From Heritage Landing to Pere Marquette, a push to expand public art in Muskegon

The “Celebrating Muskegon” sculpture is slated to be located at the newly-opened roundabout at the intersection of Beach Street and Lakeshore Drive. Photo courtesy of the Muskegon City Public Art Initiative

Entering Pere Marquette Beach, the water, sand and sky converge, creating a kaleidoscope of color and scenes of sailing, beach volleyball, and sunsets that draw residents and visitors from near and far.  

The city’s beach is a point of pride for many, and with the new traffic roundabout at Pere Marquette complete, city officials have announced plans for a large public art installation celebrating the water, natural beauty, and spirit of the community to serve as an entryway to Pere Marquette.

The “Celebrating Muskegon” sculpture, created as a tribute to the history, natural resources, and character and resiliency of the people of Muskegon, features circular steel bands and colorful cast glass that is slated to stand as a welcoming beacon near Lakeshore Drive and Beach Street.

Designed by North Carolina artists John Littleton and Kate Vogel, “Celebrating Muskegon” came in a close second for another public art project at the county-owned Heritage Landing, which led city officials to consider it for the beach instead.

“We wanted to have something extra inspiring as you drove into the roundabout,” says City Manager Frank Peterson. “It was an amazing piece of art, and we really wanted to see it in the community.”

Part of an extensive push to add 10 significant works of art to the area, the sculpture is being privately funded through the Muskegon City Public Art Initiative (MCPAI). Launched in July 2018 and led by Judy Hayner, the former executive director of the Muskegon Museum of Art, the initiative operates under the auspices of the Community Foundation for Muskegon County in collaboration with the Downtown Arts Committee. No taxpayer dollars will be used for the sculpture.

“It’s not a city government initiative,” Hayner says of the MCPAI. “It’s a Community Foundation initiative to help grow Muskegon and help the city thrive.”

The Muskegon City Public Art Initiative is raising private funds for the “Celebrating Muskegon” sculpture at Pere Marquette. Image courtesy of the MCPAI

Crowdfunding campaign supports matching grant

Since the project is a collaboration with the city, the “Celebrating Muskegon” sculpture qualified for the Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC) Public Spaces Community Places program. The city is not providing funding for the sculpture, but it is allowing it to be on city land and public works employees will help to prepare the site for the work’s installation. The MEDC program provides a $50,000 matching grant if the MCPAI can raise $50,000 by Aug. 13.

Public Spaces Community Places is a collaborative effort of the MEDC, the Michigan Municipal League, and Patronicity. The program encourages local residents to be part of the development of strategic projects in their communities through crowdfunding that is backed by a matching grant from MEDC.

City officials announced the Patronicity crowd-funding campaign in mid-June as a way to encourage small and large donations among community members. So far, the campaign has raised around $18,865, with donations ranging from $5 to several thousand dollars, and those behind the effort are confident the goal will be met.

“Probably of the 40 donors, there are at least a third of them that I don’t know who they are, which is good; that means they are new,” Hayner says in an interview last week; that donor number has since grown. “This is a nice way to get a lot of people involved if they want to donate. There is no tax money going into this. These are donors who are excited to give money to it.”

The Patronicity platform makes it easy for individuals to donate online, and contributions can be made in any amount and are tax deductible. As someone charged with raising money for 10 public art projects, Hayner says this is a great opportunity for the community.

“I have also now sent letters to people who support art and said, ‘This is a great opportunity so we can double your impact,’” she says. “We will get a match; who doesn’t like a match?”

Peterson agrees, noting that 10 public art projects could turn into more if additional resources, such as grants, can be secured.

“There is a very well-qualified group that takes this very seriously,” he says of the Downtown Arts Committee, on which he also serves. “We wanted to have some community buy-in and input. A lot of the art projects that happen downtown, a lot of the fundraising is done privately.”

Children play on the “Mastodons on the Loose” sculpture outside of the Lakeshore Museum Center in downtown Muskegon last summer. Photo by Anna Gustafson

Private donation launches public art initiative

“Celebrating Muskegon” is the third of 10 planned public art installations in the City of Muskegon as part of the Muskegon City Public Art Initiative. A $250,000 initial donation from philanthropist Patrick O’Leary, who lived in Muskegon while working for SPX Corporation, spearheaded the effort.

O’Leary now lives in Arizona, but he remains passionate about public art and Muskegon, Hayner says. His donation provides up to $25,000 to kickstart each of 10 public art projects, and he isn’t involved in the art or artists chosen for each project.

Hayner’s job, she explained, is to find “stories we want to highlight, artists we want to partner with” and secure community partners, funding, and appropriate sites for the art.

The initiative’s first project was “Mastodons on the Loose,” which was designed to connect the community with its history and unveiled in August 2019. Sculpted by the globally acclaimed wife-and-husband duo Gillie and Marc Schattner, the life-size cast bronze Moxie appears to be breaking out of Lakeshore Museum Center with smaller sculptures of baby mastodons placed around downtown. Installation begins on the second project, “A City Built on Timber,” today, June 29, at Heritage Landing, and it will be publicly unveiled during a celebration on Tuesday, June 30.

According to Littleton and Vogel’s description of “Celebrating Muskegon,” the sculpture pays homage to the people of the Muskegon community and the lakes, rivers, and rich natural resources that have drawn individuals to the area for centuries.

The sculpture–which will stand at 22-feet high and weigh more than two tons–features a strong framework of stainless steel with circular steel bands enclosing colors of thick hand-cast glass that the artists explain represent the strength of Muskegon’s communities, ambitions, and dreams.

“Intertwining with each other, these circular bands also represent the energy of the many individuals who have come together over the history of our community to make Muskegon what it is today,” the artists’ description of the sculpture states. “The beautiful colors of cast glass within the bands of steel symbolize the remarkable natural attributes and resources that envelope Muskegon: the rich greens for our trees, parks and our plentiful natural resources surrounding us; and the vibrant blues for the remarkable open waters, lakes and rivers that are integral to the very character of this community.”

Part of the call for artists was to create something unique and special for the community. In addition, the glass bands include programmable, LED lighting that are motion activated, dusk to dawn, or can be programmed with a lighting sequence. The glass also will reflect the sun’s natural light and have a different look based on the sun’s location or where viewers stand, Peterson says.

“I like the cast glass,” Peterson says. “It’s different than what we have done around here.”

“It’s not just some kind of light show,” he continues. “Throughout the day, you will get a different experience with that piece of art all the time.”

A rendering of “A City Built on Timber,” a sculpture that is being installed at Heritage Landing on Monday, June 29. Image courtesy of the Muskegon City Public Art Initiative.

‘A City Built on Timber’ dedication this week

While community members are abuzz about the beach roundabout project, the second MCPAI sculpture is being installed this week at Heritage Landing. The dedication for “A City Built on Timber” is planned for 5 p.m. Tuesday and is open to the public.

The Downtown Arts Committee selected “A City Built on Timber,” a 20-foot tall work of art planned for the entrance of Heritage Landing, after a competitive submission and review process.

The sculpture by Detroit-based brothers Erik and Israel Nordin is inspired by the story of Muskegon, its timber, the water, and its people. According to a description from the artists, “The vertical elements, made of patinated carbon steel, emulate the strength and beauty of the great stands of timber of long ago, and remind us as well of our lumbering past on which has been built the city and community we know today.”

The view of the sculpture is unique from every angle, and it will be lit from within as well as illuminated at the base, creating visual appeal both during the day and at night.

The Nordins are prominent Detroit artists and established the Detroit Design Center in 1999. They have created large-scale public art for cities throughout Michigan, including Detroit, Dearborn, Birmingham, Sterling Heights, and elsewhere.

With Downtown Arts Committee, a focus on supporting public art in Muskegon

Hayner reports to the Downtown Arts Committee, which has been around since city officials started planning for the downtown’s redevelopment after the vast indoor Muskegon Mall was torn down. The committee was formed by the Downtown Muskegon Development Corp. to oversee the promotion of art and art facilities.

The committee handled the fundraising and selection of the prominent sculpture in the downtown traffic circle, “Muskegon, Together Rising,” installed by sculptor Richard Hunt in 2008, along with several other projects since then.

Currently, the Downtown Arts Committee has representatives from the city, county, downtown cultural institutions, philanthropists and others. Peterson says the committee is a good way to cut out the bureaucracy and politics involved with many public projects.

“It would be very hard to get any art placed,” he says. “It would end up not happening or going into other communities.”

The “Celebrating Muskegon” sculpture isn’t something that needs City Commission approval because, other than public works employees helping prepare the site for installation, there is no city money going toward the project.

Peterson says individuals and civic groups often approach the city about ideas for public art, and he directs them to the Downtown Arts Committee. A public sculpture memorializing the legendary Lyman M. Davis, which was the fastest and last commercial schooner on the Great Lakes, is a good example of a citizen-led art project.

Local resident John Hermanson had the idea for a public art memorial honoring the historic Davis schooner and helped raise much of the money for the artwork. He worked with the committee to install the 33-foot abstract sculpture in the traffic circle on Terrace Point Drive near The Lake House Waterfront Grille.

Judy Hayner, who leads the Muskegon City Public Art Initiative, at the unveiling of the “All My Relations” sculpture in downtown Muskegon. Photo by Anna Gustafson

The search for ‘the perfect space for art’

With 10 public art projects to commission, Hayner is always on the lookout for possible sites. Roundabouts “are the perfect space for art,” Hayner says, and she has since started recommending that utilities do not run through them.   

“The city immediately started talking about the new roundabout late last fall,” Hayner says. “As soon as we had the piece for Heritage Landing, that freed up that second sculpture, and they indicated they would be interested.”

Hayner works with various community stakeholders to coordinate the public art projects. She handles the request for proposal process and serves as the liaison for artists on everything from negotiating contracts to finalizing installation.

When it comes to the artist’s application and selection process, Hayner sends out information about the project and the request for proposal process to universities, art schools, museum professionals and other relevant organizations and contacts. MCPAI projects seek out local, regional, state, and, in some cases, national and international artists, she says.

For the mastodon sculpture, five artists, including a local and regional artist, were invited to submit proposals.

“It was a very specific idea,” she says. “It had to be something with a mastodon, and it had to be in bronze; there aren’t a lot of artists who do that.”

In the case of “Celebrating Muskegon,” artists Littleton and Vogel were among a group of 21 artists from around the nation, including Michigan and the West Michigan region, who entered concepts for the Heritage Landing sculpture.

The Downtown Arts Committee reviews the submissions through a blind judging process. Members see the art, the scale, the materials, and the artist’s statement about the work.

“It’s not about the artists; it’s about the art,” Hayner says. “We are going to look at the story we want to tell, the art and is it inspiring, and does it convey what we want to convey.”

After reviewing all of the proposals, the Downtown Arts Committee narrowed it to 10 and then to three artists and interviewed the finalists before selecting “A City Built on Timber.” Impressed by Littleton and Vogel’s “Celebrating Muskegon” concept, the committee approached the city about placing the sculpture at the center of the new Pere Marquette traffic circle.

“It was competitive and it was invitational,” Hayner says. “We identified local, regional, and national artists who have done large-scale public art.”

In many cases, it comes down to artists having expertise and experience with large public art projects–from concept to construction and installation–that can withstand the elements and hold up over time.  

“It is my goal and my effort to include local artists in the mix,” Hayner says. “‘A City Built on Timber’ is a 22-foot sculpture coming in on a flatbed. It takes engineering and drawings. With all the artists we reviewed, we had to make sure they had experience with large-scale, monumental public art installations that are going to be public and stand up over time.”

Peterson agrees that finding qualified artists is important to the process because some public sculptures cost the city money to maintain.  

“We have done that,” he says of using local artists. “We bought art that used the wrong material, the wrong paint. Those pieces end up costing more to maintain.”

Murals are expected to be painted on two railway overpasses on Seaway Drive. Photo by Anna Gustafson

More public art in the works

Two additional Muskegon City Public Art Initiative projects are already underway, and the deadline for proposals has been extended to July 24, Hayner says. The fourth project includes murals on two large railroad overpasses on Seaway Drive, one near Broadway and Sherman and the other between Hackley and Laketon Avenues. The project will involve four artists or teams of artists. Each artist or team will paint one side of the railroad overpass.

To be eligible for the mural project, artists must be from Michigan. For more details, click here.

One of the bridges spans 108 feet across and the other one is over 200 feet across. The murals on the Laketon and Hackley overpass should be completed by this fall.

“These are really going to be big,” Hayner says.

The fifth project involves a “contemporary, nonrepresentational” sculpture being sponsored by Women’s Division of the Chamber Commerce in honor of the organization’s 70th anniversary. The artwork is slated for the plaza area facing Shoreline Drive in front of the new Muskegon County Convention Center. The Women’s Division approached Hayner about the idea and has already raised funds to cover a large portion of the project.

“It will be contemporary, colorful and 20 feet or better,” Hayner says. “It’s a large sculpture, so you see it from Shoreline Drive.”

Hayner says that requests for proposals went to a large list of artists.

“We have local, we have regional, we have Michigan, and we have national in that particular call,” she says.  

Public art promotes community placemaking and pride

Dating back more than a century, Muskegon has a long tradition of philanthropists contributing public art for the public good. Charles H. Hackley, for example, donated Hackley Park to the city in 1890. A National Historic Designated Park dedicated to the memory of Civil War veterans, Hackley Park remains a showpiece in downtown.

“Certainly, some of it goes back to Charles Hackley,” Hayner says. “He valued art. He inspired the building of the art museum. That tradition, that heritage is old and we have simply continued it over the years.”

While Lakeshore communities all have beaches, Muskegon’s cultural assets and public art set it apart from other communities in the region, Hayner says, noting the city has nearly 50 pieces of substantial and significant public art.

“It gives people a sense of identity, a sense of place, and a sense of pride,” she says.

The “All My Relations” sculpture by Jason Quigno in downtown Muskegon. Photo by Anna Gustafson

Along with the mastodons, “All My Relations” by Grand Rapids artist Jason Quigno and the Lyman M. Davis schooner tribute are fairly recent additions honoring Muskegon’s history in downtown. Individuals also can take a seat beside Charles H. Hackley sitting on a bench across from Hackley Park, admire a statue of Vaudeville actor Buster Keaton outside the Frauenthal Center, pay homage to Black history with a mural honoring African American leaders at the corner of Mason Avenue and Fifth Street, or learn about Muskegon’s connection to the Snurfer, a local invention that led to the snowboard, through the “Turning Point” sculpture at 477 W. Western Avenue.

Public art is a gift to the city and a great way for residents to learn about and appreciate its history, Peterson says. The beach roundabout sculpture will, the city manager says, be an eye-catching addition for both residents and visitors to enjoy. 

“People say there are no free things for kids or families to do,” Peterson says. “We have dozens of pieces of public art. We have a public art walk. You can spend a day or more walking around the downtown. It’s an amazing opportunity for people if they take the time to stop and do it.”

To see a map of the public art in Muskegon, click here.

If the “Celebrating Muskegon” campaign is successful, the sculpture could be installed as early as late fall, but it will more likely be next spring.

“This is a gift to the city that the Community Foundation is taking the lead on,” Hayner says. “…It’s good for Muskegon, it’s good for pride, and it’s good for placemaking.”

Those interested in donating can do so via Patroncity by Aug. 13 or by mailing a check to: Celebrating Muskegon Fund, City of Muskegon, 933 Terrace St, Muskegon MI 49440 by July 30, 2020.

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

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