From tech to art
by Lois Kane
From the October, 2020 issue
What would motivate a successful, techy sort of businesswoman to throw over money, power, and glamour to take up a modestly paid job in the nonprofit art world with which she was totally unfamiliar? Just a phone call, apparently.
"It was the strangest phone call I ever got," says Marie Klopf.
And what would prompt JPaul Dixon, board chair of the Ann Arbor Art Center, to make that call with what might seem an unlikely offer?
It's a story of seduced motivation.
Raised in Howell, Klopf earned a bachelor's degree in engineering with a minor in finance from Michigan State. Her motivation then, she says, was "to be the world's bridge between business and engineering." In the 1980s this would have seemed a very difficult goal for a petite, mop-haired, bouncy, impish woman. She didn't quite become the whole world's bridge, but her aim was good.
"I got to do that at GM. I was a supply chain manager for twenty-nine years," says Klopf, now fifty-seven. During that time, she "got interested in the start-up world and I became an investor with a small angel fund, BELLE--Michigan 'Bold Enterprises Leveraging, Leadership, and Experience.' We were all women investors, and we invested in women's start-ups."
She did more bridging there. "You have to teach," she says with considerable passion. "What does valuation mean? What does a term sheet look like? What does a successful business look like?"
She had a home connection to those questions--John Dickey, her husband, is a software engineer with his own company. (Each has two children from previous marriages.) Other professional experiences included partnership in a consulting firm and presidency of an electric motorcycle start-up.
The career was ascending, but events skewed things in an odd way. When her partner in the consulting firm died, it was devastating. "I didn't know what to do," she remembers.
Another complication was an insurance claim against the motorcycle company. That seemed bad. But, in a twist at a vulnerable moment,
the claim introduced her to JPaul Dixon at Hylant Insurance.
Dixon and the A2AC board also had a problem. After an impressive thirty-three years of running the art center and assuring its place as one of Ann Arbor's premier arts institutions, Marsha Chamberlin announced her retirement in 2012. The board immediately began a nationwide search of candidates qualified to run a nonprofit arts organization.
They selected and hired a person who at the last minute backed out. The search was renewed, but now they needed an interim person. Then, Dixon had a very sensitive insight--why not Marie Klopf to fill the temporary post?
Klopf had a strong business and financial background and she is, on even minimal acquaintance, obviously a "people person." But she had no demonstrated interest in art. She had no experience with nonprofits. She had no local network to draw on. But it was just a six-month thing, so the board went for it.
For her part, Klopf's interest quickly expanded beyond an interim's role. "I wanted to understand the potential. I'd either shut it down or make it better." With the new search still ongoing, she applied for the permanent position.
The board, gingerly, responded with a yes vote. "There were risks," Dixon admits. "I don't know that we were all on board."
Klopf was apprehensive, too. "I had just been offered a job as a portfolio manager. But I love to try new things. How many times in life do you get a chance to change? Money is not the goal. I want it to be, but it just doesn't make me happy. So I came, and it was so refreshing ...
"I wasn't interested in art at all. I'd never been in an art museum. I ran through the Louvre once on a business trip."
Now, with familiarity, she sees it "as the most fundamental form of communication. It was the form of language in the caves. Also, I understand what the word 'community' means now."
She's willing to admit she still has a lot to learn about art, which would put her in about the same position as most everyone else.
The results of the mutual experiment are in. "It's an absolute success story," Dixon confirms. The organization has grown and flourished. The staff has blossomed. It was a great win. I'd like to take credit for it, but I have to share it."
In 2017, the A2AC board committed to buying the C.J. Walker building next door. "The art classes and outreach programs are helping to support all our work," Klopf explains, "but they had to grow to do that."
With most in-person classes on hold, the beautiful space is currently filled with a long line of tables where A2AC staff and volunteers assemble ArtBoxes full of supplies. "We bring art to you," the website says, "in your time, in your space, regardless of age and ability." The boxes are for sale individually but primarily serve as the basis for online "art camp" run by groups bringing art to underserved populations throughout Michigan.
The center promotes the art boxes on an exuberantly colorful website (annarborartcenter.org) that also announces classes, activities, exhibits, and shop news. Reflecting Klopf's background, there are computer graphics classes and gallery shows put on by artists using technology as their medium.
Most visible of all are the huge new murals being painted on the west side of downtown. Crowdfunded on Patronicity with a matching grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, they're putting the A2AC's stamp on what it's declared the city's "creative district."
At the beginning of the year, all these initiatives were booming, backed by confidence in a $4 million fund drive. Then Covid-19 flew in. Undeterred, Klopf secured a PPE loan, a federal program to help small businesses retain employees. She moved classes online; they not only fill, they have waiting lists. ArtCamp went online. Not only is the shop going online (it is also open to visitors during hours posted on the website), but it is expanding to use an e-commerce platform to show the work of more artists. A lot of effort is going into ways to make online classes and camps work really well for participants.
The epidemic has slowed the fund drive somewhat, but a huge chunk is already in, and both Klopf and Dixon are confident the goal will be reached. It will pay off the loan for the Walker building and fund a renovation of both buildings. "We're not super strong, but we're stable!" Klopf says. "I think I was born to do this."
[Originally published in October, 2020.]
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