Fort Wayne native Dan Swartz spent several years learning all about the art business in New York City, but came back home because he wanted to be the proverbial big fish in a small pond. Now he is helping others in the creative industries by organizing Design Week Fort Wayne.
“The idea was never to permanently leave,” he said of his time the Big Apple. “Honestly, I always describe my relationship to the city (Fort Wayne) as a very weird one in that I just irrationally do love the city and something about Fort Wayne, even though most of my work is not really around the assets that we have in our community.”
Swartz still keeps a private advisory practice for art, which currently happens exclusively outside of northeast Indiana. However, his Wunderkammer Company is a nonprofit arts organization that he started in 2007 but found a permanent home in 2013 at the old Casa d’Angelo building at 12012 Tonkel Road.
“I think it’s honestly just a fit of opportunity,” he said. “I am able to found and operate a 10,000-square foot contemporary art center in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I would need millions upon millions of dollars to be able to attempt that in a place like New York City.”
Swartz is also the organizer for Design Week Fort Wayne, which takes place this year May 7-11 at the Arts United Center, 300 E. Main St. in Fort Wayne.
Several metropolitan cities throughout the United States and other countries hold design weeks, but Fort Wayne didn’t have its first until 2016.
Wunderkammer Company conducted a “Creative Census” research project in 2015, the results of which found that more than 36 percent of northeast Indiana’s creative economy is within the design fields.
“So we looked around that landscape and realized that at the local, regional, state – and honestly, even federal level – there isn’t any concerted economic development effort to assist economic development of those businesses,” Swartz said. “We were interested in how we could play a role in that and start to develop the design industries around here.”
Design Week is meant to be a means of bridging the gap between the arts and economic development.
Topics covered during Design Week include societal design, innovation/research and development, architecture, interior design, advertising, graphic design, and fashion.
The event will feature guest speakers, workshops, studio and factory tours, and quality networking events developed specifically to build, connect and inspire the local creative industries.
“We wanted to use that as a common language,” Swartz said. “Design Week Fort Wayne is meant to be the local entity but it’s also meant to be recognizable so we can attract people from out of town and new employees that have moved to town could recognize it as something they interacted with wherever they came from.”
Design Week’s first year, 2016, had 219 ticket holders and nearly 500 more attendees who came to the unticketed events. The following year had 543 ticket holders and more than a thousand attendees total.
“This year, our goal is for over a thousand ticketed attendees and the sky’s the limit for total attendees, depending on what people end up doing,” Swartz said. “We’re trying to grow the event and, if possible, turn it into something that has a strong regional draw, which is something we started to see last year.”
Swartz and his team try to interact with the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership and the other economic-development agencies for this event because “we believe our attendees and the businesses that we work with are very key to that growth,” Swartz said. “Designers are incredibly important in the growth of any city as a city is a designed entity and the more that you respect and the more prominence that you give the design community, it becomes more attractive to them and creates a feedback loop.”
He hopes northeast Indiana will become competitive with other communities in welcoming and elevating design in its architecture, urban design and other creative elements.
Workforce development was one of the key issues that ignited this process.
“We were talking to companies like Vera Bradley, Matilda Jane – those are two clothing-design-based companies that you have to import talent,” Swartz said. “We hoped that we could assist with that with some of our programming. Obviously, it depends on the business, but I think that is is a growing concern, where the talent is coming from (that is) necessary for these companies to grow.”
Efforts to attract and retain talent include matching university programs with talent locally and hosting speaker sessions during Design Week to highlight creatives who are from Fort Wayne but have left and are doing higher-level design work outside of the community.
“We’re producing a lot of great talent at the universities and even at the high-school level but then a lot of that talent is leaving the community still,” Swartz said. “In my opinion, greater articulation needs to be happening there so that the local workforce can absorb some of that talent.”
He adds a caveat, though.
“In the creative fields of work, a lot of times, it’s really good to send people away and ultimately bring them back so that they have a larger breadth of experience,” he said. “It’s not necessarily a bad thing that a lot of our younger talent is leaving as long as we make sure they’re leaving on a good note and that we are still encouraging them and keeping a line of communication open with them and a relationship so that they can return and that we have positions ready for them to return once they’ve gotten that experience.”
Ticket prices vary from $10 to $200 and can be purchased through Eventbrite.