director, came up with this idea of doing an artist in residence program. And we succeeded in getting a grant through the National Endowment for the Arts to launch this artist in residence program. I am so thrilled at what happened in that project and how many people we reached who were not familiar with the arts resources in Arlington, and were able to work with Asa Jackson, a wonderful artist from Richmond, Virginia, who came here to work in that community. It was just wonderful. I keep saying the word wonderful. I smile when I think about it, because to see a community that may not be able to go out to an event or go to a paid event, or has the time to even go because they’re working so hard and raising their families, to see them engaged with this artist at their home base, right, their home, and in a wonderful community center that’s part of that housing community, and create this wonderful quilt, this wonderful textile work that is now permanently displayed in their community. And Asa was able to weave stories and actual textiles of that community into the final work. And we were able to share it with the broader Arlington community at the Museum of Contemporary Art Arlington, which is one of our many partners we work with. And the community was able to come to the museum and experience the excitement of having a public exhibit of the work. And now it’s at home with them. So I think that exemplifies the way that we can work with different communities in Arlington. We also, of course, have our mobile artist in residence platform called the Arlington Arts Truck. which again was funded through a National Endowment for the Arts grant. And we are able to pair an artist with a nonprofit organization or a government agency dealing with social issues or topics of concern for our community. And this is a participatory project that goes to different sites around Arlington, public, you know, farmers markets or schools or other public places where the community can just show up and enjoy working on a piece of art with their community and the artist, and also learn about a topic of concern or something that’s of interest to them. This has been a highly successful project, and we got that award from the NEA in 2018 to launch it. And I’m just thrilled that it’s continuing to go and getting stronger, actually, as it goes along. We also, of course, work with a number of nonprofit arts organizations in Arlington, performing arts for the most part, theater companies and dance companies. And we have rehearsal space, shared rehearsal space and theaters that are shared with Arlington Public Schools, where they can create new work or musical theater. all different kinds of theater productions and dance productions that are then shared with the community at reasonable ticket prices. So we have a whole gamut of programming that is available for the community, different communities.

Greg Kihlstrom: Yeah, yeah. So from a from a business perspective, I mean, certainly there’s, we’ve talked a lot about on the show about just kind of the benefits that a thriving arts community brings to the business sector. What should businesses and their employees thinking of, you know, locating to Arlington, what should they expect from the from the arts sector from that perspective?

Michelle Isabelle-Stark: So I think Arlington, again, I’m going to go to the Arlington the unique quality of Arlington, the unique identity of Arlington as I see it, it’s both human scaled with global reach. And that is reflected in its arts and its arts community, its arts programming. So I think that, again, with our strong public art program and all of the events that are happening, the arts events in Arlington, I think that they can expect opportunities to experience art every day. And as a economic development organization, we know that investments in support of arts, culture, placemaking, and entertainment are key to protecting and elevating Arlington’s unique global identity. and reach. So with that in mind, you’re going to find creative assets integrated not only into our economic strategy and destination marketing, but in almost every other area, as I was explaining a little bit, throughout affordable housing, different quarters, parks, all the public spaces in Arlington, so that we’re building an ecosystem that can support all levels of creatives. from novices and hobbyists to those who wish to pursue a career. And for those who are, you know, just creative or want to participate in a creative event or be with artists or be around artists, we have that. And also the diversity of our arts is extraordinary for such a small community. As I mentioned before, You know, we have a new crop of artists and residents coming into our main building at 3700 South Four Mile Run. Ethiopian-American, African-American, a Colombian muralist, and just rich resources for the arts here. Our history, our geography, our progressive nature as a county and as a community. I think is a really a welcoming environment for all businesses and employees from wherever they come from can find a place here.

Greg Kihlstrom: Yeah, yeah, that’s great. Well, Michelle, thank you so much for joining today. One last question before we wrap up. I mean, I know you’ve you’ve touched on how Arlington is staying innovative and continuing to grow for those that maybe are whether they’re in the region or outside of the region. and want to learn a little bit more about the arts in Arlington, what’s the best way for them to do that?

Michelle Isabelle-Stark: Oh, go to our website ArlingtonArts.org and we have a number of social media platforms. We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Our Facebook is probably the best resource for what’s happening in Arlington and that’s at Arts.Arlington.