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Arts leadership in northwestern Michigan is changing, and fast

The Garden Theater in Benzie county. PC: Tyler Thompson
Tyler Thompson
IPR News
The Garden Theater in Frankfort sits between Betsie Lake and Lake Michigan. (Photo: Tyler Thompson/IPR News)

No matter where you go in northern Michigan, it can be pretty easy to find the arts venue.

On Front Street in Traverse City, there's the City Opera House.

Just a few steps down to the State Theater to see new films like “Everything, Everywhere All at Once," or classics like "The Lord of the Rings."

State Theater

There’s a symphony, community theaters, historical homes, and lots more.

“It's just a really vibrant area. And some would say we bat so far out of our weight class I probably mangled, but it’s true,” said Mary Gillett, director of the Northwest Michigan Arts and Culture Council.

Mixed metaphors aside, Gillett says there are at least 200 arts organizations across the 10 counties that the council serves.

“That goes across the board: it includes so many thousands of individual artists, culture bearers, those that create the work that infuses all of us with creative talents and so many wonderful organizations. That said, we’re really coming through a tough time," Gillett said.

In the last half year, at least 20 leaders in arts organizations in Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Emmet and Antrim counties have left or plan to leave.

Some went downstate for new opportunities at larger institutions. Some left the industry completely. And others, like Diana Baribeau, are retiring.

Diana Baribeau has led the City Opera House since 2009. PC: Diana Baribeau
Diana Baribeau has led the City Opera House since 2009.

Baribeau is executive director of the City Opera House in Traverse City. She was general manager at the Wharton Center for Performing Arts at Michigan State University for more than two decades, before she was asked to manage the opera house in 2009.

The 680-seat venue hosts the National Writers series, proms, weddings, funerals and fly fishing movies.

“You name we do it," Baribeau said. "So out of the 260 to 280 days a year, we’re busy.”

But she says it’s time to move on. She’s ready to travel and spend time with her family.

“My family has given up a lot over the years because in this business, there’s no weekend. That’s usually when most of the shows happen," Baribeau said.

"So you’re always working," she said. "I’m thankful for my kids and my husband who put up with it all these years because I’ve missed out on things. They’ve missed out on things. ... It’s time for me.”

So far, those long hours don’t seem to bother Katie Jones, the first ever director of the Garden Theater in Frankfort.

“I’m new to this position and I’m invigorated and we’ve got all these new things happening here," Jones said. "I think that if you’re in the arts it’s because you’re passionate about it. And you make it work with what you can."

Katie Jones is the theater's first ever director. Jones and her family moved from Nashville a couple years ago. She's worked in film production and as an actress. PC: Tyler Thompson
Katie Jones is the theater's first ever director. Jones and her family moved from Nashville a couple years ago. She's worked in film production and as an actress. PC: Tyler Thompson

The theater is just a stone’s throw from Lake Michigan and Betsie Lake. It offers films and live performances.

“So a big part of what we want to have happen here is to have theater, to have dance, to have music in every way, to have lectures – just to be a real center for the community and place where we can house that much more art and entertainment,” she said.

They’re working on that with a $1.1 million project to not only expand the theater’s stage, but to restore the building, fix the roof and make facilities more accessible.

It’s a lot of work to be a leader in this industry. It demands a lot of hours, varying responsibilities and requires a lot of passion, said Diana Baribeau at the City Opera House

“The job is not for everybody. But it’s also very rewarding to do. I really enjoy standing at the top of the stairs or bottom of the stairs as people are coming in to see something and listening to the chatter," Baribeau said.

"Especially post show. Standing downstairs thanking people for coming, see the smiles on their faces. They had a good time. They enjoyed. That's why you do what you do."

Baribeau said it’s important to take vacations when times are slow, or to disappear on a gorgeous sunny day.

“You cannot do this and not recoup,” she said.

Gillett, with the arts council, worries at times about the future for the arts, and said losing them can set a dangerous precedent.

“Arts and culture are important. It’s important for us to remember our stories it’s important for us for my child to have access to the arts in schools. It’s important for downtown. It’s important for my community to have these here cause when they’re gone it’s hard to bring them back," Gillett said.

And while she’s worried about the high turnover, she remains optimistic about the future of arts leadership in northwestern Michigan.

“You’ve got new generations coming in that are leading. I don’t know that the end of the story has been written. It hasn’t been written and I think that it’s important.”

Mary Gillet has long advocated for the arts in northwestern Michigan. PC: Courtesy of Mary Gillett
Mary Gillett has long advocated for the arts in northwestern Michigan. (Photo courtesy of Mary Gillett)

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Corrected: April 17, 2023 at 3:32 PM EDT
We have corrected the spelling of Mary Gillett's last name. Our apologies for the error.
Tyler Thompson is a reporter at Interlochen Public Radio.