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A chat with the Arts Alliance's Deb Polich

On work, personal life, and what regenerates her on rare days off

(Photo: Doug Coombe)
(Photo: Doug Coombe)

ANN ARBOR – Deb Polich is the president, CEO and founding member of the Arts Alliance. She has held the position since 2012 and has more than thirty years of experience in professional arts administration. She has been the president and CEO of Artrain for 24 years, and was the managing director at the Michigan Theater for seven years. She serves on numerous boards of arts organizations throughout the state of Michigan, and is a regular arts management guest lecturer at her alma mater, Eastern Michigan University, as well as the University of Michigan.

Tell us about your upbringing and when you got to Ann Arbor.

"I was introduced to theater and the arts in elementary school in Detroit and then did theater in high school by way of sports (in Westland). I was a Title IX girl. I was first letters in softball, volleyball and basketball, which was all new back then. So that dates me. But the theater bug got me and that was it.

"I put myself through school, got married and had two kids, and suspended my education. When I was ready to go back to work, I went back to school and got twenty credits, which included my internship. I figured an internship would, hopefully, lead to a job, so I did my internship at the Michigan Theater. 

"I started there the day the Michigan Theater closed for its first restoration (in 1986). So I walked in and the scaffolding was up, the carpets were pulled out. They reopened in September after that first restoration, and by that time I had been offered a part-time job as the box office manager, which I knew nothing about. Then over the next seven years, I had an opportunity to learn every part of that business, which was amazing." 

Why did you found the Arts Alliance?

"It’s pretty unusual for a community like Ann Arbor to have as many cultural organizations as it had and had grown organically – prompted, in large part, historically, by the University of Michigan being that cultural center to Ann Arbor.

"But usually, there is, in most other communities like that, an umbrella organization that coalesces and brings together those organizations, and we didn’t have that.

"So that’s why we started – to have some entity be that backbone. It’s great that all these independent organizations are doing their mission and working in a way that they need to, but look at the big picture issues, like arts education for every kid in the county, or how we can help develop artists and creative industries more broadly.

"It doesn’t really fall squarely in anybody’s mission. I suspect this happens in mission-based sectors – but it tends to be that, at least in my career, there’s this interest of moving the arts and cultural sector forward for the betterment of the community." 

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(Photo: Doug Coombe)

What makes Ann Arbor unique as an art community?

"Some things that we hear frequently from artists who come here is how intelligent this community is with regards to their reception of whatever it is that they’re doing. I would extrapolate that and maybe redefine that -- it’s a more sophisticated audience than maybe other places.

"They’re game. They’re willing to try new things that may be a little risky for others, and I think that’s because we’ve had programmers that are respected as curators.They built the audience’s understanding and knowledge over time. And frankly, journalism did that, too.

"That’s one of the things we miss terribly. We’ve lost the criticism and the building of the appreciative audience because we don’t have those informed critics and coverage anymore. 

"We talk about this frequently. We’re kind of narrowed down to three reasons why arts criticism and coverage was so important.

"Marketing and promotion, getting eyes on exhibitions and shows – it’s very important. To a large extent, as a sector we’ve figured out the tools that we’ve been left with to get the word out and do the best that we can. We miss those props that we used to get when we were covered in the newspaper, on radio and television.

"With feature stories and reviews, it helped the audience learn more. And to understand what it was that they were seeing and to be more discerning. If we, the producers and presenters of everything that is out there, are the ones who are telling those stories, we don’t have that objective point of view. We’re controlling all of that information.

"The third thing that media did for us, they were the community record of what took place over the years. The library now has all of the Ann Arbor News and other media that we can go back and look at, and we can create things like 100 years history of Hill Auditorium or The Michigan Theater. I don’t know how we’re going to do that moving forward. Because we have no protocol of keeping our social media, and we don’t have a protocol of keeping the things that we write."

Tell us how you and Russ met.

"We worked together. I just did a leadership program for Aaron Dworkin at the University of Michigan’s School for Musical Theater and Dance and said to the students, 'If you’re going to find yourself a mentor, find a mentor that lets you spread your wings.' That’s what I had in Russ Collins.

"We became involved towards the end of our time together at the Michigan Theater. It’s not something I talk publicly about. It was actually, from a personal point of view, one of the reasons for leaving.

"And then we were married a year later and 24 years later, we’re still married. So it obviously wasn’t based on the fact that we worked together and we had that commonality.
 
"Anyway, it’s an interesting (point)… Should couples work together? I think that if the boundaries are set, that can be done well, but we also know that it can be difficult." 

You’ve become this power couple in Ann Arbor.

"Yeah, I never think of that -- About being a 'power couple.' The thing I think about more often than not, and not that I sit around and think about it all day at all, is that I can’t draw a line between work life and personal life. And I actually am grateful for that. My life’s passion is my work passion and it is my partner’s passion.

"And so it’s always part of it. Sometimes that is difficult because it's 24/7 and you need personal time to regroup; sometimes you don’t know if you’re working or if you’re not. And sometimes you’re giddy because it’s like being that baseball player who gets paid to play baseball."

When you take personal time, checking out from it all, what do you like to do most?

"The last couple years it has been really hard to find that time. It's family. What I love to do most is spend time with my kids and -- now -- grandkids. It's interesting: I’m an extrovert, Russ is an introvert, so, assuming I’m not just totally mentally and physically exhausted -- and when that happens I need 24-38 hours to get my act together -- but then I want to be with people. And Russ needs a little bit of quiet time to regenerate. I regenerate by being with people that I care about, and that’s by spending time with my kids."

Being here for so long, what do you think are the best elements of the city of Ann Arbor?

"I think it’s its people. I do a fair number of those trailing spouses things… meeting new people that come to town. And I really think that from other communities where there’s this social stratosphere, like, 'If you make this much money you belong with this group,' it almost doesn’t matter here if you want to be involved.

"You can make a great group of friends by raising your hand and saying ‘I care about this issue and I want to get connected.’  We run in and out of circles, that in any other community we would have no business being in, because we care about the community. We’re willing to put our energy into it. That’s what I think is great about it. Ultimately (Ann Arbor) is always about trying to get a little bit better." 

To learn more about the Arts Alliance and Deb's work, visit their website.
 


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