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creative:impact - Helping creatives WAABEL but not wobble!

WAABEL's gallery
WAABEL's gallery

Creative industries in Washtenaw County add hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economy. In the weeks and months to come, host Deb Polich, the President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, explores the myriad of contributors that make up the creative sector in Washtenaw County.

Creative Washtenaw CEO Deb Polich at the WEMU studio.
John Bommarito
89.1 WEMU
Creative Washtenaw CEO Deb Polich at the WEMU studio.


Abby Fanelli
Abby Fanelli

Abby Fanelli applies a commonsense approach and strategic eye to guide purpose-driven minds toward greater outcomes. Over two decades, her creative problem-solving has moved groups through complexity and translated challenges into value-added opportunity. A graduate of the University of Michigan and NYU, she began her career developing policy and programs for mission-focused organizations in the education and arts & culture sectors while earning fellowships at the Ford School of Public Policy and New York City Mayor's Office.

For more than a decade, she worked alongside Hugh O'Neill – former Deputy Secretary under New York State Governors Hugh Carey and Mario Cuomo – at the economic development firm, Appleseed. Here, she cultivated a distinct management style that places equal value on people and outcomes while overseeing a portfolio of high-profile clients including Harvard University, Brookhaven National Lab, the Clinton School of Public Service, and Central Park Conservancy. She has since served in leadership roles across the higher education, corporate, and nonprofit sectors, with a pause for an extended family leave in the middle – a deeply influential contribution to her personal journey and growth as a holistic leader.

As CEO & Co-Founder of WAABEL Start-Up Studio, she is driving forward the vision and planning for an organization poised to innovate the business side of the arts, specifically in service to traditionally underrepresented and emerging artist communities. An unapologetic optimist and dreamer, she believes in people and seeks to build capacity for those who think big and imagine a better world.



WAABEL'S Leadership

WAABEL on LinkedIn

WAABEL on Instagram

Abby Fanelli Resume


Deb Polich: This is 89 one WEMU, and it's time for creative:impact, WEMU's exclusive and award-winning show featuring the artists, creative people, businesses and organizations impacting creatively Washtenaw County's quality of life, place and economy. I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw and your host. Let's welcome today's guest. Abby Fanelli, welcome to creative:impact.

Abby Fanelli: Thank you, Deb. Happy to be here.

Deb Polich: So, you describe yourself--and I love this--as a dot connector, wearer of many hats, motivator, and idea bouncer-offer. You also, under full disclosure and with appreciation, are a Creative Washtenaw board member. So, thank you for that too.

Abby Fanelli: Yes. Thank you.

Deb Polich: So, I suspect your description of yourself is both accurate and purposeful.

Abby Fanelli: It is. And, you know, I would argue at times bordering on the cliche, right? We hear these things bounced around all the time. But I found, especially in my own career, not really having a firm sense of belonging or situation in a particular place. And a lot of those words really describe the sort of soft skills that I've accumulated over my career that really I apply in everything that I do. So, a bit more apropos than saying I'm a mathematician or an engineer, which I'm not.

Deb Polich: Right. So, you are able to apply your creative skills really to almost every area.

Abby Fanelli: Correct. Always flexibility.

Deb Polich: Which is a theme we talk about here about how creatives can do that. So, you've worked in economic development and mission for nonprofits, education, arts and culture sectors. You know, give us that quick snapshot of your work and how you've gotten to where you are.

Abby Fanelli: Yeah, absolutely. So, you know, I think I've always been very oriented toward opportunities and people--people for the most part, first and foremost. So, when I meet someone and they're doing something interesting, my first question is, you know, how can I get involved? How can I help? How can I support? Because I found that people are really the drivers of a lot of very significant and interesting things happening. And some of the things that are happening on that surface layer, be it economic development or storytelling, strategic planning, it's the how, which is important. But really, I've always found it's who you're working with and sort of the mission-oriented reasoning behind it that really gets me going.

Deb Polich: So, applying that thought process and what you do, you've perceived a need for artists. And you co-founded a company that's called WABBEL. It's an acronym for "Writers and Artists Balancing Everyday Life." I have to tell you. I keep asking about wobble, weeble and falling down, but I'm not going to go there. But it's designed to be a supportive ecosystem for artists to advance their careers, businesses and purposes. What voids or needs did you see that made you develop this company?

Abby Fanelli: So, I think the main themes that I started to recognize as I was having a lot of conversations around this were rooted in needs for community and needs for personal advancement on a tangible level, in particular, artists. You know, I don't want to say I was surprised because I think it's obvious, but artists are incredibly entrepreneurial by nurture.

Deb Polich: Sure.

Abby Fanelli: Just I want to do. I want to be seen. I want to get my creativity out there. The big challenge was the lack of structure and support around allowing that to move into a pipeline or a pathway. So, any number of children who say they want to be doctors or teachers or lawyers, there's just clear pathways because our society supports that and has designed ways of moving through channels to achieve those goals. Artists don't have that same sort of ability or even the hope. And, you know, I just questioned why not. There's really nothing about being an artist that shouldn't suggest that you'd be able to find a pipeline.

Deb Polich: Or shouldn't reflect every other industry and how people get through it and succeed in it. This is 89 one WEMU's creative:impact. I'm Deb Polich, and my guest is Abby Fanelli, co-founder of the WABBEL startup studio that assists and guides artists towards success. So, your company does four things. And, by the way, I love the tagline you have" Artists move. And we move artists." I like that. But you have four different areas that you focus on. And I don't know if we're going to get through all of them today, but consultancy, residencies, community and ecosystems. I'd like to start with the consultancy. What services do you offer?

Abby Fanelli: Sure. So, I would preface all four of those, in fact, by saying that, you know, we are very thoughtfully in our startup phase as an organization.

Deb Polich: Okay.

Abby Fanelli: And this is kind of rooted in just what I've learned and accumulated in my career around different phases of growth for organizations and what's required. So, in this startup phase, we are very much in a fact-finding, data collection, working on the ground, and trying to live into what we could be. And so, with regard to the consultancy right now, we're just engaging a community of artists in very personalized goals that are oriented towards strategy advancement. And we're trying to morph our consultancy around what we're learning from our work with these artists and what artists need.

Deb Polich: And are they local artists or from around the country or where do they come from? And do they work as a cohort?

Abby Fanelli: We cast a very wide net deliberately. So, we're working nationally with artists across the U.S., and we have a pretty significant cluster on the West Coast right now and also in southeast Michigan. So, I would say a lot of that is by nature of networks. So, artists talk to artists and share information. So, when we have a positive experience with an artist, they're pretty likely to share like, "Oh, you should work with this organization. They're doing good work." So, that's kind of how we're growing. But, that said, we are really trying to turn toward local ecosystems as we grow and trying to figure out how to build capacity at the local level, so artists can really advance their own local communities across the country.


Deb Polich: And that's actually one of your areas that I wanted to touch on because we kind of know we've talked about, at creative:impact, artist residencies. That's a topic we've explored. But the ecosystem nourishment. We've not explored something like that before. Tell us a bit about that.

Abby Fanelli: So, this is the stuff that really gets me excited. So, what I love to do is imagine how is each local ecosystem unique. And it doesn't necessarily have to refer geographically to ecosystems. This could be you want to build an online community of some sort or really casting a wide net on what that might mean. But we're hoping to work with artists on an individual level who want to make an impact in their local creative ecosystem, however they define that. And also, we're looking to partner with organizations in particular galleries, museums or other creative professionals, who just want to have outside the box conversations on how to advance the work of creatives in, you know, in our world.

Deb Polich: So, I know you said you're kind of new into this a couple of years. Do you have examples--an example--of success?

Abby Fanelli: Success in the ecosystem?

Deb Polich: Yeah, or just in general for any of the artists that you're working with.

Abby Fanelli: So, we have a lot of success examples, and I would say some of them are really just indicative of starting points. So, success in the way that we've done it and it's exciting and we're looking at what's next. So, a great example I'd point to on the partnership side is we identified a partnership with an organization called Vox Novus, which is located in New York, and they're musically-based.

Deb Polich: Right.

Abby Fanelli: And the thing that we were wondering was what sort of inspiration or spark could we expect when we kind of throw creatives of, you know, different walks of life, different mediums, different forms of expression into a space and just sort of give them the tools to play with one another, what might that look like and what could we expect might come from that? And we're sort of in the beginning stages of that. It's called the "Experimental Playground." But it happens to be an example of success in terms of how to build partnerships that are rooted in mutual reciprocity and how to kind of think outside the box to bring creatives together into spaces that are innovative, exciting, really get them, you know, joyfully playing with one another.

Building the Experimental Playground with Vox Novus (2023)
Building the Experimental Playground with Vox Novus (2023)

Deb Polich: So, artists that come to you. Do they enroll in all four of the programs, or do they pick and choose, or is that still yet to be completely decided as you grow and develop?

Abby Fanelli: So, I'd keep it open-ended for now. But I would say what we're looking for at this current stage of our organization's growth are just people who are interested in playing with us and learning with us. And so, we're working with probably a dozen artists right now really meaningfully and specifically to advance their personal goals while also advancing the organization.

Deb Polich: Well, I can't think of any other area except, I mean, people--artist--can move and bend and be flexible on all this. So, you've got a great cohort there. So, Abby, thanks so much for sharing this with us. We'll share the information if anybody wants to get in touch with you, but I appreciate you being on the show.

Abby Fanelli: Yeah. Thanks, Deb. Loved it!

Deb Polich: That's Abby Fanelli. Find out more about her and her work assisting and guiding artists at WEMU dot org. You've been listening to creative:impact. I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw and your host. Mat Hopson is our producer. We invite you to join us every Tuesday to meet the people who make Washtenaw creative. This is 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti. Public radio from Eastern Michigan University.

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Polich hosts the weekly segment creative:impact, which features creative people, jobs and businesses in the greater Ann Arbor area.
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