A celebration of Muskegon: The city’s arts world in 2020 showcases an expanding cultural landscape

A preliminary rendering of the Lakeshore Museum Center’s upcoming expansion. Image courtesy of Andrea Riegler/AJR Design and Trevor Frank/SEH

Muskegon’s art and cultural institutions carried downtown through some dark years, drawing people to the blocks around Western Avenue in the wake of the shuttered indoor mall and bulldozed buildings.

Now, as Muskegon continues its comeback in 2020, the city’s arts organizations are adding to the momentum by planning capital campaigns, expansions, innovative programming, and more.

The Muskegon Museum of Art is exploring the feasibility of an expansion and plans to devote its galleries to an all-permanent collection showcase this summer. The Lakeshore Museum Center will ask voters to renew its annual operating millage in May and bring the collections and operations of Muskegon Heritage Museum under its umbrella.

At the Lakeshore Museum Center, there will be two community-focused exhibits: one that will highlight the 50th anniversary of the city’s vote that paved the way for the Muskegon Mall, a new City Hall, and more, and another exhibit featuring the history and people of Temple B’nai Israel, the smallest synagogue with a full-time rabbi in the nation.

And a task force that includes leadership from Muskegon Rotary and West Michigan Symphony aims to put permanent, weatherproof outdoor music instruments in Muskegon parks this summer. 

Read on to see what else is in store for the arts and cultural scene in 2020.

Muskegon Museum of Art Executive Director Kirk Hallman in front of John Steuart Curry “Tornado Over Kansas,” which will be shown in an upcoming exhibit showcasing the MMA’s permanent collection. Photo courtesy the MMA

Muskegon Museum of Art

Muskegon’s philanthropic father, Charles Hackley, always wanted to establish an art museum for Muskegon, but other public projects took precedence. Thanks to foresight and legacy planning, Hackley still had a hand in making it happen through a bequest in his will.

An expendable trust of $150,000the only money donated by Hackley for anything related to the fine artsenabled Muskegon Public Schools Board of Education to, as the philanthropist stipulated, purchase “pictures of the best kind.”

That investment played a key role in the formation of the  Muskegon Museum of Art (MMA), which, since its inception in 1912, has grown its permanent collection holdings from those early Hackley Picture Fund purchases to more than 5,300 artifacts and artworks. Due to space constraints, less than 100 are typically on display because other galleries host traveling and temporary exhibitions.

This summer, instead of scheduling a big blockbuster exhibit, the museum plans to bring out an array of artwork that it usually hides in storage.

“It will show what we could be every day if we had the gallery space to display it,” said MMA Executive Director Kirk Hallman. “We are looking at sustaining this museum for another 100 years.”

MMA staff and board members have discussed an expansion at the museum for decades, and 2020 could be the year the project finally gains real momentum. As museum officials continue “silent fundraising,” they are gearing up for a capital campaign and plan to announce more details later this spring, Hallman said.

“We’ve always talked about it,” Hallman said. “We are focused on strategic planning right now.”

The announcement will coincide with the museum’s opening of several in-house exhibitions designed to show off the museum’s impressive permanent collection, particularly its holdings in fine studio glass. MMA has nearly 150 glass works in the collection, yet only about a half-dozen pieces are typically on display.

“Celebrating the Past, Shaping the Future: The Permanent Collection Exhibitions” will run May 7-Aug 30. The feature exhibit, “Glass Experience: Form from Fire in Sound and Vision,” highlights works by many of the artists that defined the studio glass movement. Visitors will see Dale Chihuly, Harvey Littleton, and Marvin Lipofsky, joined by works made by contemporary glass masters, and collections of vintage Tiffany and Steuben lamps and glasswork.

The museum’s remaining galleries will feature its most notable and classic American and European masterpieces, German and Dutch classics, a century of photography, Renaissance prints, Japanese prints and pottery, African American art and more.

“It’s going to be a really eye-opening summer to the public,” Hallman said. “We want to get as many people through here as possible.”

Artist Rebecca Howe’s “Let’s Go” is one of the illustrations featured in the “20 for 20: Celebrating Michigan Illustrators” exhibition, which opens this Thursday, Jan. 16. Image courtesy of Rebecca Howe

Before the ground thaws, there is still plenty to see. Every winter, MMA organizes a children’s book illustrator exhibit, and the current one offers a curated view of children’s illustrators from across the mitten. The exhibition, “20 for 20: Celebrating Michigan Illustrators,” opens this Thursday, Jan. 16, and runs through April 19.

“Excellence in Fibers V,” an annual, international juried fiber arts competition organized by the Fiber Art Network, runs through March 15. That is paired with “The Art of Making: Sculpture and Fiber from the Permanent Collection” on display until March 22.

Looking ahead, MMA has booked a blockbuster Hollywood costume exhibition for summer 2021. The traveling exhibition features real costumes worn by movie stars such as Johnny Depp, Heath Ledger, Meryl Streep and more.

“It’s a big show and the only Midwest venue for 2021,” Hallman said. “I think everybody is reaching to do bigger and better things. I know we are.”

The Lakeshore Museum Center will take on the operations of the Heritage Museum in downtown Muskegon. Pictured here, Linda and John Hilt cut the ribbon for the Heritage Museum’s new elevator as Anne Dake, who runs the museum with her husband, Allan Dake, cheers them on. Photo by Anna Gustafson

Lakeshore Museum Center

Dedicated to preserving and sharing Muskegon County history, the Lakeshore Museum Center opened in 1937 and has been supported by a countywide operations millage since the mid-1980s. The museum center, which houses historical artifacts, offers free school programs, and manages several historic sites, plans to ask voters to renew its operations millage during the May 2020 election.

The millage brings in roughly $1.3 million for the museum’s annual $2 million budget.

Lakeshore Museum Center Executive Director Annoesjka Soler

In addition, the Lakeshore Museum Center plans to take on operations of Muskegon Heritage Museum at 561 W. Western Ave. The center will acquire the Heritage Museum’s assets and artifacts and employ a site manager to oversee the seasonal museum.

A passion project of Anne and Allan Dake and supported by a team of volunteers, Muskegon Heritage Museum has grown into a three-story museum focused on Muskegon’s industrial and manufacturing history. The goal for the acquisition is mid-to-late 2020, and Lakeshore Museum Center will manage the building and exhibits as-is on Western Avenue, said Lakeshore Museum Center Executive Director Annoesjka Soler.

“The Heritage Association is going to donate that building and its contents to my museum,” she said. “The Heritage Museum is a perfect extension of what we do. It’s a great location; all of it is within walking distance. It’s a nice way to ensure the love they put into that museum stays on the landscape.”

Soler reached out to the Dakes about a succession plan to preserve the museum in perpetuity.

“They are still going to be very active volunteers, but they don’t want to have to respond when the furnace breaks,” she said. “When the cruise ships are here, they want to be in there working with the visitors. They want to be doing all of that, and they have a lot of volunteers. We want to maintain that environment that they have there.”

The Dakes did an excellent job to make sure the museum is self-sustaining—including raising about $1.35 million in a capital campaign—so it won’t add additional operating costs to Lakeshore Museum Center unless officials change the business model or increase staff and hours, Soler said. In the coming years, the Lakeshore Museum Center will rebrand and roll the Heritage Museum into its marketing efforts.

The inside of the Muskegon Mall that was once in downtown Muskegon. Photo courtesy of Radium Photo

More immediate things to experience include the recently opened  “Cheers! A History of Brewing in Muskegon,” which runs through May 18 and celebrates the city’s rich tradition of making beer. A next temporary exhibit opens this summer focusing on the 50th anniversary of the city’s voter-approved move to tear down historic buildings to make way for the Muskegon Mall, a new City Hall and more. The exhibit will explore a number of topics pertaining to the vote, including the displacement of minority-owned businesses, Soler said.

The Lakeshore Museum Center also partnered with a Grand Valley State University professor and intern to develop an exhibit on Muskegon’s Temple B’nai Israel, the country’s smallest synagogue with a full-time rabbi.

The exhibit highlights the history, parishioners, and longtime Rabbi Alan P. Alpert and his wife, Anna. Set to open in September, it will be up throughout the holidays, giving people the chance to experience Jewish celebrations.

[Left to right] Rabbi Alan Alpert, Anna Alpert, Dr. Guy Stern, Jennifer Fairweather, and Pastor Chris Anderson at the 24th annual Shoah Commemoration in Muskegon last year. A Lakeshore Museum exhibit will highlight Muskegon’s Temple B’nai Israel, for which Alan Alpert is the rabbi. Photo by Anna Gustafson
The museum has increased its programs from 60 to 600 annually since Soler joined the museum five years ago, adding innovative activities like Mindcraft scavenger hunts, escape rooms, and Clue events at the Hackley and Hume Historic Site, which continue to sell out and draw younger visitors, Soler said.

Museum officials are in the early stages of planning and design work for an expansion on the main building at the corner of 4th Street and Clay Avenue. The proposed 40,000-square-foot addition will include dedicated children’s STEM space to enhance existing science and technology programs.

The museum center annually serves 25,000 schoolchildren and 25,000 families and is at capacity as far as hosting school groups, Soler said.

“We already fold a lot of science into what we do,” Soler said. “Right now, we have a new STEM center in our existing footprint that was made possible through a grant from Arconic. It shows people what we are hoping to give them, but on steroids.”

The planned addition includes more temporary gallery space to bring in rentals and organize larger exhibits and a facelift to the museum’s existing “Coming to the Lakes” history exhibit. The added space will bring the best of what the former Heritage Park outdoor living history museum had to offer indoors, Soler said, and encompass hands-on props and activities.

Most of the existing building will become administration space and house the center’s collections. Right now, the 50,000 artifacts and objects are kept off-site and have to be packed and transported to various sites.

The project hinges on funding and voters approving a construction bond, but the tentative timeline is to break ground in 2022 and open by 2024, Soler said.

“We’re trying to time that too with the Convention and Visitors Bureau and city opening the new convention center,” she said. “We’re kind of doing what the community is asking, but that doesn’t mean it’s a slam-dunk vote. We really want to be more relevant and be able to serve more of our community in addition to the tourists.”

Cellist Sujari Britt will perform with the West Michigan Symphony at a March 13 concert. Photo courtesy of Sujari Britt

West Michigan Symphony

Creating classical music for the past 80 years, the West Michigan Symphony has mapped out the entire 2020-2021 season and plans to announce the lineup later this month, when subscribers will have first dibs to renew their season ticketsand seats in the historic Frauenthal Theater.

Until then, the Lakeshore’s professional regional orchestra kicks off 2020 with several exciting concerts. Pops II on Jan. 31 brings the acoustic guitar duo of Frank Vignola and Vinny Raniolo on stage with the symphony. The March 13 Masterworks III: Sensational Sujari is dedicated to showcasing the under-represented in classical music with a March 14 performance by classical cellist Sujari Britt at The Block.

Other upcoming concerts include: POPS III: Mardi Gras in Muskegon on April 14, which celebrates the spirit of Mardi Gras with a night of New Orleans jazz; Masterworks IV: Four Seasons, Two Hemispheres on May 15; and Masterworks V: Voices of Resurrection on June 5, which features the Chamber Choir of Grand Rapids and Muskegon Chamber Choir.

West Michigan Symphony Executive Director Andy Buelow. Photo courtesy of the West Michigan Symphony

“Simultaneous to what’s happening on the ‘big stage,’ of course, is our busy schedule on the ‘little stage,’” West Michigan Symphony Executive Director Andy Buelow said, referring to The Block in downtown Muskegon.

The Block, an intimate performance space adjacent to the symphony’s offices at 360 W. Western Ave. has six musical performances, including jazz, folk and classical, between now and the end of May. The venue’s Movies+Music Wednesday night film series also returns for a second season on Jan. 15.

Regular visitors should also notice new equipment and physical changes to improve the live experience for audiences and performers. The project includes a permanent second-floor ticket counter and enhancements to improve sound isolation in the venue. The reconstruction removed a glass atrium that opened into Unruly Brewing, and new acoustic hard doors are being installed on the main entrance to the performance room.

“We have a successful brew pub beneath us and a busy wedding and event ballroom next door,” Buelow said. “All three businesses work cooperatively and communicate regularly so that our events don’t conflict, but clearly the nature of the performances at The Block make us particularly vulnerable to sound bleed from the outside. And this will only become more of an issue as the downtown becomes busier and more vibrant.”

The Block is a subsidiary of WMS and has its own board of directors, but the organization’s two boards are collaborating on a new strategic plan that encompasses the entire organization and the ever-expanding music education programs central to each, Buelow said.

“This is a work in progress, and we’re not ready to go into specifics yet,” he said. “But program expansion, particularly of our work with youth and in the community, will figure prominently in this plan. Optimizing our financial health obviously goes hand-in-hand with that.” 

To continue growing the symphony’s community footprint, Buelow said “we need our business model performing at a peak level.” In recent seasons, the focus has been on building attendance and philanthropywhich has led to a record number of subscribers (patrons purchasing season tickets) and an increase in symphony attendance, according to Buelow.

“Now that both are now on an upswing, we need to build our endowment and rainy-day fund to ‘best practice’ levels,” he said.

A previous performance from the Muskegon Civic Theatre’s The Penguin Project. Photo courtesy of the Muskegon Civic Theatre

Muskegon Civic Theatre

Continuing the tradition of community theater, Muskegon Civic Theatre is further celebrating its 35th season with performances exploring sexuality, family, finding the epic in the ordinary, and more. Too, the organization recently completed a roof project on the scene shop, and Managing Director Jason Bertoia credits the support of the community for helping to make it happen.

“We are extremely grateful and thankful that our history of possessions will continue to be stored safe and dry in the building for many years to come,” he said.

The second half of MCT’s 35th anniversary season begins this month with the musical “Fun Home,” presented Jan. 17-25 in a black box setting on the Frauenthal Theater stage. The musical, adapted from Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic novel by the same name, tells the story of the main character, Alison, navigating life after the death of her father. A refreshingly honest and poignant performance, “Fun Home” takes us into explorations of family, sexuality and seeing parents through grown-up eyes.

Muskegon Civic Theatre Managing Director Jason Bertoia

Next, MCT takes on “Our Town,” a classic piece of American theatre never before produced by Muskegon Civic Theatre, running Feb. 14-29 in the Beardsley Theater. Described by playwright Edward Albee as “the greatest American play ever written,” “Our Town” bring the audience into small town America and is a celebration of finding the beautiful in our everyday lives.

The season wraps with “everyone’s favorite modern classic musical,” Bertoia said. “Mamma Mia!” takes the Frauenthal stage April 30-May 3, and MCT will announce the 2020-21 season lineup on opening night. The theater company’s next Penguin Project production will be “The Wizard of Oz, Jr.” The Penguin Project connects children with special needs with opportunities to participate in the performing arts.

While there is no capital campaign in the works, MCT always encourages and seeks out community support for its operations, Bertoia said. Each year, auditorium and rehearsal space rentals continue to increase, as does licensing, royalties, and production costs.

“This makes the need to have underwriters, corporate sponsors, and individual contributors all the more important and where Muskegon Civic Theatre needs our community’s help,” he said. 

“Ticket sales, though seeing a huge increase lately, aren’t enough to support the excellent productions that Muskegon has come accustomed to,” Bertoia continued.

The Frauenthal Center in downtown Muskegon. Photo courtesy of the Frauenthal Center

The Frauenthal Center

Another downtown anchor, the Frauenthal Center—which turns 90 years old this year—continues to book unique concerts, shows, expos and other events. The Frauenthal serves as the performance venue for Muskegon Civic Theatre, the West Michigan Symphony, and Muskegon Community College’s music ensembles and choir groups, including Music Spectacular on Feb. 23 as part of its Downtown Live Concert Series. 

Frauenthal Center Executive Director Eric Messing. Photo courtesy of Brett Atwood, Be Heard Video.

The Alley Door Club’s 15th season also warms up winter with live music from popular local bands. The series offers concerts every second and fourth Friday from January to April in the ballroom on the third floor of the Hilt Building. The schedule includes: Root Doctor on Jan. 24; Westside Soul Surfers on Feb. 14; That Beatles Thing on Feb. 28; Brena on March 13; Steeple Hill Band, onMarch 27; Yard Sale Underwear on April 10; and Big Daddy Fox & Friends on April 25. 

“We hope to soon make a public announcement about a new monthly family-friendly entertainment series in the Frauenthal Theater,” Frauenthal Executive Director Eric Messing said. “Also, this year we will be celebrating our 90th anniversary, again, with details to come.”

The Muskegon Area Arts & Culture Coalition

As part of the recently-launched Muskegon Area Arts & Cultural Coalition, arts leaders regularly gather to share ideas and brainstorm ways to promote the sector. West Michigan Symphony was a founding member of the coalition, which wants to collaborate on “building a more vibrant, connected arts and cultural sector with joint marketing, resource sharing, and creative placemaking,” Buelow said.

Formed last year, the coalition advocates for everything from newly-painted public murals to long-standing museums—its first project included a video celebrating celebrating our area’s creative landscape. Coalition members include The Playhouse at White Lake, Muskegon Civic Theatre, West Michigan Symphony, Muskegon Museum of Art, the Frauenthal Center, the James Jackson Museum of African American History, the Lakeshore Museum Center, and Hackley Public Library.

Another aspect of the symphony’s strategic plan involves stepping up as a force for leadership, collaboration, and community growth, Buelow said. A direct outreach project involves putting permanent, weather-impervious outdoor music instruments in Muskegon area parks by this summer.

“A task force that includes leadership from Muskegon Rotary and WMS has been working on this for over a year, and we’ve raised most of the money already,” he said. “Obviously, it’s not directly tied to filling seats at the Frauenthal, but projects like this, that bring music-making within the reach of everyone in the community, are central to our mission.”

The MAACC’s overarching goal is to promote awareness of the contributions arts and culture make, not only to quality of life, but education, health, and economic development, Hallman added. The cultural institutions have a combined $15 million impact on the community, offer unique outreach and school programs, and draw tourists and employees to the region.

“We’re just trying to get everyone in town to realize, at a high level, how important we are to the vitality and economic development of the community,” Hallman said. “We really are interwoven into the well-being of the community.”

Story by Marla R. Miller. Marla is a journalist and content marketing writer who lives in Norton Shores. Please visit marlarmiller.com or connect with her on Facebook or Twitter.

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