The Community Impact of Art

Adam Erickson, nearing a year as PenArt’s executive director, talks about what brought him here and his vision for the organization’s future

A speech by cellist Yo-Yo Ma set off a domino effect for Adam Erickson, eventually leading him to become Peninsula School of Art’s executive director. 

Erickson was managing the Arts Program of Colorado’s Aspen Institute, a non-partisan policy think tank, when he had the opportunity to work with Ma. During the speech he delivered, the musician said, “I believe in the power of art and the importance of making art for art’s sake, but what I’ve come to be most interested in is art for life’s sake.” 

“It was kind of a pivot for me, that moment,” Erickson said. “It started me down a path of wanting to explore more ways art can impact our communities and bring people together.”

Adam Erickson. File photo by Lents Photography.

After his time at the Aspen Institute, Erickson worked with ArtPlace America, a collaboration between multiple foundations, federal agencies and financial institutions that aimed to position the arts as a core part of community planning and development. Through that position, Erickson traveled around the country, seeing firsthand the impact artists and arts organizations had on their communities. 

“Somewhere in those years, there was a seed planted in me that I’d like to work in a community at some point and take a step away from the national scene,” Erickson said.

So he started watching out for opportunities to do so. When a colleague called him in January 2023 to tell him about the executive director position opening at Peninsula School of Art (PenArt), Erickson was immediately interested. 

PenArt’s board of directors was interested in him, too, and selected him to replace former executive director Cathy Hoke, who announced her plans to leave the school in 2022. Erickson’s tenure began May 2023, and Hoke stuck around through the summer to help him adjust to his role. 

Erickson knew his new position would mean a great amount of responsibility, especially given the economic impact of the arts in Door County. According to the Arts and Economic Prosperity 6, an economic and social impact study by Americans for the Arts, Door County’s nonprofit arts and culture industry generated $38.6 million in 2022, including $16.8 million in spending by arts and culture organizations, and $21.8 million in event-related spending by audiences.

The arts influence the community on a more interpersonal level, too, Erickson said.

“What I got excited about when I came here was exploring other aspects of community impact, the ways that an arts organization like PenArt can bring people together across political divides or socioeconomic divides and help combat social isolation,” Erickson said. “That’s one thing I’m really starting to turn my focus on over the next year, or even the next five years.”

To that end, Erickson plans on growing the community’s already-strong civic engagement, especially among younger generations; creating opportunities for people of all backgrounds to come together, like the school’s long list of workshops and yearly events like the Plein Air Festival; and cultivating the school’s partnership with Gibraltar’s 4K program. 

“Every enrolled student in that program comes through our doors at the Peninsula School of Art and gets to spend about three hours every month in our youth art wing,” Erickson said. 

That wing was a result of PenArt’s Door to Creativity capital campaign, which kicked off in 2018.

The campaign’s initial fundraising goal was $6.5 million, and PenArt had raised around half of that when the pandemic forced the school to pause its fundraising efforts.

Along with the youth art wing – which is made up of four studio rooms that can be converted to one large room – PenArt created a new adult painting/drawing studio and upgraded its existing facilities with the money it raised. Construction on these projects started in early 2021, and the new spaces were ready for student use by that summer.

The next step for PenArt is to reassess its plans for future construction. An eight-month strategic planning process will help the school do just that, Erickson said.

“The question that we’re trying to answer this year is, ‘Do we need to build exactly what we had planned, or do we have different needs than we did prior to the pandemic?’” Erickson said.

Did you know?

You don’t need to be enrolled in a class to explore Peninsula School of Art.

“We want people to check it out,” said Adam Erickson, Pen Art’s executive director. “Our doors are open – we want locals to know that.”

The school’s Guenzel Gallery is currently exhibiting, through March 2, Kids Create: Art and Light. The exhibit is a collection of art by Gibraltar Elementary School third graders, St. John Bosco Catholic School fifth and sixth graders, and Washington Island School third, fourth and fifth graders. 

Peninsula School of Art is open 8 am – 5 pm, Tuesday through Saturday. It’s located at 3900 County F in Fish Creek. 

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