From the historic Frauenthal Center and the nationally accredited Muskegon Museum of Art to the West Michigan Symphony, Muskegon Civic Theatre, a sea of public art, and much more, Muskegon’s deeply rooted and evolving arts scene is playing a powerful role in empowering a diverse city and county, attracting people to the area, and growing the local economy, community leaders said in a recently released video celebrating our area’s creative landscape.
The first project from the Muskegon Area Arts & Cultural Coalition [MAACC]—an organization that formed last year in order to advocate for and celebrate everything from newly painted public murals to long-standing museums—the six-minute video delves into the impact Muskegon’s arts and cultural institutions have on our community.
“Look how downtown Muskegon has become a thriving arts and culture hub,” West Michigan Symphony Music Director Scott Speck said in the video. “That has done much more than just increase the economic prospects and liveliness of this city.”
It has, Speck continued, fostered a sense of pride for Muskegon residents—who live in a county where arts organizations attract more than 100,000 patrons and tourists each year and provide an annual economic impact of about $13 million, according to a press release from the MAACC.
The video is something of an announcement of the MAACC itself: members of the organization have over the past year been working to formally launch the group that’s now in full swing. The all-volunteer MAACC committee includes: The Playhouse at White Lake Managing Director Beth Beaman, Muskegon Civic Theatre Managing Director Jason Bertoia, West Michigan Symphony Executive Director Andy Buelow, Muskegon Museum of Art Executive Director Kirk Hallman, Frauenthal Center Executive Director Eric Messing, James Jackson Museum of African American History Board Chairman William Muhammad, Lakeshore Museum Center Executive Director Annoesjka Soler, and Hackley Public Library Director Joseph Zappacosta.
Almost all of these individuals have assumed their positions within the past several years—at five years into her job, Soler has the most longevity of anyone in the group—which translates to arts leaders who are breathing new energy into the city’s cultural scene, Buelow emphasized.
“MAACC is really the result of a major shifting of the tectonic plates in Muskegon’s arts community in the past few years,” Buelow said. “Virtually every arts [executive director] here is new to their position, and in several cases to the community itself.”
When the group began to meet last year, everyone agreed there was a need for the arts organizations to work closely together on joint marketing, branding and advocacy—but do it in a “collaborative, efficient way without forming any new bureaucracies,” said Buelow, who moved from the state of Washington to Muskegon to head the West Michigan Symphony.
“MAACC is not just about generating more attendance and support of our venues, although that’s important,” Buelow said. “ The real point of it is to help the community intentionally leverage arts and culture as a resource for creative placemaking. A healthy, vibrant cultural sector spawns projects and spinoff growth that transcend the actual patronage of its anchor venues. It took years, but now you’re seeing that everywhere you look in downtown Muskegon. The message MAACC is carrying is, ‘this is just the beginning.’”
It’s the term “creative placemaking” that holds particular weight for Muskegon’s arts leaders. Essentially, it translates to the people and organizations that are leveraging the power of arts and culture to serve a community’s interest—while at the same time driving a “broader agenda for change, growth and transformation in a way that also builds character and quality of place,” the nonprofit Artscape explains.
It’s a phrase that encompasses what Muskegon’s cultural leaders are seeing, and want to continue to see, in this area: the arts prompting economic growth, connecting neighbors to one another and their community, making space for equity and inclusion, and drawing tourists and new residents alike.
“Arts and cultural organizations help build a destination,” Visit Muskegon Director Bob Lukens said in the video. “They provide an outlet for people to learn, for people to be entertained…Arts and cultural institutions here in Muskegon County provide an economic impact of more than $13 million every year.”
But, local leaders emphasize, it’s not just the $13 million the arts and cultural institutions generate for the area each year that’s worth noting: Muskegon’s arts landscape dramatically molds the world around us—and has for decades. Public art [such as Jube Rodriguez’s new mural on Third Street and Monroe Avenue or the “All My Relations” sculpture outside the Muskegon County Visitors Center] connect us to the struggles and strengths of marginalized communities while simultaneously making beauty accessible to everyone. The James Jackson Museum of African American History is a powerful commemoration of Black history in both our country and community. The Lakeshore Museum Center connects us to Muskegon’s past—and its future; the symphony has for years filled gaps in schools’ music education and brought students to downtown Muskegon for the first time in their lives; the Muskegon Museum of Art draws visitors from across the globe and challenges us to rethink the way we’re thinking about race.
The stories of each of the arts organizations could, of course, go on and on: many of them have been around for decades upon decades—and they’ve seen the region through some of our hardest, and our most joyful, moments. But whether they’re giving us a momentary break from the realities of the Great Depression or 2008 recession, or celebrating a community on the rise, these organizations aim to create a world in which we can explore, question and connect, area leaders emphasized in the MAACC video.
“Art in itself brings people together; it eliminates many of our differences because people tend to see the creativity and talent in individuals,” Frauenthal Committee Chairman Marvin Nash said in the video.
Which means, as Muskegon continues to grow, the arts are playing an increasingly important role in that evolution—from its ability to inspire dialogue surrounding issues like gentrification and race to giving us space—literally and metaphorically—to dance and connect with new and longtime neighbors alike.
“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, wrote 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.”
Locally, leaders note Rodriguez’s mural—which depicts children brimming with hope in a neighborhood filled with residents working to make change in the face of such barriers as disinvestment and racism, the Muskegon Museum of Art’s “SONS: Seeing the Modern African American Male” exhibit, and Community enCompass’s Youth Empowerment Project’s photography are emblematic of art that is fostering an “understanding of the past an envisioning of a shared, more equitable future.”
These are, of course, big, sweeping and complex narratives—but all of this, this dialogue about equity, this joy found in beauty, this empowerment of a community that has known deep strength and deep struggle, is part of a world we call art, community leaders said. It’s part of a world in which we aim to make culture accessible to everyone, in which we encourage us all to question what culture is to begin with and who gets to frame those definitions, in which we invite collaboration and important social criticism. In which we build a community for us all.