Mark Fraire speaks passionately about his new position as director of the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission, or Dane Arts, but he'd rather not do it on the phone.
"That's not the way I do things. I like to get out into the community and meet people, [to] engage on a personal level and make connections," he explains with a smile when we meet to discuss his long career in the arts, education and outreach programming. Dane County Executive Joe Parisi appointed Fraire to the leadership position on March 24, and Fraire began his new role on April 7.
Fraire has been making connections with students, fellow artists and audiences throughout his 25-year career, which started in an unlikely performance medium: standup comedy.
"I love making people laugh; that's all I wanted to do," he says of the experience.
After performing in clubs and training in Chicago with Del Close, a teacher and mentor to dozens of Second City and Saturday Night Live comedians, he realized his true talents lay in facilitating the artistic process.
As a Ford Fellow for Emerging Minority Arts Managers in the late 1980s, Fraire created and managed the Milwaukee Repertory Theater's community education department, training professional artists to lead classroom workshops. He also directed and wrote plays with high school students as part of this role. In 1996 these efforts earned him the Coming Up Taller Award, a national honor bestowed upon exemplary arts and humanities programs fostering intellectual and creative development among youth.
The next year he began his 16-year tenure with the Wisconsin Arts Board, where his focus was supporting arts education and programming on a much larger scale. As a grants programs and community services specialist, he traveled the state, meeting with individual artists and organizations across many disciplines. His goals included nurturing collaborations, encouraging cross-cultural exchange, engaging new audiences and giving artists the tools they needed to succeed.
Fraire says this experience helped him better understand "the overall energy needed to produce art of the highest quality" as well as "the cost of sustainability of programming." He also learned to place more value on the arts' economic impact.
"My question to artists is always, 'How can I best serve you and what you want to create?'" he remarks.
Fraire also has a wealth of grant-writing and fundraising experience, which he most recently showcased in his position as grants developer at the Madison Metropolitan School District.
Excited by the possibilities of his new position, Fraire says he'll quickly begin building a case that arts play a critical role in Dane County communities. In particular, he'd like to see a stronger arts presence in social services, athletics, manufacturing and "other businesses where we don't necessarily think of the arts as integral."
Fraire argues that engagement with the arts "encourages innovation, problem-solving and creative outcomes." In other words, it can be an important driver of economic development and social change.
"It's not a frill. It's not a hobby," he says. "It's essential to all our successes."