Battle Creek

Cereal City to Culture City? Creatives seeking to impact the arts scene in Battle Creek

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

Rather than throwing the work and ideas of the community’s creatives at the wall to see what sticks, those who are guiding the work of the Arts and Culture Collective of Battle Creek will use the results of a study of the local cultural economy to create a strategy for building sustainable infrastructure for paid artists, says Jaimie Fales, an ACCBC Board Member and Executive Director of First Congregational Church.
“When talking about program development or economic development opportunities, actionable data is really important,” they say. “People can make guesses, but it’s very different to do the work of gathering data and have that done by people outside of Battle Creek and see Battle Creek in a different light.”
The study, to be completed in early 2024, is a partnership between the Collective and Sound Diplomacy, a global research and strategy consultancy committed to supporting sustainable ecosystems that bring economic development to people, places, and cities, according to its website.
Fales says the data gathered is meant to be a community asset to assist in making choices about economic development opportunities, making decisions about what to offer residents and the region, and developing a strategy that takes actionable data into account as people are making those decisions.
“They’re excited about all of the potential and opportunity that we have here,” Fales says of the consulting firm. “Part of this has to do with our geographic location. We are halfway between Chicago and Detroit and could be an arts and culture destination which is not how Battle Creek is conceptualized in our region by any means.”
But, they say the study and the work of the ACCBC has the potential to change this.
“What would it look like for someone not from here to attend arts and cultural events in Battle Creek and where would they go to eat or stay overnight? What is that experience like for them?” Fales asks. “What other opportunities are there for them to explore the city? I don’t think people who live in Battle Creek conceptualize what the experience is like for people outside of Battle Creek.”
FCC is a Collective partner and is providing church space to the organization that officially launched in April with a mission to provide greater access to the resources artists, musicians, and actors who make up Battle Creek’s creative sector require to grow their crafts and careers.
This first-of-its-kind study in Battle Creek is being done “to get a much better handle on how the impact of our community’s creatives is measured and what opportunities are available to grow that,” Fales says.
ACCBC will focus on the needs of creatives in underserved and underrepresented populations including those who live with disabilities; Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color; as well as those who are part of the ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained and Employed).
“These creatives are integral to community development,” says Vania Word, ACCBC’s Chief Inspiration Architect, in a press release.
ACCBC’s focus is to establish infrastructure by supporting creative entrepreneurs, connecting artists with local businesses in need of their expertise, and working with local schools to allow students to explore creative career paths, Word, says.
The partnership and resulting study is a way to meet these objectives, says Jill Anderson, Community Liaison for the ACCBC. 
“ACCBC will partner with Sound Diplomacy to use a ‘lead-from-behind’ approach that will empower local leaders with information, data, and inspiring best practices,” Anderson says in a press release. “An economic impact assessment will be developed, as well as best practice case studies relevant to the Battle Creek cultural economy. Equipped with this information, leaders will be well-positioned to work with the broader community to build support for local cultural initiatives and maximize the impact of the ACCBC.”
Creating hope for artists and the community
In addition, the study will try to find out how many local artists there are and define what an artist is, Fales says.
“Anybody can raise their hand and say they’re an artist,” they say. “We want to know what kind of art they do and how involved they are. These artists have different needs and we need to know what artists need for the arts to be an economic driver in the city.”
The Collective has a council of grassroots artists. Fales says, “Our hope is to talk with a lot of different artists in Battle Creek to really be able to get a handle on the needs of artists and create a strategic way to increase the number of people involved in the Collective.”
The first of several stakeholder meetings will happen in September.
The Collective’s overarching goal is building and safeguarding the local cultural economy with the study being the first step in this process. Anderson says in the press release that the idea for the ACCBC was conceived during pandemic-related discussions.
Throughout the pandemic, Battle Creek artists faced a new set of obstacles to generating income when live events shut down.
When local officials called for input on the COVID-19 Pandemic response and relief American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA), a group of Battle Creek musicians under the Blvcksheep music label shared ideas to reboot the creative economy. Word and business partners Brandon Fitzpatrick and James McGee, co-founders of Blvcksheep, along with Justin Andert, who founded “Color the Creek,” formulated a proposal to forge an incubator for developing artists and creative professionals to erect a thriving art and culture sector in the city.
In addition to FCC, Blvcksheep is a partner in the Collective along with The Arc of Calhoun County, Color the Creek, What A Do Theatre Company, and Penetrator Events.
As McGee and his fellow local artists were exploring new paths toward sustainability, Word applied for and received American Rescue Plan (ARPA) emergency grant funding by making a case that the arts economy had been devastated in the pandemic, and needed financial help to recover and build the resilience of Battle Creek’s music, culture, and night-time economy. The ACCBC received almost $350,000 from an $8 million pool of ARPA funds the city had set aside to assist with community-based projects.
In addition, ACCBC received additional support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, in the form of a $145,000 grant that includes funds to support the study of the existing systems supporting art and culture in the area.
Fales says the Collective’s partners are trying to change a narrative that no longer serves Battle Creek.
“It no longer serves us to be called the Cereal City. We’re trying to change a narrative that no longer serves us,” they say. “The Kellogg Co. has divested from the community quite a bit. A lot of my friends’ dads lost their jobs at Kellogg and had to move elsewhere. A lot of my friends left in the 1990s," they say.
Having grown up in Battle Creek, Fales has seen the ups and downs that the city has gone through over the years. They left for a time and returned to start a family with their wife, Ashley Feagin, an instructor at Albion College.
“I have seen so many different efforts, causes, and ideas meant to revitalize our community. I do think there’s a bit of hope fatigue,” Fales says. “It’s hard to remain hopeful for the strategic development of Battle Creek and I get that. We need to not just talk about aspirations. We need to get the actual data and information to make decisions. I would ask people to suspend their knee-jerk response that this is just another effort that will fizzle out in five years. We have to keep trying.”

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

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.