Arts, culture ‘vital’ to Muskegon community, nonprofit leaders say

Business News |May 2, 2017|5 min read

MUSKEGON, MI – The arts and culture community in Muskegon County is what makes it a unique place to work, play and live, according to advocates.


The Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce held Business for Breakfast: Business of Arts and Culture last week at the Holiday Inn Muskegon Harbor. Four panelists took the stage to tell attendees why arts and culture are important for Muskegon.


“When I think about Muskegon and I think about our assets, we have beautiful beaches, we have beautiful water, but so does everybody else from New Buffalo to Mackinaw,” said Judy Hayner, executive director of the Muskegon Museum of Art. “Here’s what everybody doesn’t have: everybody does not have a rich arts and cultural infrastructure like we do. Actually, nobody else along the lakeshore has it.”


Muskegon is home to 15 museums, and several other arts and culture organizations such as the Muskegon Civic Theater and the West Michigan Symphony.


The panelists were leaders of Muskegon-area arts and culture organizations. The majority of the audience had supported their organizations in some way. The master of ceremonies, Mike Olthoff, president and CEO of Nichols, is a board member of at least two arts and culture nonprofits. Suffice to say, the majority of people in the room were on board with the message that these services are important.


“We know that what we do as part of this community is bringing a richness and a diversity of ideas and creativity to everything here,” Hayner said. “People think Muskegon is an old industrial town. OK, fine. But we’re so much more than that. If we want to alter people’s perception … all you have to do is look to the arts and culture organizations.”


The Muskegon Museum of Art is gearing up to unveil its largest exhibit yet, “Edward S. Curtis: The North American Indian.”
“Edward S. Curtis: The North American Indian” will open on May 11.


All four of the nonprofits on stage are supported by admissions and fundraising with very little, if any, government funding. The Lakeshore Museum Center is supported by a 0.325-mill countywide property tax.


“Every year, we start from the same number, and that’s zero,” said Carla Hill, president and CEO of the West Michigan Symphony. “We don’t like to believe we’re begging for money, we’re asking you to support something that’s so key and so vital to your community.”


Tickets sales account for more than one-quarter of the symphony’s budget, she said.
“We all exist because of you,” Hayner said to the audience. “What we require is a community that really believes in the arts and culture.”


All four panelists spoke about what they’re doing to attract children and families to their venues. Hayner and Hill agreed that those programs are building their audience for the future.


“We are growing our next audience,” Hill said of symphony programs like Link Up, children’s choir and beginner strings lessons. “It’s a very long game, and this is where we start. … Those are some of the education pieces that we are doing to grow that next audience and keep moving them up that chain so that when you guys fall off at 90, we’ve brought more people along.”


The Link Up program, which culminates with a concert at the Frauenthal Center, alone serves about 4,600 third- and fourth-grade children annually from 56 schools in six counties, she said. The children learn to play the recorder, and participate in the concert from their seats in the audience.


“It’s a game of exposure, and engagement with kids that will remember that,” Hayner said. “It is a long game, and it’s always worth playing.”


The Muskegon Museum of Art hosts an annual K-12 exhibition, free programs on Super Saturdays, and hosts about 5,000 children for school field trips annually, she said.


On Monday, May 1, the Lakeshore Museum Center opened its nine sites for the summer season. The museum system receives about 60,000 visitors annually, about one-third of whom are from out of town, said Annoesjka Soler, executive director.

The USS Silversides submarine and museum is the second largest tourism attraction in Muskegon County, behind Michigan’s Adventure, said Wes O’Donnell, executive director. It attracts 65,000-70,000 visitors annually, and the majority are veterans, active service members and their families who come from out of state. Still, about 35 percent of the museum budget is generated by Boy Scout overnight encampments.


“What arts and culture brings to a community is authenticity,” O’Donnell said. “We live in a phony world right now. … What works is authenticity, originality, creativity. Visitors want something new, something they haven’t seen before.”


Sealed Power’s life-size female figurine on display at Muskegon museum
It is among eight new or revamped exhibits at the Muskegon Heritage Museum.


Arts and culture is a vibrant part of the Muskegon community, Olthoff said.


“If culture is the sum total of who we are, then we all need to get out there and enjoy it more,” he said.
Muskegon County boasts 15 museums, beautiful beaches, a multitude of festivals and many community arts and culture organizations.