Which Way to Paradise: Art town USA, really?

Nov 5, 2015

Sue Ann Round relocated Michigan Artists Gallery to Traverse City this summer.
Credit Peter Payette

When Sue Ann Round decided to move her art gallery from Suttons Bay to Traverse City, some of her friends urged her not to do it.

“In general, galleries have not made it very well in Traverse City,” says Round, who has owned Michigan Artists Gallery for 14 years.

But Round figured the city was ready, since there had been so much cultural development in the past decade, with new restaurants and events like the Traverse City Film Festival.  

“I’ve kind of felt like the the dimmer switch for Traverse City has been slowly going up,” she says.

But when it comes to fine artwork, you can count the number of galleries in the city on one hand, and you wouldn’t need all your fingers. At times, towns like Suttons Bay and Elk Rapids have had more galleries. Also, two cooperative galleries run by artists have opened and closed in the past decade.

It's ironic since Traverse City has been named a top art town in the U.S. twice, most recently in an academic study.

Artists like Charlie Murphy chuckle at the idea that Traverse City is an art destination. “Come on,” he says.

There aren’t enough galleries for a real gallery walk. They depend on other businesses to feature art during those events.

Charlie is encouraged by initiatives like the banner project that is filling the sides of downtown buildings with large reproductions of paintings and other images. And he is happy to see Sue Ann Round move to Front Street.

“It’s less embarrassing to wear the mantle of an art town,” he says. “We’re hoping that she who has taken great risk to establish her gallery here on Front Street, is sort of the forerunner of a much livelier art gallery scene in downtown Traverse City.”

Not everyone shares his optimism.

Ron Gianola is a painter who has lived in Benzie County for more than 20 years. He says the soaring price of real estate in northern Michigan is not good for art.

“There’s not going to be a bunch of galleries opening on Front Street,” he says. “Nobody can afford to do that.”

And he says if they did open, don’t expect them to show lots of cutting edge artwork.

Ron is an abstract painter and he says it’s been tough since the recession. He says the memory of the recession is fresh, and people with money are less willing to spend it.

He figures gallery owners across the region are sticking with more conventional art that will appeal more readily to tourists – and he doesn’t blame them.

But Ron says it’s a mistake to think the arts will flourish just because there are big crowds Up North.

“There’s never been a perfect time for the arts, right, it’s kind of the frosting on civilization,” he says. “It’s a pretty precious thing and its not guaranteed that it’s always there.”

Sue Ann Round sees a brighter picture.

Jil Johnson's 'good night moon.'
Credit Peter Payette

She says being in the art business is risky. But she opened at her new location in July and says the reception has been great.

“They were just thirsty for something like this,” she says.
And Sue Ann thinks there is still plenty of demand for unusual art in this area.

One of her biggest sellers is a local artist named Jil Johnson. Johnson’s mixed media work is hard to describe. A lot of it involves miniature figures staged in surreal settings.

One hanging in the gallery now is called good night moon and has about a dozen characters inside a house with a story written across the back wall.

“It’s like the wildest dollhouse you ever saw,” says Round.

Johnson’s pieces carry some of the highest price tags in the gallery and sell quickly.

Detail of 'good night moon.'
Credit Peter Payette

But Sue Ann Round does see one problem with the art scene in the region: there are too many talented artists and not enough galleries to represent them. She says she turns people away every day who are looking for a place to show their work.