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Marc Folk, arts commission director has won a Governor’s Award for taking the arts to a new level


Marc Folk, executive director of the Arts Commission of Greater Toledo.

Jetta Fraser Enlarge

Marc Folk is shooting for both street cred and fed cred.

"We’re really trying to stay in there with those networks at the state and federal level so we can have a seat at the table," said Folk, executive director of the Arts Commission of Greater Toledo. "We’re trying to get as high as we can to find out what’s going on at the top level and stay connected at the street level."

Landing invitations — be it from the Americans for the Arts, Ohio Citizens for the Arts, or the 22nd floor of One Government Center — is all the more likely when one is passionate, knowledgeable, hardworking, and thoroughly engaging. Folk will be honored Wednesday with a seat at Governor Ted Strickland’s table when he receives the Governor’s Award for the Arts for leading and strengthening the local arts commission. Nine people were chosen from 103 nominations.

"It’s for the staff and the board," said Folk, deflecting the glory. At 35, he’s among the youngest winners in the award’s 38-year-history.

The nominating letter reads, in part: "When he joined its administration in 2002, the ACGT was regarded by a significant segment of the arts community as an elitist and organizationally and fiscally weak institution. That has all changed." Carol Cartwright, president of Bowling Green State University, and Katerina Ray, the university’s director of the art school, signed the letter.

"The arts in the City of Toledo and Northwest Ohio have grown in unprecedented ways as a result of Marc Folk’s visionary leadership," it continues, "he is that rare figure who is as comfortable in the Mayor’s office as at a slam poetry reading, who can energize the CEO of a corporation as well as a street performer, and is as skilled at handling budgets as picture frames."

In recent years, the commission has helped coordinate a slew of events, including Artomatic 419 (a showcase of 150 artists and performers; the next ones will be April 18, April 25, and May 2 at 201 Morris St.), Art Walks in the downtown warehouse district, the Jazz Loop, and Meet and Greets.

It expanded the Ninth Congressional District High School Art Invitational Exhibition. And, it’s played a key role in the lit obelisk on the Veterans’ Memorial Skyway bridge, art at Fifth Third Field, and several pieces at the new downtown arena.

‘Humming along’

A graduate of the University of Toledo (he specialized in sculpture and printmaking) and Clay High School (where he discovered how deeply he connected with art), Folk is homegrown talent who stayed. He was named one of the 20 Under 40 leaders in 2007.

He’s worked at the commission in several capacities since 2000, and took the helm in 2006.

"I think it’s just humming along," observed Susan Reams, adding that ACGT is the most vigorous it’s been in the decades she’s worked for the arts. The agency has one part-time and five full-time employees and a budget of $626,762. Folk’s salary is $62,000.

He grew up in Oregon, the middle of three boys. His father, Robert Folk, is a retired Chrysler engineer; his mother, Jane Vargo, an office administrator. Both are wood-carving hobbyists.

A doer, Folk remodels his 1887-vintage home in the Old West End, and spends a few evenings a week painting in his downtown studio. He’s loved hip-hop music for 20 years, collecting thousands of albums, and Friday nights he deejays at Wesley’s Bar & Grill. Divorced, he shares custody of Holden, his 2 -year-old-son.

His second-floor office in the Professional Building has a view of the city’s most playful sculpture: Blubber, the giant tire swing across Monroe Street on grounds of the Toledo Museum of Art. With a milk-chocolate voice, Folk is not only charismatic but adept at building teams.

"But most importantly he has turned the ACGT around so that we are now a strong force in the community. Quite simply he makes people feel good about volunteering, giving credit when due, and has turned both Mayors [Carty Finkbeiner and Jack Ford] into fans of the arts and public art in particular," Reams wrote in a supporting letter to the Ohio Arts Council.

"He’s just a very likeable guy," Reams told The Blade. (She received the Governor’s Award last year for nearly 50 years of tireless arts activism.) When she was the "art czar" for former mayor Ford, she spoke with Folk almost daily.

"To be able to get along with people, you can work on your goals. I like to work with positive people because then you really get things done."

Demanding work

In 1997, Folk began teaching sculpture at ACGT’s Young Artist at Work summer program. Not long out of college, he took art jobs whenever possible, but paid the bills doing carpentry, roofing, and lamp repair. He loved working with the young artists.

"Helping the kids grow, watching them turn around, it would make my year," he said.

In 2000, he landed a full-time, $26,000 a year job coordinating public art at ACGT. "Which was a jump because they don’t teach you about arts administration when you get a studio degree," he said. The agency was in tumult: he was the seventh person to hold the job in four years.

"I thought if I did something less physically demanding in the day time, I’d have more energy to create art at night."

Wrong. The job was not only demanding — 35 hours a week stretched to 45 and 50 — it was isolated: nobody else in town had a job like his. He oversaw several commissioned public art works to completion, created a conservation plan for scores of public sculptures, updated the local artist registry, and connected with a network of people who handled public art in other cities.

During that stint, he inspected nearly all 50 pieces of public art throughout the county. More than once he pulled soap bottles out of the fountain on Harvard Boulevard and he’s gone to scrap yards to search for stolen bronze and brass pieces.

In 2004, he became the commission’s interim director, and then the artistic director when the commission’s large board (it has 46 members) split the leadership role, hiring another person to handle administration.

"They [the board] didn’t think I had the business skills to run the organization," he said. "When I didn’t get the executive director position, I didn’t quit. I believed in the organization."

But staff quit and instability continued. "I thought, this is the day I can walk out the door or I stay and we fix this stuff." In 2006, he was named executive director.

ACGT will receive $122,821 from the new federal budget to help market the work of northwest Ohio artists, arranged by U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo), who also wrote in support of Folk’s award. "We’ve tried for several years to help the arts commission here," she said. "This got funded because of the business piece of it."

Kaptur called Folk positive and a negotiator.

"This man can see the forest above the trees. He lives and breathes the arts and he can see the growth potential of the arts for our community. Often there’s inward thinking. He sees ways to connect our artists with the world. He can fly above it. We have not had that in so many sectors."

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