Newly promoted Executive Director dishes on details of UICA + KCAD merger
by Tori Pelz
This article is informed by two separate interviews with Miranda Krajniak, one given before the merger was made public, and then one following the news.
“So, you wanna talk about the merger?”
Visibly relaxed compared to the poised and press-release prepped executive we saw at Friday’s announcement, Miranda Krajniak sat down with me in her first interview since the big news.
It’s no wonder she can breathe easier. Since Friday, she’s gotten a nice little promotion and has been assured that the Urban Institute of Contemporary Art’s formidable $3.8 million debt will be secured.
“I was so ready for this double agent stuff to be over,” Krajniak sighed. At times, she explains, she and Kendall College of Art and Design staff involved in the merger had to pretend not to recognize each other. For six months, they protected this sensitive information from their staff. Before the marriage could be official, plenty of legal details involving land contracts, attorney general approval, and asset consolidation had to be secured. Not to mention obtaining firm pledges from key donors. On Friday, after an official vote by the Board of Directors, the deal was signed into agreement. A deal that traded her interim title for Executive Director.
“After the signing, I just cried,” Krajniak recounts. “There were so many times along the way that I thought we would just lose [the agreement]. It just took one major trip.”
The precarious terrain of a merger is not unfamiliar territory for Krajniak who navigated two institutional mergers—one during her stint as Manager of Education and Exhibitions at Saugutuck Center for the Arts when they absorbed the Mason Street Theater and another as a student worker during the KCAD/Ferris State University merger. To her critics concerned about her lack of development experience, this hire perhaps makes a bit more sense.
Friday’s announcement hinted at some pretty major changes for both institutions but remained slim on details. Krajniak sheds light on some of the specifics of the merger and its impact on the future of both institutions.
Perhaps on everyone’s mind, how has the UICA’s financial picture changed? (In the press release, Gary Granger, FSU’s Board President acknowledged that the college would be initially committing $1 million to the UICA.)
That initial one million, Krajniak explains, will pay off an accumulation of short-term bills. Creditors gave UICA significant leeway during the merger conversations, but now it’s time to settle up. And the rest of the $2.8 million deficit?
“That’s where our key donors come in,” Krajniak smiles. A small group of dedicated donors, many of whom wish to remain anonymous, pledged to pay off the rest of the debt within five years. “We’re walking into the black for the first time in– forever?” Krajniak adds.
Does that mean some the mantle of development and fundraising has been lifted from you?
Not in the short term, Krajniak indicates. However, the UICA has plans to hire a development person in next 6 months. “We’ve already moved forward with a membership person. She’s an incredibly talented young woman. A real spit fire. We’ll have our first meeting tomorrow.”
New staff hires are significant moves for the UICA, whose staff was reduced from 22 to just 11 these past few months. Of course, this slim down, which includes the recent departure of their Operations Director, is more understandable now with the promised operational support from new partner, KCAD.
So how have UICA staff roles changed? What does KCAD’s pledged operational support look like?
First, UICA staff are now employees of KCAD. For full time staff, these perks now include health insurance and tuition waivers at KCAD and FSU.
In terms of staff support, KCAD will be providing an in-house graphic designer for UICA as well as a janitorial staff and PR and marketing assistance. Some staff roles will be split 50/50 between institutions. For example, Krajniak notes that employee Brandon Belote who has been serving as their projectionist “has a real talent for video production… so we’re shifting him into more of a technician/videographer role”—a position that will serve both institutions.
Additionally, there will be an increase in federally-funded work-study interns from KCAD who will fill in support roles, like curatorial and preparatory assistants and projectionists.
Will there be overlap between the curatorial roles between institutions?
“We still have autonomy,” Krajniak explains. If our show is too provocative, will they shut it down? The answer is no…It’s up to AJ [Paschka] and Michelle [Bosak] to work that out. I don’t want to impose treaties on them.”
The two curators have been collaborating on a show that comes on the heels of ArtPrize, “Pulse/Pulso,” which showcases Latin American artists from Chicago and California. “Ours is a more contemporary approach. [KCAD’s] is a little more traditional,” Krajniak describes.
What other structural and programming changes will we see?
Currently, there is no Education Director. Krajniak explains this decision: “In my world view, everybody is education.” According to her, at an educational institute with a small staff, everyone should share that responsibility. Compartmentalizing something so central to their mission means that it becomes important only to select staff.
As of now, Saturday family days are cancelled. She adds, “There’s no reason to compete with [Grand Rapids Museum of Art],” who runs very well-attended Saturday Family Days program. She hints at the possibility of family movies but indicates a heavy shift towards adults programming.
Also, the volunteer-based curatorial board previously charged with organizing shows has since been disbanded. When asked what hiring a curator in their stead signified, Krajniak stated, “It means we’re growing up.”
The Penny Stamps Lectures, a collaboration with the University of Michigan will continue, Krajniak says, “as far as I know.”
Can you speak to the building changes mentioned Friday?
While Krajniak envisions the UICA being a power house of internationally acclaimed artists, she realizes that before the UICA can show at that level, basic facility requirements need to be addressed. At the top of this list is security cameras, followed by updating the HVAC and lighting. The staff is currently building drywall walls, making hanging work more manageable.
Regarding the ceramic studio, Krajniak commented, “That space is in flux… The ceramics studio is problematic because it would be repeating a program [currently offered at KCAD]. We need to spend time looking into assets of that space… We’ll continue the [ceramic adult classes] until we decide on what our focus on adult classes should be… Or who’s doing teaching those classes. Is it Kendall’s Continuing Studies? Is it a Masters in Education student who teaches the classes?”
In a particularly exciting move, Kendall will purchase the storefront space on Division to use as a studio/classroom space for its fashion and soon-to-be Masters in Architecture program.
How do you plan on balancing the new emphasis of being more accessible and family friendly with maintaining the integrity of showing challenging contemporary art?
“I think that has a lot less to do with what you show then how you talk about what you show.”
How do you create those opportunities for conversation?
“Communicating and being friendly starts the minute you walk in the building…When you walk in the door, do you know where to go? Signage and way-finding is sooo important. If you have a sign that says, ‘We’re so happy you’re here,’ that communicates a lot.” She added that Paschka, who was heavily involved with visitor at the Grand Rapids Museum of Art experience will greatly contribute to creating this type of environment.
She then conveyed the possibilities of having artist panels, utilizing TVs for artist interviews, or including artist quotes on the wall.
“We don’t have to prove how smart we are,” she added. “No smarty pants PhD panels.”
Krajniak indicated that with the increased programming budget, there would likely be more funds available to bring in more renowned artists as speakers and one day, to show.
What’s your dream artist to show at the UICA?
“Yinka Shonibare. Yinka Shonibare is a-mazing! First of all, he’s black. And he’s disabled.” Describing his work, she says, “It’s historical. It’s contemporary. It fills a space. It gives you a feeling. But you also know it’s also about imperialism and art history.”
So, what does the transition look like this week?
“The struggle’s just beginning for the staff… There’s been no consistency in leadership, structure, feedback.” One goal during this transition, she says, will be getting the staff “comfortable with consistency.”
“Then again,” she adds, “we’re a contemporary art center. If we’re not changing up our model every six months, we’re old.”