From a one-sentence book to new saxophone works: Local orgs receive state arts grants

Here’s a look at just three of the Washtenaw County organizations recently awarded funding by the Michigan Arts and Culture Council, and their plans for their grant money.
This story is part of a series about arts and culture in Washtenaw County. It is made possible by the Ann Arbor Art Center, the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, Destination Ann Arbor, Larry and Lucie Nisson, and the University Musical Society.

Every year, the Michigan Arts and Culture Council (MACC) awards grants to organizations throughout the state to ensure "that every citizen and community in Michigan enjoys the civic, economic, and educational benefits of arts and culture," according to MACC's website.
Municipalities, nonprofits, and other organizations are invited each year to apply for grants, which are awarded by county.
In 2024, many Washtenaw County organizations were awarded funding, including some associated with the University of Michigan (U-M), Eastern Michigan University, the Purple Rose Theater Co. in Chelsea, and others.
Here’s a look at just three of the Washtenaw County organizations recently awarded MACC funding, and their plans for their grant money.

Dzanc Books don’t want to be movies
Ann Arbor-based Dzanc Books, the 2023 winner of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Small Press Publisher Award, has long been known in the literary world for publishing smart, experimental, exquisitely designed books.
"Our books really run the gamut from brilliantly well-conceived and well-written stories to very experimental work in both fiction and nonfiction," says Michelle Dotter, publisher and editor-in-chief of the nonprofit literary press.
"These are books that don't want to be movies," she adds, "books for which the language is not just a medium, but … an integral part of what's going on."
"Some of them are beautiful literary novels and some of them are narrated by sentient cockroaches and [we also publish] everything in between."
The press was founded in 2006 by Steven Gillis and Dan Wickett.
 Dzanc Books publisher and editor-in-chief Michelle Dotter.
"What they really wanted to do was make a home for work that isn't necessarily commercial, for these brilliant books that are being somewhat overlooked by an industry that tends to be pretty profit-motivated — books that couldn't find homes somewhere else, that were too far outside of the mainstream, the bestseller list," Dotter says. "I think they've really done that and done themselves proud."
Because Dzanc receives funding from donors and grants, like its grant from MACC, rather than relying entirely on sales, "we can take risks on books that nobody else can," Dotter says.
One of those books, which will be published April 2, is "The Sentence," by Matthew Baker. As the title hints, it consists of a single (fully diagrammed) sentence.

"We're publishing it in an accordion format, so there's no spine," Dotter says. "You just stretch the paper out."
In its fully opened state, Dotter says, the paper is about 70 feet long. She says it’s "as much a work of art as it is a book."
 Dzanc Books' "The Sentence."
On the day we spoke, Dotter had spent her morning on developmental editing and answering emails; later, she finished a type-set and answered a call about Dzanc’s extensive internship program.
"In between … somewhere I’ll try to do some budgeting," she says. "…We have so many plates spinning and [we] get to do so many different things."
This year, MACC awarded Dzanc Books $11,250. According to Dotter, the MACC money will go towards "keeping ourselves going."
Grants like these, she adds, make all the difference in terms of what Dzanc can offer its authors when it comes to "publicity support [for] touring budgets, to get fantastic artists to work on their covers, to do special formats or special-sized books — like the accordion book — that really fit the shape of their project."
"Things like the grant really help us push the envelope and continue to reinvent what literature can be, and hopefully give our authors everything that they're looking for," Dotter says.
New Sounds Music finds common ground
In 1984, mid-20th-century French conservatory music was the mainstay for saxophone quartets like the PRISM Quartet.
"We knew that couldn't sustain us … nor did we want it to — so we set out commissioning pieces," says Matthew Levy, tenor saxophonist for PRISM.
Levy explains that since the saxophone wasn’t invented until the mid-1840s, there is no "body or repertoire from principal composers associated with the Western classical canon," as most had died by then.
That means that when the PRISM Quartet got started, its members had their work cut out for them. Levy says that from the start, the group made it a priority "to try and bring together different worlds of playing and performance." 
"We're rooted in classical music, but we often will bridge music of different cultures and genres to find common ground in music that is often siloed in some way," Levy says.
 PRISM Quartet.
To date, PRISM has commissioned more than 300 individual pieces by composers ranging from Pulitzer Prize winners (like Julia Wolfe and Zhou Long) and MacArthur fellows (like Bright Sheng) to high school and college students.
"We try and capture the whole range of composers along the spectrum of [their] career trajectory," Levy says.
The PRISM Quartet was founded in 1984 by four students at U-M, which Levy describes as the "epicenter of classical saxophone in the United States." Larry Teal was the first full-time university saxophone professor in the country when he joined U-M in the '50s.
U-M's saxophone program was inherited by Donald Sinta, a renowned saxophonist and U-M professor who was himself succeeded by Timothy McAllister, PRISM’s soprano saxophonist. This lineage is important to note, Levy says, because it is "rooted in a particular approach to the instrument" defined by timbre, vibrato, and articulation.
The PRISM Quartet is now celebrating its fourth decade as well as the release of a new album, "Heritage/Evolution, Vol. 3," which traces the saxophone’s dual lineage in classical music and jazz, according to Levy.
 PRISM Quartet's Timothy McAllister.
The group has won prizes in the Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition, performed on "Entertainment Tonight" and National Public Radio’s "Performance Today," and has toured Russia, China, Latin America, and the U.S.
"It is truly an organization that reaches around the world," Levy says.
To support its creative work, in 1991 PRISM launched New Sounds Music, Inc., a nonprofit extension of the group that could handle administrative duties. PRISM became more ambitious in its projects, not only performing and recording but producing its own concerts, launching its own record label (XAS Records), doing educational work with high school and college students, starting a concert series, and commissioning work by composers.
Levy serves as the director for New Sounds, which employs three other staff members who all serve as "jacks of all trades," according to Levy. On any given day, Levy says, he might be developing contracts, editing or mixing recordings, producing concerts, and working on grants.
New Sounds was awarded $10,500 by MACC this year. Levy says New Sounds will devote the bulk of its grant to producing a concert series for the public.
He says that could involve "premieres of new works that we have engaged composers to write for the group," as well as "concerts that involve guest artists and collaborators so that we can bridge different worlds of music."
Many of those concerts will be staged at the First Presbyterian Church of Ypsilanti, "a beautiful space for music" with "really beautiful acoustics," Levy says.

Theatre Nova keeps it fresh
Ann Arbor-based Theatre Nova's mission is to bring new plays to its community. The theater’s definition of "new" varies somewhat, and can refer to world premieres, Michigan premieres, or plays that have been produced within the last five years.
Nova also participates in "rolling world premieres," in which a minimum of three distinct theaters independently premiere the same play. That program was instituted by the National New Play Network to help regional theaters across the country build support for emerging playwrights.
Theatre Nova produces six plays a year on its main stage, and Associate Artistic Director Shelby Seeley says the company aims for "a healthy mix" in subject matter and mood.
 Theatre Nova Associate Artistic Director Shelby Seeley.
For Nova’s 2023-24 season, that mix included "a political one-woman show, a silly family-friendly panto, a rom-com, a play about integrating public pools, a play about international friendship and politics, and a sci-fi play about AI," Seeley says.

Theatre Nova also founded the Michigan Playwrights Festival, a semi-biannual event (the timing became "a little funky" during the pandemic, Seeley says) consisting of staged readings.
According to Seeley, "the goal is to develop these plays for future seasons" with Theatre Nova.
"We have a lot of talented playwrights in Michigan and we wanted … a place for them all to come together," Seeley says.
Also unique to Theatre Nova, Seeley says, is the institution of pay-what-you-can tickets, which are available for every show. While suggested ticket prices are available at $28, "if that’s more than you’re comfortable with today, the term ‘pay-what-you-can’ says it all," Seeley says.
Theatre Nova was awarded $13,750 by the MACC this year.
 Theatre Nova Company Manager Briana O'Neal.
According to Seeley, those funds will go towards everyday theater operations such as paying actors, designers, and directors; paying for props, sets, and lights; and paying for the space that Theatre Nova rents.
The theater’s commitment to offering pay-what-you-can tickets means that Nova relies on subscribers, donations, and grants like the MACC’S "so we can continue to make the magic of new plays accessible," Seeley says.

Natalia Holtzman is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor. Her work has appeared in publications such as the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, The Millions, and others.

Timothy McAllister and Briana O'Neal photos by Doug Coombe.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.