After years of divisiveness around the Mercer Island Center for the Arts, its new executive director, Paul Shoemaker, wants to make the conversation “positive, inspiring and vibrant again.”
Shoemaker presented a plan for a “reset” at the Mercer Island City Council meeting on Feb. 6, and agreed to an interview with the Reporter about what comes next, starting with an openness to look at alternative locations to Mercerdale Park.
At the meeting, City Manager Julie Underwood noted that though arts and parks are not mutually exclusive, community members have been taking sides.
Talking points have ranged from the importance of protecting open space for future generations to whether the community seems to put a higher priority on young athletes than young artists. It became an Island-wide issue, with hundreds weighing in.
About 40 people shared their thoughts with the council after MICA’s presentation, out of the about 180 in attendance. Councilmember Bruce Bassett said it was the largest audience he had seen in council chambers.
Shoemaker and the new MICA board hope to build on the good work that’s already been done by arts leaders on the Island, while also reintroducing MICA to the community and taking “significant, new, and positive steps forward.”
MICA will begin a public engagement process to discuss with the community what they want for arts and culture, including the need for a new space for arts on the Island. MICA will be committed to transparency, listening and working together, Shoemaker said.
The impetus for MICA was the need for one arts organization, Youth Theatre Northwest, to find a new home. Organizers said they found that there was not a hub for music or visual and performing arts on Mercer Island, though there are many groups, from Island Youth Ballet and Musicworks Northwest to the Mercer Island Visual Arts League and Russian Chamber Music Foundation.
“Many of these organizations are unique crown jewels… It’s part of what makes Mercer Island special, and we put them at risk by not creating a new space for the arts,” Shoemaker said.
Shoemaker came on board as an external consultant for MICA last summer. He’s a 22-year Islander and a recognized expert in the nonprofit sector, and started by suggesting that MICA look at arts centers in other communities.
“Every of them shared a story about a time when they thought they were not going to make it, but they did,” Shoemaker said.
Councilmember Wendy Weiker said she was appreciative of the reset.
“[The problem] has been lack of community engagement… and being able to talk about the issues without being on one side or the other,” she said.
One of the council’s goals in the next year is to “preserve, promote and enhance Mercer Island’s focus on arts and culture,” and the city will be undertaking a concurrent engagement process to inform its next Comprehensive Plan update, with a focus on the role of arts and culture in the community.
Shoemaker said that the arts center would bring in money for the local economy, and create jobs. Sharon Perez, MICA’s director of strategic partnerships, said that the facility would fill a need that is currently unmet.
“Do we really need one on Mercer Island? Yes, because it’s a community arts center,” she said. “It’s not serving the Mercer Island community if it’s in Kirkland or Edmonds.”
Shoemaker said that MICA could be a source of civic pride that brings Islanders together, asking, “what if the community coming together on this was the hero of the story?”
See www.mercerislandarts.org for more.