I have a confession to make. I had driven past the Old Art Building (a.k.a. Leelanau Community Cultural Center) a million times – on the way to the Merc, or Fishtown, or the Bluebird, Leland Lodge, Riverside Inn, etc. etc. – but I’d never been inside. It’s funny how you get into your routines, with blinders on, and you can take for granted amazing things that are right under your nose. So on an ethereal autumn day, with golden leaves floating through the air, I decided to stop inside and see what the Old Art Building is all about. Little did I know what a remarkable history and vibrant institution I was stepping into.
You can feel it immediately when you enter. It’s in the walls, the rafters. You can sense, smell, and almost hear the residue of a century. The tap tap of generations of little dancers practicing ballet. The scratching of pencils on innumerable sketchpads. Distant echoes of singing coming from the stage of the cavernous hall, and ghostly laughter in the audience. I don’t believe in ghosts…but if I did, the Old Art Building would be a pretty darn good place to hunt for them.
My friend Becky Ross, the Executive Director, was kind enough to tour me around and give me a run-down of the building’s history and the many programs and events offered by this venerable, genuinely historic community center.
It all started with a magician.
Becky explained that the building dates back to 1922. “It was built by and for the Women’s Civics Club. And it was with a stage, and they were thinking about the Chautauqua movement, where people went around and had plays and traveling artists and musicians.
“So the woman who built this [Allie Kaiser Bess], her husband — Maro, The Prince of Magic — was actually a world-renowned magician. And she thought that he needed a stage to perform on. The sad part is that she built it, and he was traveling around Europe doing his magic, and he got the flu and died. So he never actually performed on the stage. But this continued to be the civic center.
“That was from 1922 to 1939. And in 1939, Allie Kaiser Bess was suffering from The Depression, like others, and for whatever reason — I’m not sure why — she gave the property to Michigan State University. She couldn’t keep it up, and I guess she thought that they could. So Michigan State owned the building. They, from 1939 to 1989, had their summer art program. Michigan State summer arts school was here. If you were an art student, this is where you came to school in the summertime.
“Lots of people ended up here — there’s a ton of artists up here — but many of them actually went to school here in the summer. And that’s how they found out about this area, and that’s how they decided they wanted to come up and live here at some point. We know several artists that started here. And they all tell you this is why.
“In 1989, that program in Michigan State stopped. The building sat empty, and was kind of falling apart, until 1972, when a bunch of local people got together and said we should do something with that building, it’s just sitting there. So they formed what is now the Leelanau Community Cultural Center. That non-profit organization now runs this building. The building is owned by Michigan State, but the non-profit runs the Old Art Building – overseeing the programming, the budget, the maintenance.”
Aha! So this might be the missing piece of the puzzle, an answer to the question I ask everyone I interview for this blog: Why do you think there are so many artists in Leelanau? It’s not just beauty of the landscapes; it’s the fact that Michigan State was bringing young artists to Leland for decades, and a number of them decided to live here. (Granted, I’m sure the beauty of the area was a prime reason why Leland was chosen as a the location for the summer arts program in the first place. So…chicken or egg?)
Becky offered another possible reason why artists gravitate to the area, one I hadn’t heard before.
“I think it’s because of the light. And we are on the same parallel, the 45th parallel, as Provence, France. The light is what a lot of painters will say: it’s the light. The light on the 45th parallel. Why is it different from someplace else? That I don’t know.”
And as she said that, I got chills, because indeed there was something metaphysical about the light streaming through the towering windows. Something you couldn’t put your finger on. I was reminded of the great Emily Dickinson poem, “There’s a certain Slant of light.”
For a structure so steeped in history, the Old Art Building keeps amazingly busy in the here-and-now, year-round. It’s serving the same purpose it has served since its creation. Almost every community activity you can imagine happens there. There are dance classes, art classes, and even fitness classes. Concerts. A “visiting artist” program (sort of like an “artist in residence.”). Weddings and other big events on the expansive lawn. On Halloween there’s always indoor trick-or-treating there…which turned out to be very helpful this year, given the untimely snow! And now they’re gearing up for HollyPOP!, a spectacular holiday market featuring “local art, crafts, décor, and food” on November 29th and 30th from 10am to 4pm. Vendors bring their wares to the Old Art Building staff, who arrange the goodies to create an “immersive shopping” experience.
It struck me that there was one activity Becky did not mention which I would’ve thought would take place at The Old Art Building: theater. The first thing you see when you enter is the small-but-not-tiny stage – the stage Maro the Prince of Magic was never able to perform on. Concerts are performed there, but not theater. Why? Becky wasn’t completely sure. It may just be because a theater troupe hasn’t proposed it yet. One issue is that if plays were rehearsed and performed there, “something else would have to give,” she said, because of how busy the Old Art Building already is with programming. Also, the wings of the stage aren’t huge. But they’re not nothing either. When I walked backstage, I thought “This could definitely work.” Becky is not necessarily opposed to the idea. The acoustics, by the way, are phenomenal. Paging all thespians…
Before she let me wander around on my own, Becky made sure to show me a feature of the building of which she’s very proud.
“This past year we applied for and received a grant to put solar panels on the building. So we no longer have electric bills. In fact, we have a credit back to the community. We thought long and hard about doing it, because it’s a historic building.” We walked outside and I looked up at the roof. Wow! I had never noticed all those panels in my countless times driving past. They’re tastefully “camouflaged.” Again, it’s funny how you can go through your day with blinders on and be oblivious to these sorts of things.
I thanked Becky for her time and decided to stroll around the lawn and meander through the lovely, well-maintained garden. Were I a painter, that garden would be a dream. Confession: I hadn’t realized that the Old Art Building is on the Carp River (the river that connects Lake Leelanau to Lake Michigan). Jeez, my obliviousness! What a stunning location, with light reflecting off the ripples of the water and gracing the garden.
That light…the exquisite unearthly painterly light of the 45th parallel…
Though it was autumn in Northern Michigan, I was suddenly overcome with the strange sensation that it was summer in Provence. Maybe that was Maro playing magic tricks on me.