As investment comes to Muskegon, a chance to support the city’s growing art scene

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When Michael Schaafsma looks at the Red Lotus Gallery, an artistic haven nestled in the basement of the historic Century Club on Western Avenue in downtown Muskegon, he sees much of the story of his city playing out before him: a story of people — painters and sculptors and musicians and poets and dancers and writers — pouring their all into creating something, into making our world a more interesting, more beautiful, more inquisitive place, into ensuring artists will always have a place in Muskegon.

He sees the story of a changing city, of people who have believed in Muskegon throughout its ups and down, of an inclusive downtown, of what art can do for communities.

“We want to support the arts and the artists in this town; we want to foster value in original art,” says Schaafsma, who grew up in Muskegon and, along with his father, Ron Schaafsma, opened the gallery close to a decade ago. Over the years, it’s drawn artists from all walks of life, hosting an impressively wide variety of shows, such as the recent steampunk exhibit and the current Muskegon Lake Project, a show for which each work uses debris that volunteers cleaned up from Muskegon Lake. But whatever the theme, whichever the year, the gallery has remained constant in promoting local artists and affordable art. It’s art for the people, by the people.

A crowd gathers for the Red Lotus Gallery’s Muskegon Lake Project exhibition.

As Muskegon grows and economic development flourishes, Schaafsma and his fellow artists are now well poised, literally — they’re right in the middle of downtown, after all — and figuratively, to offer a creative voice in an evolving city and downtown.

“There’s a lot of new investment into downtown, and there’s a lot of opportunity in this town,” Schaafsma says. “We want to be a part of that.”

With the city expected to continue to grow, they hope to be reminders to city officials, economic leaders and developers that cities, if they are going to sustainably thrive, need to be supportive of a truly diverse group of people — including artists. That idea shouldn’t be too difficult to embrace: there’s plenty of research out there that proves the arts play a crucial role in fostering community, furthering a sense of place, and boosting the economy.

“Arts and culture are essential for building community, supporting development, nurturing health and well-being, and contributing to economic opportunity,” PolicyLink, a national research institute dedicated to advancing economic and social equity, writes in a 2017 report. “Collectively, arts and culture enable understanding of the past and envisioning of a shared, more equitable future. In disinvested communities, arts and culture act as tools for community development, shaping infrastructure, transportation, access to healthy food, and other core amenities. In communities of color and low-income communities, arts and culture contribute to strengthening cultural identity, healing trauma, and fostering shared vision for community.”

The Red Lotus Gallery is housed in the historic Century Club in downtown Muskegon.
The Red Lotus Gallery gift shop.

And while large cities like New York City and Los Angeles are, of course, hubs for creativity, the arts can play a vital role in smaller cities, like Muskegon. Richard Florida, an American urban studies theorist, points out in CityLab this past June that smaller metropolises, like Burlington in Vermont (which has a population just slightly larger than Muskegon) and Asheville, North Carolina have nationally recognized art scenes that improve the quality of life there and boost the regional economy.

“The message for city leaders elsewhere: You don’t have to be New York or Los Angeles to benefit from the arts,” Florida writes. “Smaller states and towns can also foster and benefit from being hubs of artistic and creative activity.”

The pull art can have for a city can already be seen in Muskegon, where the downtown boasts the Muskegon Museum of Art, a 105-year-old cultural institution that drew more than 30,000 visitors from 47 states and 27 countries with its “Edward S. Curtis: The North American Indian” exhibition. The show debuted May 11 and closed this past Sunday, Sept. 10.

“It is unique for a city the size of Muskegon to have a nationally accredited art museum as the anchor of their downtown,” Muskegon Museum of Art Directory Judith Hayner says in a press release. “‘The North American Indian’ exhibition has drawn new attention to the beautiful natural assets of our city and proving the importance of cultural institutions in our revitalization.”

Michael Schaafsma in front of one of his works, currently being shown in the gallery’s gift shop.

Now, with significant interest in the city from both cultural and financial players, Schaafsma, who also runs the Muskegon-based Aenias Design Studio with his father, says he hopes Red Lotus Gallery and the Muskegon Center for the Arts (MCA), a volunteer-led organization that operates the gallery, will be a big part of the investment happening in the downtown. And, as previously mentioned, he stresses the gallery, the MCA and the artists can provide crucial insight he hopes the city will heed during this time of investment and building.

“They need to stop mowing the old buildings down. [The city] can’t turn into every other town — the same chains, the same buildings,” he says last Friday, standing in the center of the gallery’s Muskegon Lake Project, for which MCA volunteers collected debris from the Muskegon Lake coastline. Instead, Schaafsma says, historic venues, like the 127-year Chase Hackley Piano Factory that is slated for demolition, could be transformed into something like artist studios, performance spaces and more.

A crowd gathers for the debut of the Muskegon Lake Project.
“Bottle of Fireflies” by Jill Farkas.

In addition to retaining the architectural feel of the city, Schaafsma and other MCA members stress that part of keeping Muskegon unique translates to supporting local art and artists — and they aim to do just that with a recently launched fundraising campaign that will help the MCA, which is now an LLC, to become a nonprofit, hire a full-time employee, further promote area artists, hire additional instructors for art classes at the center, and more.

“It’s a big dream we’ve had,” says Needra Bucholtz, an artist and MCA board member. “We want to be able to offer more — more classes, more instructors. We want to make a difference in the community.”

Humble beginnings and big dreams

About a decade ago, Schaafsma visited the Box Factory for the Arts in St. Joseph — an old factory building that was converted into a multi-use arts facility that includes artist studios, galleries, a performance stage, classrooms, and more — and was immediately inspired to do something similar in Muskegon. Starting out in a small space on Western Avenue, approximately a mile from where they are now, the Red Lotus Gallery moved about three years ago to its current space in the Muskegon Center for the Arts, which launched in 2012. At that time, the MCA formed a board and continued to expand the center, which now boasts about 43 members.

To support artists and make the MCA accessible to anyone who is interested, Sabryna Benmark, one of the MCA’s board members who regularly teaches jewelry-making classes at the center, explains there are three membership levels: one for which an individual pays $25 per month and doesn’t have to volunteer any time at the gallery, another that is $15 per month and for which members volunteer four hours per month, and a no fee option, which requires the artist to volunteer 16 hours per month. As members, they are able to show their work at the gallery, as well as connect with a variety of professional resources.

Needra Bucholtz, an artist and MCA board member, in front of her work, “Sea Owl.”
Sabryna Benmark, an MCA board member and artist.

And, Benmark and Bucholtz point out, the center is open to members of all backgrounds; you don’t have to be a visual artist. Currently, they have members who are authors, musicians and dancers. Members emphasize that the center’s programming makes it evident that it aims to be an inclusive venue catering to people with a multitude of interests: there is the art gallery, of course, but it also offers open mic nights every third Saturday, “creative Saturdays” on the last Saturday of the month — events for which anyone is welcome to join their creative colleagues and work on a current artistic project at the gallery, and workshops. Plus, the gallery includes a gift shop with paintings, sculptures, jewelry, cards, books, and music from local artists.

“We want to do even more,” Bucholtz says. “We want to have a sound room where people can record; we want to encompass dance and music. We have a lot of dreams for the future.”

‘They encourage you and inspire you’: A community of artists

For the MCA members and other artists in and around the city, the Muskegon Center for the Arts has often been a port in the storm: a place where, despite the myriad challenges artists can face when trying to make a living from their work, there is a strong sense of community and support.

“They encourage you and inspire you,” Debbie Collins, an MCA member, says of her fellow artists. “Each artist has different experiences you can draw from.”

Sabryna Benmark with her “Beach Abstract.”

Bucholtz agrees.

“I love the inspiration I get from my artist buddies,” she says. “Being here is helping me to grow and become more professional.”

Kyle Ackerman, one of the youngest artists at the MCA — and the one who created the gigantic Cthulhu that visitors immediately notice upon entering the gift shop — explains the center plays a crucial role in supporting the city’s creative scene by providing a space for people to show their work.

Kyle Ackerman and his “Into the Abyss.”
Brittany Nowlin and Kyle Ackerman in front of their work showing in the gallery’s gift shop.
Brittany Nowlin’s “Always On My Mind.”

“The Red Lotus is the only place in town for an artist to easily display your work,” he says. “Unless, of course, you know someone with a small business, [but] that may or may not be interested in your work. As an example, a friend of mine recently asked if I had any work they might display in [a local eatery]. Unfortunately, they were searching for some more ‘traditional’ art to display. For artists with a more ‘out there’ look at things, it is a problem. Fortunately, the Red Lotus is happy to hang work from many types of artists.”

Sarah Allison, a California transplant who moved to Muskegon about 10 years ago “because the water is so beautiful,” too says she’s grateful for the gallery and the center. Allison recently won second place for her “Industrial Dreamcatcher” work in the Muskegon Lake Project.

“There’s a lot going on” with the arts in Muskegon, Allison notes. As the city grows, she says she’d like to see “more community involvement in the arts.”

Sarah Allison’s “Industrial Dreamcatcher” won second place in the Muskegon Lake Project.

Ackerman too emphasizes this.

“The problem arises that everyone always wants something for nothing,” he says. “People may love your work and want to hang it all over their home or business, but are constantly looking to underpay, or not pay at all, which is very unfair. If you know an artist, support them. Support all local art.”

For more information about supporting the MCA’s fundraising campaign, click on this link. Additional information about the Muskegon Center for the Arts, including upcoming events, can be found on its website and Facebook page. You can find the Red Lotus Gallery’s Facebook page here.

Anna Gustafson is the editor of the Muskegon Times. You can connect with her by emailing or on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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