A growing cultural hub: How Muskegon Community College’s $9 million Arts and Humanities Center is set to change the school—and region

[Left to right] Kelley Conrad, MCC’s vice president for academic affairs; Dan Meyers, director of music at MCC; and Amy Swope, director of the Foundation for MCC, pose during Wednesday’s tour of the incoming Arts and Humanities Center at Muskegon Community College.
The public got a glimpse this week of the progress being made on the $9 million Arts and Humanities Center at Muskegon Community College [MCC], which is set to make its debut this fall and which educators and administrators say will significantly expand the school’s arts and music programming, bring much-needed facilities to faculty and students, be accessible to individuals with disabilities, and further grow and support the region’s creative class.

“This will be a tremendous improvement for the public; they’ll be able to come in and use the space,” MCC President Dale Nesbary said Wednesday afternoon, just before school officials provided a tour of the ongoing construction at the incoming Arts and Humanities Center. “Our professors are working artists and musicians. They exhibit and play widely—locally and nationally. They teach, they mentor, they love what they do, and they deserve to have the best.”

The Arts and Humanities Center project includes renovating the college’s former Applied Technology building and moving its visual arts and music programs into the newly refurbished space. As part of the project, the college’s automotive program will move from the former Applied Technology building into a renovated area that previously housed sheet metal union classrooms. Construction is expected to wrap up this spring, and educators, students and the public will be able to use the center when it opens for the fall 2019 semester.

An overview of the incoming center. Rendering courtesy of Muskegon Community College

About half of the $9 million project is being paid for through a millage approved by Muskegon voters in November 2013, and the other half is being paid for through fundraising, state and federal grants, and student and tuition fees. The Arts and Humanities Center is one of four projects that were part of the $24 million millage: the three other completed projects include the $14.81 million Sturrus Center in downtown Muskegon, the $9.6 million Science Center, and the $14.1 million Health and Wellness Center. A total of $50 million has been spent on the four projects, which includes the millage and additional fundraising and grants.

Both the art and music departments have long faced significant needs in the current spaces from which they’ll soon depart, Nesbary and college educators emphasized. In 1975, the art department moved to what was then described as a temporary venue just north of the college’s main building—in 2019, the department is still there.

The current art department’s space is “old, small and cramped,” Nesbary said.

“It was not appropriate for delivering a college curriculum, and it was not appropriate for professional artists to use to exhibit their work and help mentor students, not appropriate at all,” the college president said.

Kelley Conrad, MCC’s vice president for academic affairs, noted that the music department too is dealing with sub-par conditions in the main building’s lower corridor.

“We have people who work here who still don’t know where music is,” Conrad said. “Our instructors are professional musicians, and our facilities haven’t matched their professionalism. This is going to put us at another level. The schools around here have great music programs, and [the new MCC building] will now be a step up for them. It will help us bring in new students and keep more students in town.”

The new Arts and Humanities Center will include a music ensemble room, a keyboard lab, music teaching suites, practice rooms, a music library, a student lounge, a kiln room, a woodshop, an art lecture room, a faculty studio, and studios for 3D art, painting, advanced drawing, printmaking, and ceramics. Additionally, improvements will be made to the Frauenthal Foundation Art Center’s Overbrook Theater and control room. As part of this project, $1 million is being spent on renovations to MCC’s automotive building, including increased doors and bays available for auto technology instruction space, a student break area, instructor offices, and a classroom.

The college too is continuing to raise money for further work at the new Arts and Humanities Center and aims to raise about $1.5 million more for renovations at the Overbrook Theater, a large ensemble room, and classroom space, Director of the Foundation for MCC Amy Swope said. Those interested in donating or learning more should contact Swope by calling (231) 777-0571 or emailing Amy.Swope@muskegoncc.edu.

“We’re going from 0 to 90; there’s no comparison between the two,” Tim Norris, an art instructor at MCC for the past 22 years, said, referring to the old and new arts buildings.

“We’re going to be able to grow,” Norris continued. “We can use [the new] facility year-round, which we couldn’t before because there was no air conditioning. We haven’t been able to offer sculpture in the last dozen years; we’re hopefully going to bring that back. There’s going to be new classes offered that we simply didn’t have the space or correct kinds of equipment for before.”

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The new space will be a huge morale boost for educators and students alike, Norris said.

“For our students coming in from high schools in the area that have arts facilities that are incredible, when they come here it’s been a disappointment and an embarrassment for the college,” he said. “The art and music teachers, they’ve always gotten along with doing more with less. We’ve gotten used to the handicaps of the old space, and we’re going to be able to right those wrongs now.”

In addition to the aforementioned cramped spaces and inadequate equipment, the current arts space is cold in the winter and hot in the summer, Norris explained.

“And we’ve adapted to all kinds of animal wildlife,” he said. “There have been turkeys, birds, rodents. The studios don’t have separated walls; we cannot have classes overlapping because they compete with each other. In the new space, you can have classes meeting at the same time.”

Many of the administrators and educators we spoke to Wednesday noted the new center will be a major draw for students.

“Students will have a space they can enjoy and feel proud of,” Norris said. “We’ve lost students because we don’t have a the wow factor they’ve come to expect.”

With the new building, however, educators and administrators say there will be that initial wow factor and expanded programming that will help to draw students and further establish Muskegon Community College as a cultural hub in the region. Plus, it will help to support—and grow—the region’s growing creative landscape that now includes such institutions as the Muskegon Museum of Art, the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp—the largest summer arts program in the country, the Frauenthal Center, the West Michigan Symphony Orchestra, the Shoreline Symphony Community Orchestra, The Block, the Muskegon Civic Theatre, the Red Lotus Center for the Arts, the Lakeshore Art Festival, and more.

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“It’s going to make a difference, both in terms of art and music, we can’t calculate now,” said Nesbary, who himself is a trombonist with the Shoreline Symphony Community Orchestra. “Having this college have resources that would be the envy of many other colleges around the country, that puts us in a position where we’ll attract students who would’ve gone someplace else.”

MCC Board of Trustees Chairperson Diana Osborn noted the role the college continues to play in the region’s evolving creative class.

“The culture in Muskegon is amazing, and the college has played a part in that,” Osborn said. “The new center is going to help it to do that even more. People are going to want to come in and take art and come here for events.”

As more artists and musicians are priced out of other Michigan cities with soaring real estate prices, such as Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor, the Muskegon Lakeshore area could be poised to become home to these individuals—who officials note would benefit from being able to access cultural activities at MCC.

“Hopefully, we can be more of a cultural hub,” Norris said. “West Michigan is very attractive to the creative class, and we can play a bigger part in that.”

Story and photos by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. Connect with Anna by emailing MuskegonTimes@gmail.com or on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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