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The arts in northern Michigan slowly recovering as performances return

A picture of an empty auditorium with equipment on stage, as renovations take place.
Tyler Thompson
IPR News
Renovations are underway inside the Garden Theater in Frankfort. (Photo: Tyler Thompson/IPR News)

Arts organizations in northern Michigan are still dealing with the aftermath of the pandemic when shows were mostly put on hold and people stayed at home.

In a previous story, IPR looked at the high turnover among leadership in the local arts.

Here, we look at how local organizations are trying to recover from the pandemic.

Mary Gillett is with the Northwest Michigan Arts and Culture Network which serves at least 200 organizations across 10 counties in northern Michigan.

Gillett said a lot of these organizations took a pretty big hit from the pause on performances and other events back in 2020.

“I think it’s like 85% of earned revenue was just eliminated for a number of these organizations," she said. "Organizations that were nonprofits like this in the sector, they were able to apply for some of the relief funding that was available and that was a lifeline.” 

Gillett adds that some of these non-profit organizations weren’t eligible for other relief funding available to for-profit companies.

Aside from relief funding during the pandemic, state funding for the arts is not what it used to be. In 2007, there was $30 million in state funding on the table for organizations. By 2012, that number was $2 million.

The report below includes the 10 counties covered by the Michigan Arts Council. The 38 organizations represented in the report applied for operations grants from the Council. It's a small sample size, as there's at least 200 organizations across those counties.

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"That led to the dissolution of the Traverse Area Arts Council which had been in place for 55, 60 years. So while we’re doing amazing work with those dollars and are really stewarding and stretching everyone, think about how much more we could do if we went back to that $30 million,” Gillett said.
Now state funding for the arts is up to about $10 million.

Money is used to by organizations to pay performers and staff, but also for other things like repairing venues or updating facilities.

As performances are returning across the region, audiences are coming back slowly and ticket sales are down.

Diana Baribeau is director of the Traverse City Opera House. Baribeau said that ticket sales are less than half of what they should be and that they’re paying almost $3,000 more than normal to bring in different artists and acts.

“Which hurts," she said. "(It) hurts a budget to take a loss on everything we’re doing."

Baribeau senses that people’s habits have likely changed after the pandemic. The City Opera House mostly serves an older demographic, she said.

“You sat for two and a half years and your habits changed. And you don’t feel comfortable going out at this point and putting yourself in a crowd of people,” she said.

Now she’s trying to attract people back to the opera house, including younger audiences, by booking more diverse shows.

“And we’ll see how that goes," she said. "But it’s interesting. So you try to program to the younger, it’s not a guarantee. Nothing’s a guarantee in this business.

“I think most directors lose sleep over it, over the course of the year. You book something that sounds exciting, looks exciting. And especially post pandemic it’s, it’s a struggle to sell tickets.”

Other venues and directors have noticed a similar trend and are trying new ways attract audiences back to the arts?

The Garden Theater in Frankfort is a classic brick building with a grand marquee that reads “The garden is growing.” Jones is the first ever director of the theater after it became a non-profit in 2020.

Jones is a newer leader to the area and found that people in the area want to engage more with what they’re watching. She wants to have more festivals in town that involve all community members and finding ways to bring the beauty of northern Michigan into the theater.

“During the summer time this whole town shuts down around 9 o'clock to watch the sunset. There’s a huge appreciation for nature in general and that’s further proof that we’re all artists,” Jones said.

“I would love to bring that realization that you have when you’re watching a sunset or on a hike. I want to bring that into our theater somehow.”

Jones also introduced a new music holiday gala in December that was a huge hit. About 300 people showed up last year.

“It touched people in a way and brought our community together that I had not seen in a long time and again this year, it’s now an annual thing,” Jones said.

Mary Gillett, with the Northwest Michigan Arts & Culture Network, is also working to find ways to get more support for the arts throughout the region

Gillett said the path forward is going to take more partnerships with different industries and maintaining the connections between arts organizations. It's something the council already does.

“How can the arts be an active partner in economic development, in cultural economic development, cultural tourism, healthcare and also just community building in general – what can we help bring to the table,” Gillett said.

She said that people can support the arts in a variety of ways. It could be buying a ticket to a show, volunteering, as a donor or simply buying some artwork.

Whatever it is, her call is for more advocacy and community champions.

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Tyler Thompson is a reporter at Interlochen Public Radio.