Hot and cold crosswinds of relief, celebration, hope and uncertainty swept the greater Lansing arts and culture scene in 2022.
Much of the hope sprang from the capital area’s evergreen, grassroots network of interlocking creative souls — musicians, visual artists, poets, filmmakers and many others, all of whom seem to know each other. Lansing’s winning combination of big-city talent and a small-town spirit of mutual support and affection burst into hundreds of events on the sidewalks, in the streets, in parks, bars and assorted venues large and small.
After two years of hiatus or hybrid virtual events, local institutions like the Ten Pound Fiddle, the Capital City Film Festival, the Lansing Symphony Orchestra and a pleiad (or so) of local theater companies returned to full schedules.
MSU’s big culture guns, from the Wharton Center to the Broad Art Museum and the College of Music, ramped up to full wattage as well.
Serious progress on two new downtown performing arts venues added another layer of hope.
However, outside of outdoor festivals, 2022 didn’t unleash the pent-up demand many artists hoped for. After the brutal shutdowns and financial angst of 2020 and 2021, arts and culture organizations were hoping for a boffo, “Ding-Dong, the Witch is Dead” set piece, but the stubborn virus danced to its own tune.
Arts venues across the country, Lansing included, reported that attendance was lower than pre-pandemic levels, not higher. A shell-shocked public, newly accustomed to soaking up culture at home, was harder to coax off the couch than expected.
At the Williamston Theatre, attendance dropped from a pre-pandemic level of 75% of capacity to around 40%.
“We honestly expected everyone to come back last year, and they didn’t,” theater director and co-founder Emily Sutton-Smith said.
Eric Olmscheid, who became the Wharton Center’s fourth director in its 40-year history this year, caught the sort of post-pandemic zeitgeist in comments to City Pulse when he arrived at MSU in June.
“All of our operational expenses, our labor costs have all increased,” he said. “We have to balance the equation, but it doesn’t always add up.”
Meanwhile, on spreadsheets, grant applications and drawing boards, Lansing’s dream of a long-awaited performing arts center moved a few major squares forward on the financial chessboard.
Lansing has heard this song before, in strangled choruses going back 20 years, but this time it looks like it’s really going to happen. In November, the $17.5 million facility was approved for a $5 million grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corp. Michigan Strategic Fund Board. The city already had $2 million in dedicated state funding and $8 million in PEG (public, educational and government access fees) in the kitty and expects to attract up to $5 million in private donations, so the financial picture looks secure.
The new facility, The Ovation, on the corner of West Lenawee Street and Washington Avenue, is designed to fill a mid-sized hole in the local arts and entertainment market, drawing national rock, country, hip-hop and comedy artists and other attractions that play in Detroit or Grand Rapids. It would house a 2,000-capacity concert venue, a smaller stage, the permanent home of the Lansing Public Media Center and, possibly, All of the Above Hip-Hop Academy and the Lansing Art Gallery. (The latter two organizations have not committed to the project.) Construction is set to begin in the spring, with at least a partial opening to the public in the fall of 2024.
And that’s not the only major venue taking shape downtown. A former gay club on Washington Square is on its way to becoming Hall 224, a $400,000 music venue capable of holding up to 900 standing attendees or 400 theater-style seats. The venue will host comedy, classic rock, R&B, bluegrass, country, folk, Latin, jazz and other live events and is scheduled to open in 2023.
The outlook for indoor culture and entertainment is far from certain, but 2022 showed that outdoor events are still a big draw. A plethora of festivals, some familiar, others less so, filled the streets of Greater Lansing in summer 2022, from JazzFest and BluesFest in Old Town to the Cristo Rey Fiesta, the Little Woodstock Music & Art Festival, downtown Lansing’s pandemic-driven BLOCK: AID, East Lansing’s Pumpstock roots music festival, 517 Juneteenth and a bigger-than-ever Dam Jam at the Brenke Fish Ladder.
Indoors, plucky, smaller venues around town, like the Robin Theatre in REO Town and UrbanBeat in Old Town, forged ahead with eclectic bouquets of live acts ranging from bluegrass to rock, jazz, comedy, spoken word and even chamber music. A longtime Lansing institution, Mac’s Bar, joined them after a major renovation. Owner Chuck Mannino plans to keep Mac’s hardcore, dive bar vibe while bringing all-ages shows, local and regional bands, national acts and food and games into the mix.
After two years of pandemic adaptation to a drive-in format, the Capital City Film Festival came back in 2022 to celebrate its 10th anniversary with a 10-day, multi-venue event. Program director Jason Gabriel said this year’s festival was a “ramp-up” year leading to a far more ambitious program in 2023.
The MSU Broad Art Museum also celebrated its 10th birthday with a winning run of popular exhibits, including a penetrating look at 20th-century icon Frida Kahlo and a museum-wide display of furniture, clothes, household objects and a multitude of other items designed by the museum’s architect, Zaha Hadid.
But just as it seemed to be hitting its stride, the Broad underwent another change at the top, the third in its 10-year history. Mónica Ramírez-Montagut, widely credited with making the museum more broadly appealing and community friendly, left the job in June to direct New York’s Parrish Art Museum. Curator Steven Bridges took over as interim director, pledging to stay the course and hold to Ramírez-Montagut’s inclusive vision.
Another leadership change took hold across town as the Lansing Art Gallery’s longtime director, Barb Whitney, left the museum to work in fundraising and development at MSU. Michelle Carlson, the gallery’s education director since 2017, became director in October.
Carlson and Bridges have both declared education and outreach to be a top priority, and you’ll hear similar declarations almost anywhere you go in the Lansing arts scene.
Eric Olmscheid, the Wharton Center’s new leader, has plans similar to the year-long arts awards and workshop program involving 90 schools that he oversaw in Des Moines, Iowa.
Judith Stoddart, associate provost for University Arts and Collections, is leading a university-wide push to bring arts and cultural events outside the ivory towers of MSU.
“We have to be more intentional about inviting people in,” Stoddart said in a July interview, “but also think about how we take the arts outside, present in other spaces, engage in formal and informal ways.”
One of the Lansing Symphony Orchestra’s biggest 2022 successes was an unorthodox, sellout series of chamber concerts at REO Town’s Robin Theatre, featuring almost all local composers, many of whom attended.
Olmscheid sees new life peeping out all over the arts landscape.
“Organizations like the Wharton Center, all over the country, persevered,” he said. “They figured out how to remain relevant during the pandemic shutdown, and more important, they asked themselves, ‘Who are we? What are we doing as we emerge into the next chapter?’”
Some of the answers can be gleaned from the all-too-short life of Brandon Navin, founder and director of Lansing artist’s collective the Artist’s Umbrella, who died in June at age 50.
Devastated by the loss, the nonprofit’s organizers and allies are determined to press on with Navin’s vision of creating safe spaces for artists to shine, especially artists who don’t ordinarily get a platform. The Artist’s Umbrella has helped to showcase scores of local artists working in everything from comedy to dance, spoken word, visual art and opera — anyone with a talent, a message, or both.
Public art, mostly in the form of murals, was more ubiquitous than ever in Greater Lansing this year. The results are mixed, but one magnificent mosaic, completed in 2022 after two years in the making, visually embodies Navin’s community spirit. More than 1,000 people — artists and non-artists — made tiles for the Shiawassee Street Mosaic project, created by tile specialist and visual artist Alexandra Leonard and her assistant, artist Bob Rose. Leonard’s swirling design is a perfect visual metaphor for the fusion of an inclusive, loving community and eye-popping, damn good art.
“You’d get to see someone’s story on every tile,” Rose told City Pulse two weeks ago. “After a while, you started to feel like the keeper and holder of their moment in time. It’s the most emotionally deep, profound project you could imagine.”
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