Michael Faison 

After a successful career as a commercial artist and teacher, Michael Faison found his way to the nonprofit world. Bouncing between coasts, he held positions with the Oregon Arts Commission and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts before he decided to take the helm as the new executive director of the Idaho Commission on the Arts.

While he's only been on the job for just more than a month, Faison is already feeling at home. He took some time away from his office in the warden's house at the Old Idaho Penitentiary to talk to BW about the arts, Idaho and his road trip plans.

You started your job on the last day of the fiscal year. Any particular reason?

It was important, symbolically, and for the agency. They had been through a tough year, Dan's [Harpole, former executive director] illness and then his passing. It's just going to be saying a lot to have new leadership in place by the end of the year.

Why Boise?

There were others that came open, and­ I may be a baby boomer—I'm 49 years old—but I guess in some ways, in lifestyle, I'm more of a gen-Xer. Because, yes, my career is important, but I have to love where I live, and I won't go some place to work there unless it's a place I would be happy. Honestly, I didn't know what was here until 2005, when I came here for the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies. I was really quite amazed by Boise. It reminded me then, and it reminds me now, of my old hometown of Austin, Texas—just without the traffic that Austin has.

It's young, it's vibrant. People are healthy, out doing things. There are cultural things to do. It's a beautiful physical landscape. It's just a nice-looking town, downtown is hopping. So all of these things added up at the time, so I was like, "Wow, this is a great place."

When I came back for the conference in November, 2005, I came back a week early and rented a bike over at High Desert Harley and rode the mountains for a week.

So motorcycling is your other passion?

It is a need. If I don't have a place to ride, there would be diminishment for me.

Road bike or dirt bike?


How many bikes do you have?

I have two bikes. I have my touring bike, which is a BMW. It's 20 years old, and it still runs like new. And then I have my lovely, 1981 Moto Morini, which is a gorgeous Italian bike. It's 500-twin, bright, bright neon red, gold wheels, black exhaust and motor. It's elegant. It's actually simple, elegant rolling sculpture. Some non-motorcyclists wouldn't recognize it as something special, except "Wow, that is sure bright red." But because it doesn't have a lot of body work on it, it's a very simple, elegant design in the true Italian fashion. They were basically hand-built bikes. They brought a few thousand of them to the States over the years, and I have one of them, and they're rare as hens' teeth, and I'll never give it up. When it stops running, I'll just polish it up, and it will be sculpture.

What brought you to the arts?

It was my father that actually cultivated arts in the family. He felt that both I and my sister needed to take piano at a young age because it gives us options.

I ended up being in band and continued drawing and painting through youth. When I was actually in high school—up ­to that point, I had wanted to be a marine biologist­­­­—I had a wonderful art teacher that actually suggested that I consider going to art school. And I hadn't [considered it], and the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. My father supported it. He just said, "That's great, just remember you'll have to make a living."

I got a studio degree in painting and photography, and I ended up being a commercial artist and illustrator, and being very happy doing it. But then, eventually, I became a teacher and taught commercial art in Austin, Texas. It was extraordinary.

How did you end up in the administrative end?

I decided to go to grad school ... I knew that I wanted more education. I thought that I was, in essence, going to do museum education studies and bring that experience to the classroom. I wound up in Pittsburgh at Carnegie Mellon [University] because, I looked at all my options, and it provided me an education in the area where I felt I was weakest, which was the management, admin. side of stuff.

What shape is the commission in now?

First of all, Dan Harpole did a really good job. He made this a truly well-run, functioning agency that is truly responsive to people and is actually engaged around the state. And that's a feat in itself. I know where he was going with it, because I actually knew the man. Around the country, we had watched him work here. And we had watched him do a really effective job.

What would you like to see happen here?

We're just entering a strategic planning process. From September through the fall, we're going to be engaged in public planning meetings throughout the state at 11 sites. We're in the process of lining all of these up to get perspectives, get their viewpoints about what they need to thrive. Out of that process, we will help the commission identify its strategic goals for the next five years.

What's the commission's job?

To increase the accessibility of public programs in the arts for people. It's our job as a state agency is, in fact, to do exactly that sort of thing, but do it statewide. To make sure that people have access to quality public programs in the arts. I see arts institutions, arts organizations and the like—mom and pop to huge major institutes, to main-street volunteer arts efforts—as partners in that process. Our constituency are the citizens. Likewise, in that process is to foster a healthy environment for a thriving industry, because in fact, creative industry is critical. Certainly for the long-term health of a community, but also for the nation as a whole.

Is Idaho friendly to the arts?

Yes. It's a secret, I didn't know about it until I came here. It was obvious once I was here. But I can say for my peers around the country, it's the same thing. They have no clue. It's going to take awhile to help the country understand what's happening here.

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