East Lansing is known by two monikers: “The Home of Michigan State University” and “City of the Arts.” The first moniker is straightforward. MSU is one of the largest universities in America by student population, with more than 36,000 undergraduate students. Its basketball program, with Tom Izzo at the helm, is one of the most successful in the nation.
The second moniker isn’t as well received. When the “City of the Arts” banner was posted on an abandoned building at the intersection of Abbot Road and Grand River Avenue several months ago, some MSU students and community members claimed the nickname hadn’t been earned. Beyond the opening of the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, some believed it took more than a fancy new museum to merit being a “City of the Arts.” What, besides the downtown hookah bars and cheap eateries, suggests that East Lansing is an artsy city?
Turns out, quite a lot. According to Executive Director of the Arts Council of Greater Lansing Leslie Donaldson, the “City of the Arts” moniker first was introduced in the 1980s, not within the past several years.
“It was established because the East Lansing Arts Festival was growing at that time, and there were a number of other resources available in the community,” Donaldson said.
Although the arts community — both in Greater Lansing and at MSU — has gone through rough patches in the past few decades, there has been a consistent commitment among community members to uphold the title. Reintroducing the “City of the Arts” name is not a case of forcing the city toward a lofty goal, but highlighting a recommitment to the arts and cultural communities and programs that call East Lansing home.
Bigger than a budget
The economic turmoil that hit Michigan in the past decade impacted East Lansing arts businesses and programs. However, instead of separating the arts community, in many instances it strengthened it.
A few of the arts programs calling Greater Lansing home are Play in the Park, the Moonlight Film Festival, Summer Solstice Jazz Festival and the Great Lakes Folk Festival.
But as the city’s budget has tightened, not every program has made the cut. According to the city’s report for the 2011-12 fiscal year, the state of Michigan has withheld $12.8 million from East Lansing since 2001.
The Recreation and Arts Program, which offered classes in arts, dance, music and yoga classes, was reduced from about 400 classes to less than 200 classes and moved under the East Lansing’s Parks, Recreation and Arts.
Despite a budget that has tightened throughout the years, the City of East Lansing has found ways to continue to offer these events to the public.
“Even when we had to scale back on what the city was spending, we still found a way to produce those events for the community,” East Lansing Communications Coordinator Ami Van Antwerp said.
“There were a couple of years where we found additional sponsorships to continue the events, but there has been a huge commitment to those arts and culture events that the city produces.”
“We still find ways to offer these events to the public because they’re important,” City of East Lansing Community Events Assistant Michelle Carlson said.
Additional sponsorships, grants and slight adjustments to certain events have preserved much of the art culture. In addition, the city has managed to add events as well, including the East Lansing Farmer’s Market — now celebrating its fifth-year anniversary — and expanding the Summer Solstice Jazz Festival.
Because of the recession, Van Antwerp said the city is better at fundraising and seeking grants to avoid impacting the city’s overall budget.
Despite the opinions of certain people in the community, City of East Lansing Senior Project Manager Lori Mullins said there are people in the community who appreciate what the city has done to preserve art events.
“From my experience, working with different boards and commissions and people in the community, it’s the people in our community that have referred to our artistic assets as a defining characteristic,” Mullins said. “It hasn’t been something that has been directed by the city itself.”
MSU’s art community benefited from the recession, as well. When Kirk Domer took his job as the Department of Theatre chair 11 years ago, he said the department was in bad shape. The recession encouraged the department, along with many local programs in East Lansing, to share resources.
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“Everyone was working within their own silos at that time because they were able to,” Domer said.
Today, that’s no longer the case. The Department of Theatre frequently collaborates with outside programs.
One of the initiatives is a large one — involving all of the Big Ten departments of theater. The project, known as the Common Script Project, is a collaborative effort where all of the universities perform the same piece.
“The Common (Script Project) came out of necessity for resources,” Domer said. “That was the time where they said, ‘You know what, we can all save a little money if we all research together, choose a play together, and in some instances travel to each other to provide free symposia around the production so that we can have shared scholars.”
Additionally, the department collaborates with other MSU departments, as well as community programs in East Lansing. Some of the collaborations include several projects with the Arts Council of Greater Lansing, such as performances in the annual Renegade Theatre Festival, dance performances for both Peckham Inc., a nonprofit vocational rehabilitation organization, and at Reach Art Studio, a Lansing art studio. MSU also collaborated with (SCENE) Metrospace for a performance art gallery last spring.
“When the economy did drop, we were able to find partnerships that would build both of our missions at the same time, whoever the partner may be, to create exciting new things for community awareness,” Domer said.
While the Broad Art Museum was not the beginning of the City of the Arts, Mullins said it provided an opportunity to capitalize on East Lansing’s prowess in the arts.
“Looking at our artistic aspects, our arts-related businesses, we said that we needed to take this opportunity with the Broad (Art Museum) opening and with people focusing in on the arts to also highlight our other arts-related assets,” Mullins said.
The Arts Council of Greater Lansing, which provides education, funding, resources and consulting services for artists and arts and cultural agencies throughout the Lansing region, has been working with East Lansing, Lansing, MSU and other partners on the Cultural Economic Development Plan since October 2009. The plan’s goals include assisting arts businesses, coordinating cultural economic development and supporting creative enterprises.
So far, the plan has paid off. A few of the things the council has done are establish a couple of grant programs — the Arts Council Collaborative Arts Grant and Individual Artist Grants — to support local artists and create a Greater Lansing Festival Alliance group to support artistic and cultural festivals.
“I’ve seen a lot of artists receive individual support,” Donaldson said. “I’ve seen a lot of organizations expand in the kinds of things that they offer. I’ve seen a lot of partnerships offer cross support of one another. I would say that these days, the arts community here in Greater Lansing is very grassroots and very well-supported.”
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