Battle Creek

Art Center of Battle Creek celebrates 75th Anniversary

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

The longevity of the Art Center of Battle Creek may be the best indicator of success in a vocation with tangible impacts that are difficult to measure, says Linda Holderbaum, Executive Director of the Art Center of Battle Creek which marks its 75th anniversary this year.
“While we can all come together and say why is this important. You can’t measure it or take a test to quantify its importance,” Holderbaum says. “You can say that it helps kids with test scores, but that's not tangible. What does it do for you? You may not know. What you do know is that you feel better when you leave here.”
Holderbaum credits the founders of the Art Center with creating a strong foundation that enabled the organization to survive COVID-related shutdowns during the height of the pandemic, bucking a national and international trend that saw numerous arts organizations and museums permanently shuttering operations 
The Art Center closed for three months and applied for and received funding from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP)  and an Economic Injury Disaster Loan. These funds shored up revenue lost as a result of art classes and exhibits that had to be canceled, membership fees that weren’t coming in, and gift shop sales that didn’t happen.
Linda Holderbaum is the executive director of the Art Center of Battle Creek.She says the founders’ commitment is being maintained by patrons who recognize the importance of the Art Center’s contributions to the vibrancy of the community and continued to support the organization through the pandemic.
“The founders had a vision that this community would benefit from an Art Center,” Holderbaum says. “This was an important contribution they made to the community back then and by gosh we’ve made it. It says something about the community itself for their continued support.”
That continued support resulted in a successful Fall Fund Drive which indicates to Holderbaum that, “We must be doing something right.”
That support also comes in the form of a community of artists, some of whom have been coming to the Art Center for many years to take classes and work on their own art. Holderbaum says these artists have become a tight-knit group that shares and learns from each other.
“It goes beyond the artwork they are producing. Art is a conversation starter,” she says.
While there is no secret formula for keeping the doors open, she says she and her volunteer staff are continually seeking input, installing new exhibits frequently, and finding new ways to engage community members of all ages. In 2020 a survey focused on those who hadn’t visited the Art Center was begun and put on hold because of COVID. Questions included: What do you want in this Art Center? and Do you know we exist?
She thinks a lot of people still don’t know that the Art Center exists.
Scene in a small section of a gallery at the Art Center.“A lot of (respondents) have said that they’ve driven by here for years and never came in. They felt intimidated or thought they had to pay to get in and some of them have said that we don’t look like an art center from the outside,” Holderbaum says. “This building was originally a church.”
Social media has also made it easier for people to see artwork and exhibits virtually which may lessen the likelihood of an actual visit to an arts organization. She says the Art Center changes exhibits every month as a way to encourage people to make an in-person visit and is using its website in combination with more traditional means of communication to let people know about the organization.
“We need folks to walk through the door and see these shows and what we have in our gift shop and pass the word on. Hopefully, out of 10 shows, we’ll get one that brings people in,” she says.
The building where the Art Center of Battle Creek is located was originally a church.In 2005 the Art Center had one of those shows that brought in more than 9,000 people over two months. The show – “Hidden Children and the Holocaust” – featured artwork that these children had created while they were in hiding. A local synagogue asked Holderbaum if the exhibit could be held at the Art Center.
“A lot of these traveling shows need space, which we have,” she says of the 32,000-square-foot building. “We used all of our space which included a classroom downstairs that we used as a mini-auditorium.”
The exhibit cost $75,000 to rent which was covered through funds the synagogue secured and a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.  Holderbaum says this exhibit is an example of “the cutting edge shows” the Art Center should be doing.
“We had Holocaust survivors give talks at the Kellogg Foundation and we had a ton of retired teachers trained as docents,” she says. “We have had three Holocaust-related exhibits since then.”
In addition, visitors have had unique opportunities to celebrate the work of area artists who are still alive.
“A couple of years ago we had a large donation of work from a woman who had taken classes here as a young girl. She wanted us to have it,” Holderbaum says. “We said ‘Give it to us now, so that we can honor you now.’ Craig Bishop, a former board member, wants to start showcasing some of the work of our older artists who may not be with us much longer.”
Creativity is not limited to art
With an annual budget of $275,000 and one full-time employee - Holderbaum, and two part-time employees focused on the Gift Shop and maintenance, the Art Center relies heavily on a core group of 75 volunteers without whom the daily operations would be very difficult, she says.
Teaira Ward is gift shop coordinator for the Art Center of Battle Creek.Holderbaum’s 45-year relationship with the Art Center began after she graduated from Western Michigan University with a Bachelor’s degree in Art Education and was unable to find a job. She decided to volunteer with the Art Center where she was put to work creating Art Goes to School Kits for area schools.
Dar Davis, who was the Art Center’s executive director at that time, asked her if she’d be interested in being a curator. In 1976 she was hired for that position in addition to being the Education Assistant.
“I’m still hanging exhibits, doing all of the education stuff, and teaching a painting class for people at the Veterans Administration Medical Center,” says Holderbaum, an acrylic painter.
She also is working on plans for Class Act, a show at the Art Center featuring artwork by K-12 students that will take place in March which has been designated Youth Art Month in Michigan. Since the 1960s this has been an annual part of the exhibition lineup. It was paused in 2021 and 2022 because of the pandemic.

Scenes in the gift shop of the Art Center.“When we had the last exhibit, we had floor-to-ceiling artwork in two galleries,” Holderbaum says. “As in previous years, we’ll have a reception this year for elementary and middle school students and one for high school students.”
In between the planning for Class Act and managing the day-to-day operations at the Art Center, she also will be focusing on activities and events to celebrate the 75th anniversary.
While still a work in progress, she says she would like to partner with 75 businesses in this community to showcase artwork.
“Even if they just put a piece of art in their lobby, this would be a way to get people to come into their building and travel around to other locations that participate to let people see what’s there,” Holderbaum says.
She says she also is planning an art invitational for different age categories and a category for families to participate in. In keeping with the 75th-anniversary theme, participants will be asked to create artwork that measures 5 by 7 or 7 by 5. The deadline for submissions is expected to be announced soon.
“Every once in a while a family with kids will come in and while they’re here and looking at an exhibit, they’ll ask their kids what they like about what they’re seeing. There are all kinds of neat ways to get your kids involved in art,” Holderbaum says.
As with many arts organizations, cultivating the next generation of artists and patrons is a focus for the Art Center.
“One of our board members got a grant for us to do art around the community. We are here, but it’s hard to do things out in the community because of a lack of staff. We can rely on our volunteers, but sometimes we do need staff,” Holderbaum says.
As she continues to elevate the work of the Art Center, Holderbaum also is talking about the importance of art at many different levels.
“I see us as the only visual outlet here,” she says. “People think the arts are just a thrill. (But art is also) a mental health service. It makes you feel better to see something created by another human being that is designed to make you think, question, and appreciate it for what it is.”

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Read more articles by Jane Parikh.

Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.