Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo

As we emerge from a year of civil and social unrest, a global pandemic, and the immense loss, pain and suffering that has gone along with it, artists and arts organizations have a daunting task ahead. As storytellers, conveners and our community’s healers, it is the Arts Council’s job to support our artists in their recovery and rebuilding of their livelihoods.

The Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo remained open through the pandemic, serving our community’s needs through funding, resource connection and an open door (although virtual) for artists to come together with other artists to talk about the challenges we faced. In 2020, we awarded over $351,000 through nine grant programs (three of them brand new), but the most immediate and needed support was our COVID-19 Bridge Fund Program. This program awarded grants to support the operational needs for our arts organizations. In all, we were able to support 27 area organizations. 

In addition to funding, the Arts Council wanted to make sure that our artists and organizations were connected to each other, and to professionals that would help make some sense of how to navigate such unforeseen circumstances. If you were a member or a grant recipient, you were invited to a four-part series led by Mia Henry entitled “Where Do We Go From Here?” These workshops were a collaboration with ONEPlace @ KPL and were designed to offer insight, support and connection at a time when connection was difficult. They gave rise to a monthly virtual Artist Happy Hour, as well as a Town Hall on racism in the arts.

The funding we received from the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation gave us the footing to leverage other dollars and grant as much as we possibly could back into the community as well as allow for a continued connection with each other.

For more information, visit www.kalamazooarts.org


Ballet Arts Ensemble

In March 2020, the COVID-19 shutdown only minimally affected the last nine weeks of the Ballet Arts Ensemble (BAE) 2019-20 season, with both concerts completed. It did not immediately affect the 2020-21 season.

That said, numerous spring state orders/directives delayed BAE auditions. When performance venues were closed, BAE Artistic Director Cathleen Huling deemed her 2020-21 season plan impossible. So in July, we had no plan and no dance company. Determined not to cancel the season, our organization immediately tackled three important issues:

  1. Set an August date for virtual auditions to select BAE dancers for 2020-21.
  2. Update studio technology to support virtual and hybrid class/rehearsal needs.
  3. Create a “pod” rehearsal strategy to use for 18 dancers while observing group numbers and social distancing rules.

Our first virtual concert was a December mixed rep in three parts, all rehearsed using the “pod” system. The entire company never danced together until the final taping! The concert aired on the weekend before Christmas and garnered 750 views.

Initially reluctant to deal with technology, our organization ultimately embraced it for advantages such as:

  1. Do-overs.
  2. Reduced concert expenses without venue rental and ticket vendor fees.
  3. Opportunity to connect for the first time in many years with those who live out of the area.
  4. Easy viewing and donation without parking or weather issues.

The December concert so energized our organization that BAE’s second virtual concert aired in March – and we anticipate virtual concerts in future seasons!

For more information, visit www.balletartsensemble.org

Photo credit Linda Culver

Crescendo Academy of Music

For 33 years, Crescendo Academy of Music has helped students achieve their musical potential by offering individualized music instruction in a positive and supportive atmosphere regardless of the student’s age, ability or income. Highly qualified teaching artists provide private instruction on all string, woodwind, brass and percussion instruments, as well as piano, voice, guitar, mandolin, theory, and composition. We offer Music Together, an internationally recognized early childhood music program for children from birth to age seven and the adults who love them. Crescendo Fiddlers gives string players of all ages the opportunity to explore folk fiddle music.

When COVID-19 closed our studio doors in March 2020, we immediately pivoted to online private lessons, with teaching artists and students embracing the move. We designed and equipped a remote studio for teaching artists who did not have an adequate internet connection in their homes. Music Together moved to an online model, reaching families from eight additional states (VA, WI, TX, MN, AL, MA, ME, NE). When two teaching artists moved to Minneapolis for full time employment, both continued to teach remotely for Crescendo. A student moving to California continues to study violin and piano with her Crescendo teacher. Crescendo Fiddlers also continues to meet online.

Crescendo is home to the Kalamazoo Mandolin and Guitar Orchestra, a plucked string ensemble for adults, and the Community Voices Ensemble, providing teens and adults with intellectual disabilities the opportunity for a variety of musical experiences. These ensembles will return when our doors fully open once again.

Bringing highly skilled teaching artists to young students during their formative years and offering enrichment activities to the adults in our community are the primary goals of the Academy. Need-based financial aid is available for all our programs. We are your community music school.

For more information, visit www.crescendoacademy.com.

Fire Historical and Cultural Arts Collaborative

In January 2020, we purchased the building we’ve resided in for 15 years. At the peak of excitement for youth enjoying space in the building, we had to translate our cultural space online. During this past year, we began to see our social media not only as an extension of our space and programming, but a proud platform that can spread youth voice. With the limitations prompted by the pandemic, we grew 85 percent in engagement since the first quarantine and totaled over 2,000 followers on Instagram and on Facebook.

While we conducted intimate and small gatherings with youth last summer, and online, our social media accounts allow us to have relevant and authentic relationships with the wider community and village that surround teens in our community. Through sharing youth creations, direct messaging, “stories,” memes and calls to action, we stay connected even throughout deep and widespread hardship.

For more information, visit www.thisisfire.org

Kalamazoo Downtown Partnership

While planning for the 2020 Holiday events in spring 2020, our community was hopeful that the COVID-19 pandemic would have run its course by November. We were greatly mistaken. As positive COVID-19 cases increased throughout the summer, the Kalamazoo Downtown Partnership, leaning heavily on Kalamazoo County Health Department guidelines, determined that it was not safe to proceed with the 2020 Kalamazoo Holiday Parade or the Holly Jolly Trolley.

With the cancellation of two well-attended holiday events, we understood that it was critical to the ongoing economic recovery of our downtown businesses to offer other safe opportunities that would attract visitors to downtown Kalamazoo. With the help of several partners, including the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation, the City of Kalamazoo, the Radisson Plaza Hotel, Consumers Energy and Meijer, we successfully offered 17 days of 2020 holiday programming.

“Santa Sightings” offered outdoor, safe visits with Santa and Mrs. Claus. Black Santa returned with increased program hours, and Black Mrs. Claus made her debut! Seven businesses partnered to help distribute two-thousand Santa Letter Kits to downtown visitors, giving them a variety of activities for children to do at home. Plus, Santa mailboxes were placed throughout downtown, encouraging repeat visits.

Twenty block faces were decorated with holiday tree lights, and a new 12-foot wreath offered photo ops. An outdoor holiday market, offered every Saturday in December, hosted 51 vendors, of which 91 percent were minority- or woman-owned. Businesses reported that 2020 sales were equal to or higher than the 2019 holiday season. 

For more information, visit www.downtownkalamazoo.org

Kalamazoo Institute of Arts

Like many organizations, the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts underwent a radical paradigm shift after the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread through Michigan in March of 2020. When the governor ordered a mandatory shutdown of many businesses, we transitioned much of our engagement with the public online. While we are seeing more public back to our building, we continue to offer myriad ways to connect the community to our mission of the arts for everyone.

KIA’s Kirk Newman Art School now offers two different modes to participate in our high-quality studio art courses, with online Zoom courses and onsite, in-person offerings and workshops. To help stay connected, we have also offered “Spring Break at Home Art Kits” with instructions and materials for hands-on projects. Also included were “Take Home Figure Sculpting Kits” and “Cyanotype Kits,” both of which are popular with community members of all ages.

Finally, we are pleased to provide free art materials to any elementary student for participation in our upcoming Young Artists of Kalamazoo County exhibition. We are also working with the Kalamazoo Public Library this year to include an age-appropriate book in each child’s kit. That is over 500 kits and books made available to local children! The pandemic has offered unique challenges, but our staff, faculty, students, members and patrons remain dedicated to the KIA’s vision that the arts are for everyone. 

For more information, visit www.kiarts.org

Kalamazoo Youth Development Network

KYD Network’s Community Learning Hubs are located at various sites around the city of Kalamazoo, supporting K-12 students in person with their virtual learning. The purpose of the art therapy in the Hubs is to educate youth on SEL (Social Emotional Learning) skills through an art lens.

Art therapy is a healing technique that involves making art through creative expression. It is about letting go and creating something; you do not need to be an “artist” to do these activities and with an art therapy outlook, everyone is an artist. The art therapy sessions are an hour long and consist of an inclusion activity in the beginning, an in-depth look at one of the eight SEL skills and how to apply it to the art technique we are doing that day, the art technique itself, and then a small reflection to sum up how the youth felt the session went.

Since we are living in a pandemic, our young visitors have been adjusting to the new normal, which involves wearing masks and social distancing. Despite the pandemic, the youth at the learning hubs are always enthusiastic and thoughtful when it comes to making art. Over the course of time that we’ve been doing art therapy at the learning hubs, the youth have created some really amazing pieces of art that they are able to share with their friends, peers and family members!

For more information, visit www.kydnet.org


Public Media Network

When theatres and arts venues closed their doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the need to reach audiences through media platforms became critical. With support from the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation and local municipalities, Public Media Network assisted local arts organizations with the transition to online.

This initiative helped local groups, including Farmers Alley Theatre and The Kalamazoo Civic Theatre, to produce virtual performances for their audiences. In addition, music groups like the Kalamazoo Bach Festival collaborated with Public Media Network to produce their traditional holiday and spring concerts for their audience in an online format. Public Media Network’s team worked with these arts organizations to create complex videos combining multiple performers into an online arts experience.

The Fall Bike Celebration, El Concilio, Wellspring/Cori Terry and Dancers, and the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo reached new audiences for traditional in-person events through video concerts, presentations, interactive fundraisers and discussions. Many people enjoyed concerts featuring local musicians that were traditionally part of an in-person summer concert series.

The Kalamazoo Valley Blues Association produced videos for the 2020 Blues Fest through media production facilities at Public Media Network, exposing current and new audiences to this artform. In addition, content was developed to support local arts collaborations and Black voices in the arts.

Through guidance, training and production support, many arts performances will reach new audiences as they continue to broadcast on Public Media Network, showcasing the diverse and rich arts community in Greater Kalamazoo.

For more information, visit www.publicmedianet.org

Rootead Enrichment Center

Rootead’s mission is:​ Reclaiming the village through cultural liberation by holding spaces for internal transformation, healing arts and birthing justice.​ With support from the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation, the Youth & Cultural Arts branch of Rootead was able to host programs for youth and activities for families during the pandemic.

Pivoting during these times was very important to Rootead’s mission because people were not able to gather in-person, and we were not able to hold public spaces for Rootead families. In the beginning, it was very difficult to obtain the information needed to assess what the community wanted during the pandemic. Rootead’s staff focused on making the tools that they offer easily accessible, especially for the underserved community who only had access to laptops and Wi-Fi in public spaces like schools, libraries and work.

Rootead partnered with the Kalamazoo Youth Development Network (KYD Network) to help solve families’ needs for hotspots, free meals, homework help and other support services. This helped connect families to Rootead Collective, an online community for Rootead families. We transferred all youth and family programs and activities to virtual programming on the Rootead Collective.

Ultimately, Rootead hosted virtual workshops and programs that have impacted 60 youth. Youth streaming performances have reached over 6,000 views. When the weather was warm, Rootead was able to safely have Community Drum & Dance workshops outside, which impacted over 150 families while following COVID protocols. 

For more information, visit www.rootead.org

Western Michigan University College of Fine Arts

COVID-19 brought unprecedented disruption to higher education. While the financial impact has been profound, innovation has propelled teaching and creativity. Funds from the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation enabled the College of Fine Arts (CFA) at Western Michigan University (WMU) to creatively teach online, while reaching out to patrons via live stream technologies. One exciting outcome of this investment was a new work created for the Winter Dance Gala.

Early in the pandemic, the Department of Dance was uncertain what the Winter Gala, their flagship event, would look like come February. Would it be a live performance, or would it be virtual? Kelsey Paschich, Assistant Professor of Dance, wanted to create something that would stand up as vital work no matter the delivery method.

The solution? A collaboration with Kevin Abbott, the CFA’s new Director of the Center for Advanced Art Research (CFAAR). They decided to create a dance film that could either be projected during a live performance or streamed online. The resulting work, Recode, explores dualistic identities as they exist during the pandemic. 

Recode examines how information can be misunderstood or lost through the current modes of communication, transforming how humans are interacting with each other. Combining choreography with motion capture, video, animation and video game technology, they created vibrant virtual dancers whose bodies respond to the music, and composed choreography using 3D space in ways that would be impossible to do with live dancers on a stage.

The cast of student dancers was thrilled to be part of a new work that expands the horizons of what dance can be. Plans are being made for new collaborations, with patrons and students alike eager to see what the future brings!

For more information, visit www.wmich.edu/finearts