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Each year that passes, I recognize more fully how much I learned from my father, his knowledge transferred in some hazy, unintentional university of everyday life, an academy for which he served as president, provost, and all of the faculty. Even now, decades after I graduated from his curriculum, I come home from work and quickly, and without much thought or effort, disassemble, repair, and reassemble a broken, sliding shower door. On bright summer mornings, coffee in hand, I can still predict, with consistent accuracy, the hour at which rain will begin to fall later in the day. And while with age I try much harder to avoid such moments, I innately trust in my ability to steer, surely and safely, through and beyond a full-tilt skid on a snow and ice-packed January highway.
David Fraher. Illustration by Billy Keefe.
Looking back, it seems the hours of sitting and watching and, when asked, handing my father the right wrench, or a wing-nut, or his already ancient, slippery oil can; the days of hearing him talk about a shifting in the wind, or a subtle turning of the leaves on the maples on our street; or those winter-Sunday afternoons, driving in endless laps around iced and empty grocery store parking lots, forcing the car into frightening spirals only to feel that magic catch…and the drift back to control when sure steering was applied and braking was not—all of those moments embedded in me some distinct life skill, and each skill surfaces still today, a quiet reminder of all he taught me.
To be clear, not every learning moment was one of ‘skill development.’ There were also those evenings when my father would retreat to his workbench after dinner and remain there, alone, until bedtime, wrestling with grief and loss and anger and fear. None of us were privy to those hours or to his process. And unlearning and releasing the ingrained temptation to solve the world and its scariest challenges on my own, without the help of others, will remain, like understanding an approaching storm, another embedded lesson from my father.
And yet for all of that, I don’t think I ever gave my dad much credit for how I eventually approached my life’s work. Certainly, he has been a touchstone of sorts. Colleagues in the office know only too well my constant challenge to program planning: Would my father—sixth-grade dropout, farmer, machinist—would my father be able to find a reassuring path into this concert/exhibition/event? Or would he feel awkward, an outsider, not savvy enough to get it? My belief has always been that as we approach our work we can and should always stretch and grow artistically, but we should also always try to find a doorway through which to invite people like my father to the table…people whose lives have not given them the opportunity to learn aesthetic tradition or the supposed rules of concert attendance or museum visitation. But beyond considering him as a “target audience”, I don’t think I fully grasped his impact on my approach to how I work.
Recently, however, as I’ve begun the process of unpacking my time at Arts Midwest, and packing—literally—my photos and books and artworks from the office—I’ve been examining another critical hallmark of Arts Midwest’s—and my—work these past three and a half decades, and that is our deep and determined dual commitment to organizational curiosity and innovation. And to my surprise, in that process, my father has come quietly back into focus. I see him on so many late Friday afternoons, just home from the factory, smelling of machine oil and metal shavings. He would open his lunch pail, rinse his thermos, take his payroll check and hand it to my mom, and then—on the best days—take another envelope out and hand that to her as well. These envelopes were bright orange, the color of life vests, with block, black lettering across the front that read, simply: SUGGESTIONS.
These were happy days, because the envelopes contained a second check, never that large, but always a meaningful addition to a household budget that had minimal flexibility. It might mean a family trip to the mountains or to Canada; or maybe even the potential of reclaiming one more bedroom from the boarders who, at my birth, still filled the bedrooms of the second floor, and one by one departed until, a decade later, we finally lived alone in our entire home.
On seeing these wonder-filled envelopes, I always imagined some mid-level supervisor walking down the aisles between the screw machines and parts bins and handing my father this special envelope, and maybe even saying a few words of official thanks from General Motors. Maybe that happened, maybe it was just a hand-off without any verbalized expression of gratitude, but for my father, the orange envelope was always a sort of victory.
At work or at home, my father always asked himself, “why?”—he wondered what would happen if we tried to do something just a bit differently. He would see a problem without a solution and want to find one. He would notice an unnecessary step in production which, if removed, would speed completion. Instinctively, he understood an opportunity for a micro adjustment to a machine that, in turn, would reduce waste or increase precision. And following such initial queries of “why”, he would respond with a “what if”…what if he tried doing his job just a bit differently. He would test a new approach, test it again, and if it worked, write it up for the bosses. And if they agreed and realized the merit in his suggestion, the bright orange envelope might appear, and with it, a reward no doubt representing a minuscule amount of the savings he produced for the company through his ingenuity.
And thus, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, without a graduate degree or a best-selling how-to manual, my father taught me the connection between curiosity and innovation. He taught me the value of paying attention, of watching and asking “why” and asking “what if…” Through his example, I learned that micro-adjustments can lead to macro evolutions. Over time, we’ve worked hard to instill that culture within Arts Midwest, and have been blessed to have a board and a strong base of supporters who embrace such measured risk-taking and innovation. And we like to think that the enhancements we’ve made along the way, small to large, have made a beneficial impact on our field and on the communities we serve.
In the weeks ahead, we’ll be sharing a new pathway which we hope will deepen and make permanent our culture of curiosity and innovation within Arts Midwest. In the meantime, I hope you might consider what I only just now realized I learned from my dad…that innovation isn’t some Wizard of Oz, magical process exemplified just at the celestial level of a Steve Jobs. Innovation is something we each can embrace every day simply by slowing down, by watching, by asking…what if…what if by trying something new, even if it might not work; what if by taking a different path we come to our destination faster; what if by supporting the successes…and failures…of those around us who dare to try; what if that actually makes our work and our world a better place? What if we try?
David Fraher served as the President & CEO of Arts Midwest from 1984-2019. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including NASAA’s Gary Young Award, the NEA Chairman’s Medal for Distinguished Service, the Salzburg Fellowship, and the Sally Award in Arts Access.