Crooked Tree Arts Center Expands to Traverse City: Liz Ahrens

Petoskey’s Crooked Tree Arts Center and ArtCenter Traverse City recently announced a joint venture in which Crooked Tree will essentially take the reins of the TC organization with the goal of expanding arts offerings in Traverse City and Petoskey and throughout northwest lower Michigan. The merger is expected to be official by January 1.

For those who aren’t familiar with Crooked Tree, the organization has achieved remarkable creative momentum and community support from its base in two adjoining rehabbed buildings in downtown Petoskey: a converted church and a converted Carnegie Library. The success flows from a mix of smartly curated gallery shows of national and regional artists, a theater that presents concerts, speakers and plays, and classroom space that lures everybody from children to adults for activities like dance, painting classes and even cooking classes.

For its part, ArtCenter Traverse City was founded in 1951. Its highest profile event is the Outdoor Art Festival, which has been packing TC streets with art-fair goers for 54 years. Less visible is the ongoing support that ArtCenter TC has given artists for decades, stoking their inspiration and honing skills through classes and collaboration opportunities.

We sat down with Crooked Tree’s executive director, Liz Ahrens, who will assume role as president of the merged organization, to talk about why the partnership happened and what people can expect.

Let’s start with the why, why would Crooked Tree and ArtCenter Traverse City want to join in this way?

For both parties, it’s had to do with timing and where we are at in our histories. The board of the Traverse City organization had recently decided to give up its building and concentrate on what they are best at, supporting artists in their work. And at Crooked Tree, our strategic plan talked about being a nationally recognized art center, and our visual arts and education committees had been discussing another location. There is a huge need for exhibit space in Northern Michigan and a huge need for adult education programs. We could have tried going to Traverse City ourselves, but we felt it would be more successful if we had a partner there. For ArtCenter Traverse City, it allows them to more broadly fulfill their mission, grow beyond the dedicated artists that make up their main constituency and expand into the general community.

We’ve read that you are hoping to open in Traverse City’s Carnegie Library. Tell us about that.

Our hope is to get a three-year lease on the Carnegie Library—and it’s looking very promising by the way! I know that the city is in kind of a dilemma with old buildings right now, trying to figure out what to do with a number of them. But we’d like to say, let us take Carnegie Library and you won’t have to worry about that one for now. There’s a lot we like about the space. It is right in the neighborhood and a couple blocks’ walk to downtown. We could use the newer addition as a gallery and classrooms. It seems really right for three-dimensional exhibits—sculpture, pottery, clothing, and furniture exhibits. People forget that midcentury modern furniture came from Michigan.

Also I love the park grounds right outside along the river. That is fabulous. We could let nature inspire kids in writing workshops or painters in classes or have, say, kids orchestra outdoor concerts there.

And you are already used to old buildings.

Liz Ahrens, Executive Director, Crooked Tree Arts Center

Liz Ahrens, Executive Director, Crooked Tree Arts Center

Yes, we already have two old buildings, including a Carnegie Library, so we know what that’s about. We know how to work with their quirks.

But it’s not a lock yet. What if you can’t reach agreement with the city?

As of the Ad Hoc meeting on Wednesday, November 17, it appears that we could be in the Carnegie Library by the beginning of February. Crooked Tree and the History Center are confident we can share the space, which is a positive solution for both organizations. I’ve told the board that by March 1 we will be in that space or in another one. But, as I said, it’s looking good at the moment.

I think the success of your SWIRL events really says something about your community support in Petoskey. Will we see something similar in Traverse City?

Yes. Every month we have a SWIRL event that is an evening weekday gathering, a gallery show, music and hors d’oeuvres and wine. We sell 100 tickets and it sells out every month. Sure we have our regulars, but there are always new faces. I think one reason is it’s a perfect first date. You can hang out for a couple hours, see if it’s going to work, and if not, just end it then. Funny. So we’d intend to bring SWIRL to TC soon!

How would the merger take advantage of the larger size? What would critical mass achieve?

Well, one area would be in attracting top-notch instructors for classes. The ArtCenter has been very successful at that already. They really knock it out of the park with the quality of their instructors, and people come from Chicago and Indianapolis and everywhere to attend the classes. We could take that even further as a team on that by offering another gig for the instructor in Petoskey the following week, say, offering more of a package to the instructor.

But that’s just one example. Last October 30 arts organizations throughout Northwest Lower Michigan met at Crystal Mountain to talk about ways to collaborate more, and we’d see being a big part of helping to expand that collaboration. The ArtCenter already puts out Art and Craft Trails maps that cover are well beyond Traverse City. We intend to market the region from Manistee to Mackinac as the place to check out artist’s studios, galleries, festivals, concerts, lectures, films, art fairs, performances, historical sites and public art. So much creativity can be found up and down the coast.

Any final message you want people to hear?

We will be looking for volunteers in the Traverse City area to help the expanded organization move forward. Right now, volunteers are going to be key, and the meaningful work we can do together will impact our region for decades!

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