Michigan downtowns explode with art, a magnet to visitors

In southwest Michigan, a state fish hatchery hosted a high end art fair last week.

More than 400 miles north, on the shores of Lake Superior, hundreds of visitors a day this summer will check out local artworks hung in an alley.

The Cheboygan Area Arts Council and Art Vision Cheboygan are putting out a call for artists to submit design concepts for a new mural to be installed this summer.

Pentwater is planning a sculpture walk.

All across the state, art is revitalizing downtowns and refreshing the spirits of those who participate.

In many communities, Michigan State University Extension is helping that happen. 

Hatching a plan

In Mattawan, west of Kalamazoo, Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery is using art to attract people who might otherwise not think of visiting a hatchery.

“Wolf Lake’s objective in hosting this event is to attract new audiences to its facility,” says Wolf Lake volunteer Nancy Hascall. The show returned this year for a second time after a two-year pause because of the pandemic.

“While people are there to shop for local art, they’ll be introduced to the state fish hatchery site they may never have visited before. Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery has a great deal to offer,” Hascall says, “including hiking trails, a pond filled with enormous fish to feed, numerous programs for kids, a museum about the Great Lakes, information about invasive species, and nesting trumpeter swans.

Superior art

Has art helped revitalize the city of Munising, the gateway to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in the Upper Peninsula? It certainly hasn’t hurt.

Katherine A. Reynolds has been CEO of the Greater Munising Bay Partnership/Alger County Chamber of Commerce and executive director of the Munising Downtown Development Authority for 11 years. During that time, annual visits to the city have exploded – documented visitors to the national park climbed from just under 400,000 in 2010 to 1.3 million in 2021, she says. 

Tens of thousands of those summer tourists have visited Art in the Alley, one of the city’s recent art installations.

The alley, located a block south of Munising Avenue between Superior Street and Elm Avenue, has been transformed into a seasonal art exhibit displaying more than 70 reproduced works of art from Alger County residents. 

Art pieces are displayed late May through fall as weather allows, Reynolds says.

The art alley idea was adapted from similar outdoor installations Reynolds has 
seen in other cities. The alley has proven to be wildly popular, with hundreds of visitors a day. Neighboring Grand Marais has recently erected a similar display between two of its downtown buildings, she says.

Art in the Alley joins other place-making initiatives in Munising, including art banners, historical walks and murals on buildings throughout town. An installation honoring veterans is coming next, Reynolds says.

Art and flowers

Otsego’s MainStreet design team created an art garden between buildings on M-89, the main highway through the city.

Volunteer team member Susan Bosma said there were two goals —  create a beautiful green spot and welcome and showcase local artists’ works. 

“Many people express how beautiful it is,” Bosma says, and the store owners have told her they like to park in the back parking lot and enjoy a peaceful walk through the garden to get to their stores.  

“I have seen moms taking pictures of little ones there and have heard of senior pictures taken there,” she says. “It’s a beautiful spot and we feel it’s like our own backyard.”

Michigan State University Extension, better known for its outreach programs involving agriculture, such as 4-H Youth Programs, is actively exploring how arts and culture can help communities thrive.

In a paper to be presented in June, researchers detail Extension’s “long, continuous history of arts engagement.”

“Since the 1920s, Extension personnel have integrated the arts as creative strategies to engage participants through high-quality community efforts,” the paper’s abstract says.

The manuscript is “an initial attempt to understand a regional perspective on Arts Extension work, including a chronological overview of the history of Arts Extension in the Midwest and highlighting current community Arts Extension models to establish a foundation for future understanding of “how modern approaches in Arts Extension contribute to local community development.”

Integrating the arts into a community – as a direct link to placemaking, cool cities, and other ideas that are designed to make community life more enriching for citizens – is at the heart of what MSU Extension's ArtShare program does, says Diane K. Wilson, Michigan ArtShare's executive director and one of the authors of the paper.

“Our work is designed around the idea that artists, musicians and other creatives bring a richness to life and provide social engagement opportunities whether you live in a big city or in a more rural area,” she says.

Michigan ArtShare, she adds, works with community governments and businesses to create opportunities for artists so that they can live and work in their own community.  The organization also finds ways to make it possible for artists to travel to other communities and share their work and their perspectives. 

Historically, MSU Extension has provided opportunities for people to engage in community choirs, plays, and other arts activities. “We are working to create connections throughout the state and with other state extension programs to share information, ideas, and support in our work,” she says.

Michigan ArtShare looks for creative ways to work with partner communities in creating these opportunities. The organization is actively working in Charlotte, Lansing, Jackson, Owosso, Davison, and Detroit in a variety of ways. 

“We have art exhibitions, concerts, and participate in the creation and implementation of events and projects as these ideas come to life,” Wilson says. 

Jeff Bohl is a sculptor whose works have appeared in downtowns throughout Michigan, from Chelsea to ArtPrize in Grand Rapids..

He says outdoor displays such as his are often used to create an infusion of culture in the community.

Bohl says the stipend he receives to have a piece on loan helps offset his costs of creating the artwork. The displays also help spread recognition of his work.

“When I was at ArtPrize,” he says, “I had a couple of people recognize my style of work and say: ‘Oh, I've seen your work at Chelsea, haven’t I?’ So that kind of exposure or familiarity that people get with that is huge.”

Bohl, a high school math teacher with formal art training, shares that his artwork  “is not a money maker. 

“But you know, what an artist wants, what I want, is for people to appreciate my art,” he says. “It’s as much about the passion for it as anything.”

He says he loves the various community efforts he sees to support arts and culture. 

“I think it’s a wonderful thing. I really do believe in exposing people to creativity, to having creative efforts be more prevalent,” Bohl says. “Down to my soul I believe it’s an important part of life.”

For more information about Michigan arts events and destinations: