When David Fraher became head of what’s now known as Arts Midwest, the Cold War was still raging, an IBM mainframe computer was half the size of a fridge and Mark Zuckerberg hadn’t been born.
“The whole world has changed many times over in the last 35 years, and so have the arts,” said Fraher.
He should know. An influential cultural leader, Fraher plans to step down next summer as president and CEO of the Minneapolis-based nonprofit, which serves a nine-state area with roughly 52 million people, and has dispensed more than $200 million in federal grants during his tenure.
Fraher has helped bring quality culture to cities and hamlets across the Midwest — dance in the Dakotas, music in Minnesota, writers in Wisconsin, and artists of all stripes in Iowa, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and Indiana.
“His legacy will affect the whole field, and includes mentoring cadres of leaders,” said Adam Perry, vice president for strategy and programs at Arts Midwest. “It’s huge.”
This week’s announcement comes at a time when other longtime arts leaders are plotting their exits. Vickie Benson, arts program director for the McKnight Foundation for the past 11 years, and, before that, a vice president at the Jerome Foundation, is leaving her post. And David O’Fallon is ending his eight-year tenure as president of the Minnesota Humanities Center.
Fraher first came aboard what was then called the Affiliated State Arts Agencies of the Upper Midwest, which later merged with the Great Lakes Arts Alliance to form Arts Midwest. At the time, artistic offerings were clustered mostly in the big cities, he said. Now they are spread all over.
“The creativity and cultural community of the Midwest has gotten richer, more diverse and more vital,” he said. “There has been a lot of investment in it, and it really has grown, including with international tours and exchanges.”
And he’s seen the impact on people. After some touring Mongolian throat singers performed in Iowa, a young woman wrote to Arts Midwest to express her gratitude. She also sent along a copy of a college application essay she wrote, based on the experience.
“She talked about meeting these artists, the first people she’d met from abroad,” he said. “It broadened her world and helped set her path.”
Fraher is proud that with its many partners, Arts Midwest continues to provide opportunities for people to experience art and culture together, and to have their worlds expanded.
The board of Arts Midwest is launching a national search for his successor. “The next person will take it to the next phase,” he said.
He will be 68 by the time he retires at the end of next summer. He plans to take some time to decompress. Leaders accrue “years of stress and anxiety from worrying about the bottom line and taking care of people,” he said.
He also intends to buy a bird feeder for his home in the Linden Hills neighborhood of Minneapolis.
“I will hang it by the front deck so I can sit and have my coffee in the morning and say, ‘OK, that’s what birds do,’ ” he said. “After a week of that, who knows, I might be looking for another job.”