Tapping the healing power of art

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July 5, 2010
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

// Free Arts Minnesota has new leadership //

Free Arts Minnesota, an organization based in the Warehouse District that works to improve the lives of youth through art and mentorship programs, has a new leader on board.

Dan Thomas, a 25-year veteran of the media industry, is the new executive director of the organization. A couple of the major goals he’s set for himself include increasing the number of youth the organization helps and ramping up fundraising, particularly among the corporate community.

He also wants to help better define the organization’s mission.

“A big part of what the organization needs is a clearer sense of where we’re going and how we’re going to get there,” he said.

Free Arts Minnesota reaches out to about 2,000 kids a year — a figure Thomas would like to
see grow.

“The weak economy and job market have put more pressure on families and there is more need than ever for the good work that Free Arts offers. And yet resources have never been tighter,” Thomas said. “My main focus as executive director will be to strengthen the foundation at Free Arts by raising crucial funds and stabilizing expenses. We have high goals to meet the needs of many children, which is challenging in our current economy.”

Free Arts Minnesota, 400 1st Ave. N., serves youth who have been abused, neglected or are experiencing homelessness. The nonprofit partners with 15 Twin Cities area organizations to engage kids in arts activities. It also has a network of more than 300 volunteers.

Since it was founded in 1997, Free Arts has served more than 10,000 children.

Free Arts has several different programs for children — a weekly mentorship program that matches youth with a volunteer to work on art projects; a program for parents and children to work on activities together; Free Arts Days, a one-day festival of arts; and the Yes to Art program, an event that pairs local artists with youth for short projects.

All of the arts programs are designed to empower the youth and give them a healthy outlet for creative expression.

Getting involved in art can have a powerful healing effect on kids.

“From the kids’ standpoint, it’s really about being able to be a kid again,” Thomas said. “Art lets you lose yourself and get absorbed in something else. There’s no wrong way to make something … that’s a big part of it.”

Besides his extensive experience in the media industry, Thomas has long been involved in the arts. He is a published poet with graduate degrees in film and creative writing. He’s also served on boards for the American Composers Forum and the Minnesota High Tech Association and been a panelist for the Minnesota State Arts Board and Metro Regional Arts Council. And one more thing: he finds time for the Minneapolis Basilica Choir.

Before taking on the job with Free Arts, he worked as a consultant specializing in project fundraising, planning and media strategies. His resume also includes seven years serving as chief operating officer at Twin Cities Public Television.

Kim Witczak, chair of the board of directors for Free Arts Minnesota, said she’s hopeful that Thomas will bring the organization to another level.

“His unique experiences and proven capabilities in strategic planning, organizational thinking, fundraising, and his commitment to the arts will bring new direction and growth to our organization,” she said.