Petoskey’s Crooked Tree Arts Center offers potent proof that vibrant community can form around the arts. Liz Ahrens’s leadership has been key to that success, and now she’s bringing the art-is-community spirit to Traverse City. Find the original layout in the May 2015 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine

On a frigid February afternoon in Petoskey, I climb the stairs to the third floor of a renovated United Methodist Church that serves as the home of Crooked Tree Arts Center, to get an insider’s view on what it’s like to be Liz Ahrens, the arts center’s executive director and also one of the state’s most influential voices for the arts.

She’s a busy person, which is why it makes sense when I’m told, “she’s still in a meeting, but don’t worry, she’ll come and find you.”

To kill time, I roam the main floor galleries of the arts center and contemplate the connection I sense to the 125-year-old building’s original use. A place of worship, reconfigured to be a place to see and experience art. An annual juried photography show is hanging in the Gilbert Gallery now. One photo in particular, the third place image of an elderly man in India staring at the camera, is both jarring and beautiful. It tells a thousand stories in a glance, just as this room—with its long list of past exhibits—tells a thousand stories. Past shows include a private collection of Beatles photos, some of the country’s best oil painters, and many other works rarely provided to such a small community. It’s easy to think a spiritual force may still be at work in these halls.

Or maybe, that force is Ahrens.

Just a few minutes pass before she suddenly appears by my side, smiling, talking and offering a very quick hug.

“Well, you wanted to see what my days are like,” she says with a shrug.

It’s quarter after 2 p.m., and Ahrens slows down long enough to make sure I’ve been introduced to her staff before we dash into her office and close the door. She lets a sigh slip as she turns to her computer and checks emails.

“My phone is on ‘do not disturb,’ ” she says, “so we shouldn’t be interrupted too much.” A minute later, there’s a knock on the office door. Two staff members pop in to review the winter newsletter one last time. “I’m a horrible editor,” Ahrens concedes. “I like the big picture stuff. I’m lucky to have a great staff that can catch the nitty-gritty.”

She might be more driven by vision than detail, but it’s clear as she runs through the fine print—so fast it’s like she has a high-speed internal metronome snapping in her ear—Ahrens didn’t become a leader in the arts community by focusing only on the flashy side of her work.

Fast forward a few hours. We’re standing in Crooked Tree’s makeshift kitchen classroom. Ahrens is explaining how thrilled she is the arts center received a matching grant for $50,000 to renovate and upgrade the space for the center’s successful cooking classes. A board member walks in, and Ahrens is quick to introduce us, and we discover we’re from the same town. In fact, one of the board member’s children is just two years older than I am, and went to the same high school. We’re soon exchanging contact information and sharing excitement for a new literary festival in Harbor Springs that will happen for the first time in 2016.

“I love this,” Ahrens says. “I love getting to connect people.”

As conversation eases back into what types of equipment the new kitchen will need, Ahrens begins to tell a story about when, in the late 1990s, she made the move to Petoskey from southern Michigan.

The story starts with a green KitchenAid mixer. A friend’s car was packed with all the belongings Ahrens wanted to “feel at home” as she started this new chapter in her life. Things like Christmas ornaments and her favorite cooking tool, that green mixer. When his car was stolen—and with it, all her treasured stuff—it would have been easy to second-guess the decision (especially since Ahrens was already catching flack for choosing to relocate so far up in the state’s northern reaches).

Instead, it had the opposite effect. It made Ahrens more ready than ever to reinvent her life. She started working for Jack Perry’s gallery in Petoskey. He was one of the founders of Crooked Tree Arts Center, and introduced her to a lot of the organization’s patrons. In 2000, she joined Crooked Tree’s staff as marketing director, and in 2005, she became its president/executive director.

That winding path—stolen car and all—defines the way Ahrens lives and works: with decisive focus, heart, and a constant desire for forward motion.

Now rewind to a few hours earlier, while still in her office. It’s the only space on the third floor without windows or a panoramic view of Little Traverse Bay and feels like the center of a beehive.

“I’m a big believer in taking leaps of faith,” Ahrens is saying, elbows perched on her long, antique wooden desk. She’s talking about Crooked Tree’s recent merger with ArtCenter Traverse City, effectively giving her organization two campuses. “I think that’s one of the things I love—we have a history of taking those leaps.”

It’s true. In 1980, the arts center’s founders voted to buy the church building for $180,000, even though the organization had no money, no business plan, and no staff. In the late ’90s, dreams for a major historic preservation and renovation kicked off a $4 million capital campaign. Construction was completed in 2003.

Since then, Crooked Tree has continued to expand, taking over Petoskey’s Carnegie Library space that now connects to the church building via a short enclosed walkway. A top-notch studio for the organization’s acclaimed pre-professional dance program is now in use. Most recently, the merger with the ArtCenter Traverse City represents the goal of expanding cultural and community reach.

“The ArtCenter Traverse City has been around for more than 60 years. It didn’t have a physical exhibit space or place to hold classes though, and that’s something we’re changing,” Ahrens says. Crooked Tree is moving into a space in Traverse City Carnegie Library building, and recently opened its first show.

As a member of the Michigan Council of Arts and Cultural Affairs, Ahrens sees the connection between Petoskey and Traverse City campuses as a way to build an arts bridge in Northwest Michigan.

“We have such a rich environment here. Not everyone realizes it, but you really can find a concert to hear or an exhibit to see or author to meet or performance to watch almost every day of the year. We want to connect people from Manistee to Mackinaw City. Someday, I can picture having an app that will let you discover all the studios and galleries and art-related events happening in the region on any given day. People could find a working glass-blower or a concert or all the pottery studios in a given radius. How cool would that be?”

Ahrens is married to artist Neil Ahrens, an abstract painter whose work with color and horizons (especially those that call to mind Lake Michigan) has made him a painter to watch. She freely admits she leans on her husband when it comes to talking about “the deeper meaning” in art.

“I can talk art history all day long,” she says with a laugh, perfectly mismatched bracelets jangling on her arm. “But I let Neil take over when it comes to emotion or meaning. He’s brilliant with that sort of conversation. Me? Not so much.”

It’s seems surprising at first—Ahrens admitting she doesn’t always get certain pieces of art. But Ahrens is comfortable with her strengths and weaknesses. Ahrens first discovered how well suited she is for the organizational side of the arts as a college student at Michigan State University. She took the only class offered in Arts Management, which allowed her to work directly with the executive director of the Wharton Center. The small class experienced contract negotiations, venue management, marketing and more.

Ahrens says the class was “exhilarating.” Right after graduation, she started working for galleries in downtown Detroit, and while she loved being around art, she discovered she wasn’t fond of the hard sell that came with the job. Still, she ended up becoming a partner in a Birmingham gallery before heading north nearly two decades ago.

“There was never a defining moment that made me decide the arts would become my career. It’s more that my life experiences brought me to the threshold of Crooked Tree Arts Center. And if you would have asked me when I started 14 years ago if I thought I’d still be here in 2015, I probably would have laughed at you.”

It’s not that Ahrens isn’t happy here, she is. And she’s still plenty sought after; she was approached for a major position in another arts organization not long ago and turned it down. Her staying power at Crooked Tree is surprising only to Ahrens herself, who says perpetual forward motion is her only mode of operation.

It’s why she keeps outlandish dreams in her back pocket, like her wish to someday throw a dinner party down a main street in Petoskey, Harbor Springs, Charlevoix or Traverse City.

“My creative outlet is food and cooking,” she says. “I’d love to throw this enormous dinner party with one long table. Local foods, wines, artists would design the tables, musicians would
entertain, and of course, dine with all the guests. It’s been done in other locations, and when we were in Parma, Italy, this fall, we literally ran into a 1,000-person dinner party in the streets. It was fabulous, but they didn’t involve music and arts.”

The logistical nightmare of a street dinner—a minimum of 500 people to make it work—makes it all the more appealing to Ahrens, who grins as she imagines it. A dinner party down a main street in a Northern Michigan town, it radiates a sense of community and sense of place, both of which hold deep importance for Ahrens, and she carries them with her in her work.

One of the exhibits she’s thrilled to present this summer is Harbor Springs oil painter Elizabeth Pollie’s “The Hours,” an artistic representation of the passage of time, in more than just
light and shadows.

“It will really be a story. A collection of moments in a day. I love that concept, and I think it will resonate with people here,” she says, pausing before she adds, “There is something about living along Lake Michigan that makes us more aware of the role the passage of time plays in our lives.”

She pulls out a newsletter from the Oil Painters of America, in which the organization raved about the beauty of the Petoskey area and the impressive nature of the 370-painting exhibit
it recently held there—which resulted in more work sold than at similar exhibits in major cities.

“It’s always fun to surprise people,” she says with a wry smile.

Ahrens is already working with her board on a succession plan, though she says she hopes to have another five or eight—maybe 10 years—left with the organization. After all, she notes, the Visual Arts committee is already planning into the year 2022. Crooked Tree has become such a piece of who Ahrens is, walking the hallways of the building’s classroom space is like getting a tour of her home.

It’s well after 5 p.m. now, and a gaggle of little ballerinas in blue and pink leotards, tights, and slippers are twirling in and out of their parents’ laps as they wait for class to start. Ahrens pauses to chat with a few of the moms and young dancers, asking questions about their instructors and the upcoming spring recital.

“Every year when our School of Ballet performs, I cry like the kids are my own,” she says.

Peeking into a sketching class, Ahrens’s maternalistic pride emerges again. One of the pre-professional dancers—a boy who started at Crooked Tree when he was 8 and is now 17—is modeling. Ahrens whispers a list of all the national (and international) opportunities he’s had to study with some of ballet’s great talents. She talks about his choreography skills and dedication to his art; he drives across the Mackinac Bridge from St. Ignace to practice nearly every day.

Once upon a time, Ahrens thought about going into politics. Listening to her remember that time in her life, it’s clear she believes in trying to make a difference.

“I still try to stay naive about the way the system really works, because I want to think people get elected to do what’s best for all the people they serve. I love sharing stories and helping link people together to make good things happen.”

That’s something art does too, Ahrens adds. It’s like a connective tissue, a way to share slices of history and emotion with strangers. She pauses, watching children now bundled back up in winter coats and hats, still pirouetting. She looks down the hall at a stack of pencil drawings for a new emerging artists exhibit soon to be hung. She waves to the chef tying a black Fustini’s apron on as he prepares to teach the evening’s cooking class. Her half moon eyes crinkle in the corners. She nods once, satisfied with what she sees: people connecting through art.

“At one time we had a very moving Bobby Kennedy photo exhibit,” she recalls. “A visitor walked out of the gallery in tears and said to me, ‘Do you know what you have in there?’ Those were his exact words. I looked in his eyes, and in that moment, I knew we were serving our mission well.”

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Crooked Tree Arts Center Expands to Traverse City: Liz Ahrens