As a former dancer and the current President + CEO of ArtsFund, Michael Greer is an integral part of the arts community. Since 1969, ArtsFund has supported the nonprofit arts sector through grants and other organizational assistance, distributing more than $100 million in grants to more than 650 large and small arts groups that span a variety of disciplines throughout King and Pierce counties. In this role, Michael is naturally poised to understand what arts organizations and artists need and has an inside scoop into the exciting arts projects and initiatives in the works, not only in Seattle but across the region. Beyond that, Michael is a kind and thoughtful person and someone we love connecting with out in the community. He generously took time from his busy schedule to answer a few of our questions below.
For those who don't know you, please share a little bit of your journey. What inspired you to become a dancer? Were the arts a prominent component of your childhood?
Funny story, when I was young, I was pigeon-toed and the doctor recommended to my parents that we try ballet to help with that. That’s what got me started, but I think there were two components that kept me in. The first was my competitiveness. The girls were always much better than me and never ceased to remind me of that. I remember wanting to work as hard as I could just to prove that I could keep up. The second was an opportunity I had when I was probably 13 or 14 years old. I saw a poster on the wall of my dance studio for an audition for the Joffrey Ballet School in New York City. This was in St. Louis, Missouri, and at that point, I had not been anywhere other than my grandparents, so New York City felt like the biggest adventure I could possibly take. I told my parents about it and they said if I got a scholarship, I could go. Looking back, I don’t think they actually expected me to get a scholarship, but I did, and their hands were tied. I spent eight weeks in New York City as a young teenager and I was hooked. For me, it was a tangible example of how the arts could physically and mentally expand my world.
Shortly after that experience, I had the opportunity to attend Interlochen Arts Academy as a boarding student and this was one of the most formative experiences of my life. Being surrounded by other young people who had a passion for the arts was something I’d never experienced before. We were all still kids, but everyone had a focus and everyone understood each other. That support and that community stay with me today and are one of the reasons that I do what I do. Providing a nurturing environment for young artists is critical and can literally change lives.
"I spent eight weeks in New York City as a young teenager and I was hooked. For me, it was a tangible example of how the arts could physically and mentally expand my world."
You bring a unique perspective to your work as someone who has been on the performing side as an accomplished dancer, working in the world of finance, and then leading prominent arts organizations. What excited you most about transitioning into an arts leadership role?
Being able to bring several different perspectives to my current role has been important to any success that I might’ve had. Although it has been a while, understanding what it’s like to be a working artist is important for any administration or leadership role. I’m not saying that you have to have been an artist in order to be an effective administrator, but understanding what an artist’s experience is like is important when making decisions about how to support their work. I’d also say that it’s important for all of us to remember that the arts sector is an economic sector, just like any other business sector, and understanding some fundamental principles of how to run a company is as important in the arts as it is in manufacturing or finance or tech. Arts and culture are responsible for 10.8% of Washington State’s GDP and almost $1 trillion of economic activity in the United States alone. These are small- and medium-sized enterprises that are as connected to the local economy as any other business and require the same levels of management expertise as would be expected in any other business. Nonprofit leaders are not only producing economic results for their community, but they are also responsible for stewarding complex missions whose outcomes can sometimes span generations. Having worked in both for-profit and nonprofit leadership, my experience is that, quite often, satisfying nonprofit stakeholders can be the more complex job. Our nonprofit leaders are balancing a complicated set of expectations for what is traditionally a fraction of the remuneration of their for-profit counterparts. I have a lot of respect for nonprofit arts leaders and the role that they play in our communities.
As for what excited me about returning to the arts world in an administrative capacity, I think it was about being able to use whatever skills I had to support artists in the same way that I was supported when I was dancing. I remember shortly after I took my first executive director role running a ballet company, I called the old executive director of Ballet West where I worked for years, and thanked him profusely. As an artist, I never really understood the machinery working behind the scenes to make sure that I could just focus on the art. Being an arts administrator is difficult, but knowing that your efforts allow an artist to truly focus on their craft makes it worthwhile. Speaking from experience, being an artist is an all-consuming effort. So many artists have to juggle that with administering their own work and maybe a part-time job in some unrelated field. My role at ArtsFund and as an administrator is to allow artists as much reprieve from these other distractions as possible. Many days, just knowing how important that is, is what keeps me going.
You joined ArtsFund at a pivotal and challenging time for the sector (June 2020). What is one of your proudest accomplishments over the past three years?
At the end of this fiscal year, ArtsFund will have been directly responsible for administering roughly $45 million worth of unrestricted funding to arts and cultural organizations in 37 out of 39 counties across the state of Washington since 2020. I’m incredibly proud of the leadership and advocacy work that we’ve been a part of since I joined. That includes all of the capacity-building seminars, the convenings, and the public and private sector advocacy that has led to hundreds of millions of dollars of public sector funding, but it is really that $45 million of direct, unrestricted funding that I am most proud of. I say that because those dollars have not only provided organizations the ability to produce new and meaningful work that benefits their communities in so many ways, but those dollars have also provided jobs, food, and rent for hundreds of thousands of people working in the sector. That includes for artists and also for all of the arts-adjacent workers that make this industry possible. Those are the carpenters, the caterers, the janitorial crews, etc. ArtsFund provides unrestricted funding for all of our grantees because we understand that what you see on stage or in a gallery is supported by a foundation of individuals doing a broad set of work that is often never recognized but is absolutely essential.
What advice would you give to someone aspiring to a career in the arts?
Understand your “why.” To make a living in the arts, whether as a practicing artist or as an administrator, is hard. It shouldn’t be, but it is. The history of our sector has included a lot of terrible examples of producing at the expense of the artist and the administrators. I believe that is changing, and we are on a path to recognize, both culturally and economically, the benefits of those working in the sector, but as it stands today, it is still a difficult profession. So my advice to anyone who is aspiring to a career in the arts is to really understand why it is that you want to do this. There are a million different “whys” and I don’t think that anyone should judge whether your reason for choosing this career is valid or not, but my personal experience is that there will be days that are very, very difficult. Difficult economically. Difficult socially. Difficult emotionally. If you are not clear on why you’ve chosen this path and what it means to you, those difficulties can win out. That said, if you know why you’re doing this, and what it means to you, I can’t think of a better way to spend your life.
"ArtsFund provides unrestricted funding for all of our grantees because we understand that what you see on stage or in a gallery is supported by a foundation of individuals doing a broad set of work that is often never recognized but is absolutely essential."
What are you looking forward to in the arts community in 2024?
ArtsFund grants to nearly 700 organizations across the state so there’s always something to look forward to. That said, what I look forward to the most is the slow and incremental continuation of the work that we all do. This is probably not the answer that you were looking for, but what is driving change is the day-to-day work of everyone in the sector. That work will be the same in 2024 as it was in 2023 and as it will be in 2033. What I really look forward to is 5, 10, or 15 years from now looking back and seeing the progress that we’ve made. Some of the progress will come in chunks, but the majority of it will come from the accumulation of small, everyday wins that will continue to move our missions forward.
What does "being in community" mean to you/look like for you?
To me, “being in community” just means showing up and doing the work. Everyone has a part to play in creating the communities that they belong to. For some, that means being front and center in conversations and visible and vocal in their work. For others, it means quietly chipping away at something specific that helps to build a foundation that we all rely on. A community, in my opinion, is the sum of everyone’s collective work towards a better quality of life. We all have a part to play in that, and so being in community is about understanding your role and adding to that collective however you can.
What was the last album you played?
Joni Mitchell’s, Court and Spark
What is the last book and/or film that you loved?
Octavia Butler’s, Kindred
What or who are you inspired by right now?
My team at ArtsFund. It’s not easy to grow an organization and our team has not only embraced the idea of growth, but they are constantly using all the skills they have to come up with new and creative ways to serve even more people within our community. Watching them inspires me to be a better leader.
MICHAEL GREER BIO:
Michael Greer is one of those the President and CEO of ArtsFund. Having worked as a professional artist and an executive in the nonprofit and for-profit space, he brings a wealth of experience to the role that spans the United States, India, and Mainland China. With degrees in economics, education, and business, Michael brings a diverse skill set to the role and a unique perspective on the challenges and opportunities of the sector. In addition, he is a dedicated community partner and serves on a number of boards including the Downtown Seattle Association, Inspire WA, Puget Sound Regional Council's Economic Development District, Seattle Regional Chamber of Commerce, and United Way of King County.
As a relationship builder, thought leader, and strategic planner, Michael is dedicated to supporting the mission of ArtsFund to support the arts through leadership, advocacy, and grantmaking in order to build a healthy, equitable, and creative Washington.
Michael is also a dedicated husband and father and enjoys calling the Pacific Northwest his home.