After spending nearly three years preparing to launch a new arts connection hub in northern Michigan, Mary Gillett had a plan—and a lot of momentum—going into 2020. 

“A month later we were in the throes of COVID, so that blew up our strategic plan,” Gillett says. “These organizations lost 87 percent of their earned revenue in a matter of weeks. Everything was cut off, and at the same time there were a lot of needs everywhere and a lot of unknowns.”

While the pandemic threw a wrench into Gillett’s efforts to resurrect aspects of the regional arts council that dissolved along with its funding in the mid-2000s, it put a spotlight on her goal: to leverage connections in the arts and culture space for shared benefit, both for artists and organizations. 

“I think going through the pandemic was really an opportunity to show how we could work together,” she says. 

That’s how the Northwest Michigan Arts and Culture Network sprang to life, with weekly Zoom meetings to share strategies on surviving through tough times, regular electronic newsletters with tips on securing funding, and other efforts to share resources and highlight opportunities. 

“Everyone knows each other now. It’s not a new meeting every time you go to a different place,” says Ted Alan, a Traverse City area guitarist who had recently moved to the area when the pandemic struck. “It just seems going forward … people are working in concert rather than individuals trying to sort these things out.

Lessons learned from the rough start continue to pay dividends four years later, laying the groundwork for a strong network across 10 counties that now boasts 72 member organizations and dozens of individual artists. The network encompasses visual and performing arts, musicians, writers, native arts, and others, with support from arts centers, community organizations, and ancillary businesses. 

While COVID might have shifted how the network operated in the early days, the focus remained the same: “How can we work together … to leverage resources none of us have enough of to be stronger together,” Gillett says. 

The overarching goal is to support and strengthen the collective power of artists and the creative sector to cultivate vibrant communities. Much like a regional arts council, the network measures success by its ability to help the organizations, artists, and communities it serves. 

In recent years, the network has hosted the Northwest Michigan Arts and Culture Summit each May at Interlochen Center for the Arts. The 2023 event drew 115 attendees—from arts administrators, to individual artists, culture bearers, and community leaders—for professional development and networking among members and state and regional experts. 

With 28 speakers, two keynotes, two panels, and eight breakout sessions, attendees gained new perspectives on topics like emerging technology in the arts, cultural tourism, and funding, along with hands-on tools and strategies and opportunities for collaboration. 

The network also hosts up to 20 Zoom roundtables and in-person coffee chats across the region each year to share information and open up avenues for cross-promotion among members and stakeholders. Other connections have been forged through an expanded emerging young artist program with regular “chill outs” to facilitate collaboration and produce annual exhibitions at the City Opera House and other locations. 

The network has taken on the role as the regional partner for mini-grants administered by the State of Michigan Arts and Culture Council that are designed to support professional and organizational development. 

In 2023, the network distributed 21 mini-grants totaling $53,500 to organizations in seven counties. Gillett tells us the money ultimately benefited 211 artists, who received $182,464 in artist fees, and enabled groups to leverage $248,933 in matching funds and $45,922 in in-kind donations, for a total of $348,425 in economic activity back to communities. 

Funded projects have included Concerts on the Lawn at the Grand Traverse Pavilions in Traverse City, outdoor art throughout downtown Bellaire, Archipelago’s regional music leadership programs for teens, and murals along TART’s Boardman Lake Loop. 

Key priorities for 2024 involve hiring an associate director to grow capacity; building additional revenue streams through memberships, services for organizations, summit sponsorships, and a locally-focused arts fund; strengthening and upgrading technology to improve internal and external communications; and focusing more on engagement with cross-sector stakeholders, from framing shops to art venues to galleries and other related businesses. 

Some of those efforts are already underway through collaboration with Interlochen Public Radio to highlight local artists and “stories that heal,” as well as a new headquarters in Traverse City’s Commongrounds building, both of which are building on the network’s ultimate goal of leveraging the power of the arts and culture community for the benefit of all. 

“You can use music and art as a bridge to healing, economic development, and a lot of other things,” Gillett says. “We know we’re making a difference. The seeds that were sown are starting to bear fruit.”

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