As Renae Hesselink walks through her new gallery—City Center Arts in downtown Muskegon—last Thursday, she takes in the space, her eyes moving to the walls and rooms filled with the works of West Michigan artists, and she smiles.
Here, in this gallery nestled in the basement of the historic Century Club at 356 W. Western Ave., Hesselink explains they are ready for the next day, when the venue will host the first reception for an art exhibit under the center’s new name; previously, City Center Arts was called the Red Lotus Center for the Arts and, before that, Red Lotus Gallery. The music—by Muskegon musician and artist Christopher Cordle—is ready to go for the following night, as is the food from Fatty Lumpkins Sandwich Shack and drinks from The Coffee Factory.
And, of course, there is the star of the reception for the “Black and White” exhibit: the art—the photography and paintings and sculptures—is set for its debut. In a little more than 24 hours, it is this space that will be crammed with one of the biggest, if not the biggest, crowds the venue has had for a reception.
“It’s so important to support local artists; most of our artists are from West Michigan,” says Renae Hesselink, who replaced Heidi Stukkie as the owner of Red Lotus Center for the Arts in October and launched its name change in January. “I want to give back to Muskegon, and I want to be part of the downtown growth.”
For Hesselink—a lifelong Muskegon resident who’s also the manager of Kitchen 242, a culinary incubator located at the Muskegon Farmers Market, and the vice president of sustainability at Nichols—being a part of downtown Muskegon’s growth is multi-tiered, from the gallery empowering marginalized and disenfranchised voices and artists to educating the community about the arts, offering an increased roster of art classes, and providing space for artists and other community members to convene, whether that’s to spend their lunch hour painting or to discuss our world at large.
“We have a very diverse community we live in, and we need to reflect that,” Hesselink says. “With our open mic nights, we draw a very diverse crowd. That was something [former gallery owner] Heidi [Stukkie] really expressed: she wanted anyone who took over the gallery to build upon the things they’ve done with diverse communities. That’s one of our visions, whether it be age diversity, ethnic diversity, LGTBQ diversity, we want everyone to feel welcome. We’re going to do a lot of outreach to make sure that happens.”
It’s only been a matter of months since Hesselink took over, but, already, she’s engineered changes that she’s hoping will not only ensure the gallery increasingly plays a vital role in the city’s arts landscape but which also supports artists and elevates community dialogue—about art, but about other topics as well. Hesselink, for example, organized a “global climate action strike day” event in September. She’s also hired an art director for the gallery, Laura Miller, who has spent years involved in both the arts and business, and has overseen physical changes to the gallery as well, including repainting and restructuring its two main rooms.
Other elements of the gallery are remaining the same, from the fact that artists can become members of the space for $5 to $25 a month to its monthly open mic nights hosted by Kwame Kamau.
For Hesselink, these changes, as well as the continuity, are rooted in a deep love and appreciation for both the arts and Muskegon itself. And, she notes, all of this is happening in a space that was in danger of ceasing to exist just months ago.
“I was making the final details for the climate action event with Heidi [Stukkie], and she said, ‘By the way, the gallery’s been up for sale and I’ve had a few people who’ve been kind of interested, but no one’s gotten serious; next Monday I’m going to send a press release saying the gallery’s closing,’” Hesselink says.
After Stukkie broke the bad news to Hesselink, she couldn’t stop thinking about it. Within a matter of hours, Hesselink decided she wouldn’t watch as one of her favorite spaces shuttered.
“I thought, ‘This can’t happen; we have so much going on downtown, and we can’t lose the gallery’” she says.
So, she made the jump: in mid-October, Hesselink officially became the owner of what is now City Center Arts.
The newly named venue, and its mission, have been overwhelmingly embraced by the community, with everyone from artists to city developers explaining how much they’re looking forward to the center’s future.
“The gallery came into this building around 2014, when Michael Schaafsma and his father [Ron Schaafsma] owned it,” Gary Post, a Muskegon developer who owns the Century Club building, says while attending Friday’s reception. “Heidi [Stukkie] took it over two years ago, and she did a nice job raising it up to another level. Then they were close to closing it, but Renae stepped in and she has already done a really nice job. We have great art in Muskegon that you can see here.”
The importance of City Center Arts is a narrative powerfully and complexly woven with words like joy and love and heartbreak and sickness, artists explain. It is a story filled with people who became artists after they believed they were going to die, with those who will tell you they got into art at the age of four but didn’t become serious about it until they were six, with students and musicians and activists who, if you ask, will sit down with you and talk to you about the isolation of being new to this country, of the Me Too movement, of the power of meeting people with whom you can connect.
“As much as we have an identity, a lot of that is we don’t have an identity—it’s to be open-ended,” Miller, the gallery’s new art director, says. “We want this place to stay here in Muskegon, and we want this to be a place where you can be you. In society, there’s a lack of creativity and independence in the job market. We’re not able to be what we thought we’d be as kids, so we’re all looking for a place where we can be ourselves. It’s a place where you can come if you just appreciate art or are an artist yourself.”
In other words, the gallery is a place meant to lift us from the ambient noise of our lives—the clinking of dishes that need to be washed, the dirty clothes lying limply in our rooms, the endless to-do lists at our jobs—and bring us to a place of beauty and exploration and inquiry.
“We want you to have a good experience here so you can go influence someone else,” Miller says. “This is a place where someone can express themselves, can be vulnerable and be safe enough to be vulnerable. I feel like Muskegon is a good place to do that. I’ve lived in many different places, and Muskegon has open doors. Columbus [Ohio] is very structured and very corporate; Grand Rapids has gotten the same way. Muskegon is different. I see more and more people from Grand Rapids coming this way.”
Evelyn Olthof, an artist who lives in Grand Rapids and is originally from Leeds in the United Kingdom, joined the City Center Arts in October and, as someone who is both new to West Michigan and the United States as a whole, says she has been especially grateful to be connected to her peers.
“It’s given me an opportunity to display my art and be a part of the community,” Olthof says at the reception. “I absolutely love it.”
Trevor Giles, an artist based in Muskegon who also joined the City Center Arts in October, too emphasizes the importance of being a part of a community.
“I joined because I really wanted to meet other artists,” Giles says. “I don’t have too many friends who are into art, and I wanted to be around art and people who share the same passion as me.”
And while there’s a shared passion, the group is, by design, a varied one, made up of people with a sea of identities—from elementary school age students to new mothers from across an ocean.
The youngest artist to exhibit at the “Black and White” show, 10-year-old Ryan Jarnagin says he is thrilled to have his drawing of a phoenix at the gallery.
“I got interested in art at four and got serious about it at six,” says Jarnagin, a home-schooled student who lives in Spring Lake. “I love art because it’s about creating your own world.”
A number of the artists at the reception emphasize the importance of incorporating the arts and local artists into the growth of the city—something both Hesselink and Miller are working hard to do. For example, Hesselink says the gallery plans to partner with the Muskegon Museum of Art on a variety of initiatives, including showing works by artists who didn’t make it into the museum’s annual Michigan Contemporary Art Exhibition, and growing its presence at the yearly Lakeshore Art Festival in downtown Muskegon.
“When the gallery first opened, the gallery was very involved in the Lakeshore Art Festival and then we haven’t been in the last few years,” Hesselink says. “We haven’t had anything displayed out front. This year, we’ll have a booth out in front of the store. Getting involved in the festival and supporting it is important to us.”
This support for, and from, the community is one deeply embraced by artist Vee Lamphere, a member of the gallery since the Schaafsmas operated it years ago—especially since it is her love for the arts and the community that have paved the way for Muskegon feeling like home to her.
“I moved to Muskegon in 2012, and I didn’t want to move here at first,” Lamphere says. “I missed my friends. But I started drawing to find beautiful things in Muskegon. I carried a sketchbook with me everywhere. Then I started making paintings of those drawings. Most of my paintings were of things in Muskegon.”
“I never want to leave here now,” Lamphere continues. “I found there are more artists here, and a whole bunch of murals have popped up since I’ve moved here. The arts in general are bigger here now.”
As the City Center Arts gallery grows, Lamphere hopes to see it increasingly become a place where artists can commune—not just to sell their works, but to connect with their peers and the public.
“I’d like to see it be more of a gathering space for the artists,” she says. “I like that this is where I can bring my easel and make my art.”
Lynnmarie Frisinger, a native of Minneapolis who moved to Muskegon 39 years ago and a member of City Center Arts for years, explains it is the “connection to other artists” that “keeps me coming back” to the gallery.
“I’m looking forward to lots of good things happening, and I hope we get lots of fresh, new members so we can continue to grow because that’s what it’s all about—building an art community,” Frisinger says in reference to City Center Arts.
It is, those attending the “Black and White” show reception explain, about building a community that understands that art can, quite literally, save your life.
“I didn’t start painting until I was 50, and that happened because I was waiting for a liver transplant,” Frisinger says. “It gave me something positive to focus on while I thought I was dying; it gave me a chance to leave something beautiful behind.”
Frisinger survived, and the former science, English and theater teacher’s painting has evolved into a passion that has brought her work into such places as the downtown Muskegon gallery.
“I think we’re more than just an art gallery; it’s more than just a shop,” Frisinger says. “If you want to put art in your house, don’t go to Penney’s; support local artists. You can get something nobody else has, instead of something 10,000 other people have.”
The “Black and White” art exhibit will run from Jan. 29 through March 7. City Center Arts is located at 356 W. Western Ave. in downtown Muskegon. For more information about the exhibit or the center, visit its website and Facebook page.