Aug. 27 2014 12:00 AM

Lansing Art Gallery’s ‘backbone,’ Cathy Babcock, retires after 17 years

Championing art in Lansing is like painting an Oldsmobile. Ask Cathy Babcock.

Last week, Babcock retired after 17 years with the Lansing Art Gallery, the last 15 as director. She led the gallery through three problematic locations, including a car dealership and a basement that rings with the clanging weights of an upstairs gym. Donor dollars all but dried up in the 2008 recession, but she wrote grants like a racehorse, kept the gallery going and never doubted that her gritty city has a big heart for art.

Babcock’s first gig with the gallery, running a children’s tent at the 1997 Michigan Fest, was pure Lansing. She wanted to mark the 100th anniversary of Oldsmobile with a communal art project with the kids painting one of the company’s cars, but the Olds elders didn’t make it easy.

“There was this pushback,” she said. “They said we were teaching them the wrong thing.”

She assured Oldsmobile that it wouldn’t be a seminar in vandalism. The kids would wear smocks and pass under a sign that read, “You are entering the art zone.” At the end of the day, GM would get its car back and the water-based paint would wash off.

She gently but firmly persisted, a trademark Babcock quality, and got the car.

There’s nothing Babcock loves more than turning kids on to art. She loved watching that Oldsmobile gas cap take turns as a smiley face and a peace sign. The tailpipe turned into a leg sticking up from under the car. It was almost a scandal.

“I remember some parents not allowing their children into that tent,” Babcock said with a grin.

A thriving art camp and many other children’s programs are a key part of Babcock’s legacy at the Lansing Art Gallery.

Sitting back, polishing the counter and waiting for people to stumble into the gallery was never Babcock’s style. In the past three years, she masterminded a series of outreach programs that put hundreds of works of art in the streets and parks downtown.

“They’ve given the gallery and the city some recognition, and that’s all Cathy’s idea,” gallery board member Gary McRay said. “She’s got a vision about bringing the gallery out to the public. You don’t see that innovation in smaller towns like Lansing.”

Born in Lansing, Babcock, 60, started going to art school in the evenings while her two sons, Jonathan and David, were growing up. She quickly got a reputation as an excellent after-school art teacher. Before long, she was leading 13 classes a week in schools all over the region. That led to education gigs with the Lansing Art Gallery, then tenanted in a former downtown car dealership. Board members were so impressed they made her director in 1999.

From the start, she mixed small-town unpretentiousness with big-city curatorial style. “We have artists like Mark Mahaffey and Mark Chatterley that exhibit internationally — Europe, China — and they exhibit the same art here,” she said.

In 2004, the gallery moved to the old Liebermann’s Department Store building downtown, the only storefront designed by modernist icon George Nelson. It was a dream site, but the rent was too high and there was no elevator. Babcock got tired of explaining to people in wheelchairs that they couldn’t see the shows upstairs.

In 2009, the gallery moved to its present home, 119 N. Washington Square, in the basement of the downtown YMCA.

“Cathy’s put up with the noise and vibrations since she got here,” McRay said. “She’s been a real trouper. The longevity and success of the gallery is largely due to Cathy’s hard work and vision.”

Babcock realized that brick-and-mortar location matters less and less in the Internet age. Putting art on the streets became her top priority.

“When I first became director, people didn´t even know what the Lansing Art Gallery was,” she said. “There are all kinds of reasons people don´t feel comfortable coming into a gallery. So I decided to bring the gallery to them.”

She also enjoys writing grants.

“I know that sounds sick,” she admitted.

For the 2011 City Streets exhibit, 80 two-dimensional reprints of art were scattered around downtown Lansing. For once, photographers and painters were getting outdoor exposure, along with sculptors.

“Cathy did a wonderful thing, putting artwork in the streets,” artist Doug DeLind said.

“It got me to work in bronze, not just in clay. It opened up a lot of doors for me.”

Visitors could call a number and find out about the artist and the work, in the artist’s own voice. The 2012 Art by the River exhibit and this summer’s ArtQuest brought more interactive features, including a GPS app offering historical tidbits about the site as well as the art.

It was like painting the Oldsmobile, only on a grander scale.

When some pieces in Art by the River were vandalized, Babcock was flooded with calls urging her to keep on with the show. When City Streets reprints blew down or were knocked down, people righted them.

“People take care of them and call me if something isn’t right,” she said. “There’s a joy about art here that people just aren’t aware of. Maybe we just need to talk about it more.”

Friday, Babcock’s last day at the gallery, was bittersweet for her until she got home. She just sat down to dinner when the phone rang. It was the security alarm company.

Alarm calls have been part of Babcock’s life for years. For several Sundays, at the gallery’s old spot on Washington Square, the sun heated up the air in a display window, causing glass snowflakes by Craig Mitchell Smith to sway and set off the motion alarm. Last week it was an unlatched door.

The call wiped away her melancholy thoughts about retirement.

“Well, I won’t be doing that again,” she thought to herself as she sat back down to dinner.

It also helps that Babcock has complete confidence in her successor, Barb Whitney, who worked closely with her at the gallery from 2004-‘12. Most recently, Whitney was grant program manager for the Greater Lansing Arts Council.

Whitney was moved to tears at Babcock’s retirement reception. “She’s been a key player in bringing art to our community for 17 years and loving every minute of it,” Whitney said. “Cathy is the reason the gallery is still here today. She’s been the backbone of this organization for a very long time.”

Babcock, an avid birder, dropped three words to describe her future: “Birds, art, travel.”

She wants to travel around the country with her book “Where the Birds Are” and locate every one. She also plans to return to her own art, mainly figure work in drawing and sculpture. She recently joined the Lansing Historical Society, leading two downtown tours, and she is working on a new program teaching kids about art and architecture.

Meanwhile, the birds are waiting. Last spring, Babcock beheld the mind-boggling prairie chicken mating dance in a field in Colorado. (Check it out on YouTube.) Her retirement present from the gallery staff was an ornithology book.

She’s most eager to go to New Mexico to see the Mexican chickadee. She’s seen it only once, and besides, a tour guide pointed it out and that doesn´t sit well with her.

“It would be fun to find it on my own,” she said.