Lansing's biggest arts stories of the Aughts
Age of gold in Old Town
The rise of the Creole Gallery and fall of Robert Busby
When times are tough and every problem looks impossible to solve, it’s easy to doubt that one person can make a difference in the world.
There is no better time to remember Old Town pioneer and guiding spirit Robert Busby.
A sheet metal worker at Oldsmobile by day and quirky multimedia artist in his spare time, Busby started rehabbing buildings in Lansing’s oldest district well before the turn of the millennium, but his final flowering as a cultural and civic force in Lansing, as well as his sudden and shocking death, belong to the decade just past.
In 1998, Busby launched a new music venue in the heart of Lansing’s oldest district, then just emerging from a generation of neglect. Next to alleys where bats, junkies, bums and hookers held sway, the old Creole Cigar Factory became the Creole Gallery, with a stage built of wood salvaged from a fire next door.
With music-loving Busby as host and Busby’s life partner, Meegan Holland, as savvy booking agent, the Creole Gallery quickly became the pumping heart of Old Town’s revival. A long line of jazz, folk and pop artists filled the space, quickly building the Creole’s buzz among music lovers and standing among musicians.
The space was warm and inviting and the acoustics worked, but the Creole’s appeal went deeper than that. Busby and Holland offered the rarest of musical gifts: a labor of love, carried out in a consummately professional manner. Busby would cook meals for the visiting musicians and host them in his funky upstairs apartment; some would stay overnight at Holland’s nearby house. In 2002, the Creole hooked up with the burgeoning MSU Jazz Studies Department, giving birth to many nights of magic. In the Creole the stellar MSU Professors of Jazz, almost a house band at the Creole, found a venue worthy of their world-class stature, yet reminiscent of the coziest 52nd Street club. On two memorable occasions, the Professors’ world-famous crony and mentor, Wynton Marsalis, slipped into the Creole and tore the place up.
The Creole became a core venue for top local artists while drawing visitors as diverse as Windham Hill piano man Alex de Grassi to raucous rocker Hammell on Trial. Hardto-satisfy blues legend Mose Allison fell in love with the place.
Meanwhile, all around the Creole, Old Town’s revival accelerated, building by building, boosted by nonstop civic improvement projects and music festivals, most of which had Busby’s fingerprints all over them.
Suddenly, in February 2007, Busby was murdered by an itinerant handyman he had taken in and given some work. For Lansing, it was the darkest day of the decade. A visionary builder and gentle, beloved fixture on the Old Town scene was gone. The magic Creole partnership between Busby and Holland was broken up forever. The Creole’s heyday is over, but the gallery still hosts art and music under the ownership of Busby’s daughter, Ena.
Stunning Broad Museum gift sparks cultural revolution
Even for a museum boasting an original Salvador Dali painting (“Remorse, or Sphinx Embedded In the Sand”), it’s been a surreal decade for MSU’s Kresge Art Museum.
Cramped and underfunded but overflowing with great art, Kresge walked for miles on the poor side of town, wearing holes in its shoes, socks and feet. When it finally put its thumb out and chanced a ride, a millionaire in a stretch limo zoomed by.
The strange trip began in April 2003, when the beleaguered Kresge, stuck for decades in a cinderblock bunker dating from 1959, announced plans for a phased expansion. To track the project, the museum launched a quaint Web site called BAM (“Better Art Museum, Because Art Matters”).
The expansion project inched along with bake-sale desperation as the university shook a thinning treeful of private donors. Then — BAM! Down swooped MSU alumnus, building industry tycoon and modern art connoisseur Eli Broad, with $26 million burning a hole in his silk trousers.
Expand the old museum? Not Broad’s style. The biggest gift in MSU’s history would do much more than that.
The Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum would vault the old land-grant university into the highest levels of art and architecture. It would be the university’s first building to face outward, toward the world, from a prime location on Grand River Avenue.
Most important, the building itself would be a spectacular, controversial work of art. In summer 2007, four cutting-edge firms competed for the commission in a historic concourse at the Wharton Center. The blueribbon panel didn’t chicken out on its charge. Six months after the competition, Iraqi-born “starchitect” Zaha Hadid was announced as the winner. Hadid’s design — an angular, crouching panther of pleated metal — isn’t in the same universe as anything else on campus or in Michigan, or anywhere else between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
Hadid’s firm is making, or has already made, architectural history in places like Munich, London, Abu Dhabi and Innsbruck, but there still isn’t a Hadid building in New York, L.A. or Chicago. Her only other competed project in the United States is the 2003 Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati.
Of course, there have been bumps along the way. Groundbreaking, now set for March 16, has been pushed back repeatedly, even as the museum’s cost has gone up to $40 million. The whole notion of devoting large sums of money to challenging modern art in the heart of recession-wracked Michigan is bound to raise hackles.
Finally, it’s still unclear how MSU and the surrounding community will absorb Hadid’s spiky spore from the ionosphere of modern architecture. But these are stories for another decade. Pop some popcorn, pull up an uncomfortable modern chair and watch greater Lansing’s culture shift.
‘Thou art slain’
BoarsHead’s decade-long death
To be or not to be? That’s been the question of the decade for BoarsHead Theater, downtown Lansing’s only professional company. Over the last two months, the now well-known tragedy seemed to come to an appropriately “Hamlet”-esque curtain, with all of the theater’s staff laid off and shows canceled, like so many bodies strewn across a Stratford stage.
The tragic flaw, as is usually the case with arts organizations, is ultimately a lack of money, but the storylines and subplots have been intriguing, nonetheless.
In 2003, co-founder and artistic director John Peakes and his wife, Judy, the theater’s managing director and chief fundraiser, left BoarsHead and moved to Philadelphia. Facing financial hardships, Peakes’ successor, Geoffrey Sherman, talked about offers to take the theater out of downtown Lansing, including a possible move to Eaton Rapids. It didn’t happen, but as late as 2007 board Chairman Larry Meyer was still doing damage control for the talks, offering several unsolicited commitments to downtown during press interviews. Another legacy of the Sherman era was lining up a major donor in Shirley Pasant, whose contributions helped keep the theater afloat until her death in 2006.
When Sherman split after about a year, the theater brought in Kristine Thatcher, a hometown girl who got her start acting at BoarsHead and went on to make a name for herself in Chicago. Under Thatcher, the theater produced some stunning, critically acclaimed works, including 2007’s “Doubt” and 2008’s “Permanent Collection,” and it brought in bigger names, like film star Paula Prentiss and TV’s John Astin, but it still struggled to fill seats and raise outside income.The
first indicator that things were getting grim came in early 2007, when
the theater laid off staff to make up for a budget shortfall. That
spring, the City of Lansing paid $25,000 in back rent to the Arts
Council of Greater Lansing, the theater’s landlord at the time.
that year, the theater seemed to be moving forward. It made some hires,
including John Dale Smith, who started as development director and
eventually took over as executive director. In summer 2008, the city
bought BoarsHead’s home as part of a longterm parking plan, but has
been content to let the theater inhabit it.
a new fundraiser and an accommodating landlord, hopes were high for the
2008-’09 season. But with its close came more off-stage drama: citing a
lack of funds to pay two executives, the board voted to keep Smith on
the payroll and not to renew Thatcher’s contract, spurring vicious,
online message board wars from here to Chicago. To show support for
Thatcher, Peakes and local favorite Carmen Decker dropped out of this
year’s season opening — and closing — production of “Beau Jest” (save
for a blackbox, all-volunteer show).
November the board announced that all staff were laid off, the
Christmas show was canceled and the theater was on “hiatus” until
January. Earlier this month, it canceled the season and announced its
intentions to turn its home at 425 S. Grand Ave. over to the city. At
this point, its last gasp seems to be some sort of undefined
partnership with Lansing Community College, with talks ongoing.
be fair, the theater always struggled financially, but in this economy
and this city and this state and, arguably, with these personnel and
board members, the odds overwhelmingly shifted against the 43-year-old
theater. Now BoarsHead’s board is tossing up a Hail Mary to LCC in
hopes that it can score a victory.
Cough, cough, next movement
guard changes at the Lansing Symphony
With apologies to Virg Bernero,
the closest thing Lansing ever had to a pope was Gustav Meier. Until
May 2006, the Swissborn maestro held the podium of the Lansing Symphony
for 27 years — an almost exact parallel to the reign of Pope John Paul
II, the second-longest-serving pontiff in Roman Catholic history.
brought considerable personal charm and high musical acumen to the job,
and he was credited with kneading a shaky community orchestra into a
serviceable and occasionally transcendent band of professionals. (He
imported players from Ann Arbor whenever the locals weren’t up to
However, by the time Meier announced his retirement in 2005, symphony watchers agreed it was time for a change. Listeners Lansing Symphony maestro Timothy Muffitt were
ready for a fresh face (or backside, anyway), new classical music was
beginning to click with audiences again, and the orchestral talent pool
had radically changed over the past 20 years. By the beginning of the
past decade, MSU and other universities were turning out superb
musicians like sugar cookies, so stocking the larder was no longer a
symphony wisely milked the once-ina-generation transition for a whole
season, beginning in fall 2005, when four young guest conductors from
around the country gave intriguing audition concerts.
the horse race wasn’t as tight as expected. One of those tryout
evenings proved to be not only the debut of a major player on the
city’s cultural scene, but the Lansing Symphony’s millennial coming of
age. For his tryout night, Timothy Muffitt, music director of the Baton
Rouge Symphony, ignited the Wharton Center with an incandescent
performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s "Fifth Symphony" — a bold choice and
a stunning performance that rocked the house to its foundations.
spring 2006, Gustav Meier led his last two concerts, taking a final
local bow with the heart-rending Tchaikovsky “Pathetique” symphony.
following fall, Muffitt wasted no time. The musicians connected deeply
with him and audiences loved his deep-rooted, passionate style. Under
Muffitt, the youthful Lansing Symphony proved itself capable of
tuba-colossal impact, despite its piccolotiny budget. Soon the symphony
was juggling big-orchestra megaworks like Berlioz’s “Symphonie
Fantastique” and Gustav Mahler’s "Fifth Symphony" with major new music
like Joseph Schwantner’s "Percussion Concerto" and a Stephen Paulus’
concerto for two trumpets. A 2008 performance of Carl Orff’s “Carmina
Burana” combined precision and power so authoritatively it even
surpassed Muffitt’s tryout concert.
initial three-year contract ended in 2008-‘09, but he renewed for one
more year in 2009-‘10 (the current season) and has repeatedly said he
wants to stay.
Although Lansing’s season subscriptions have
declined, single ticket sales have gone up, and the buzz over the
symphony is at an all-time high. Thanks largely to Muffitt, Lansing can
boast another underfunded, overperforming cultural gem.
— Lawrence Cosentino
Center performs through the ‘00s
There’s not many guys from whom I can
stomach a square look in the eye followed by a marketing slogan, like,
“We’re sweeping Broadway,” but Michael Brand, the Wharton Center’s
executive director, is one of them. Maybe it’s because Brand’s
enthusiasm for the performing arts is tinged with just the right level
of self-confidence, bordering on playful cockiness that generally makes
for a good interview.
Since 2003, Brand has led the Wharton Center full speed ahead into this 21st century.
keep up with a sagging economy, the center changed up its subscription
offerings to allow greater flexibility and smaller packages. It also
started reaching out with electronic newsletters and surveys to engage
patrons and find out what they wanted more of.
blockbusters like “The Lion King” and “Wicked” still make the Wharton
their plaything for a month out of the year, the center has also
brought in new, cutting-edge works, like “Spring Awakening” and “Avenue
Q,” and will continue to do so in 2010 with “August: Osage County.”
and Co. also went head to head with the “big shed” tours by scheduling
fewer shows in advance to bring different acts in throughout the year
that don’t plan as far in advance. With its new Christman “Live at
State Series,” classic rockers ZZ Top, country music legend Willie
Nelson and more pulled through East Lansing in the last few years when
they could have been playing Detroit or Grand Rapids.
Wharton Center has announced plans to manage Grand Rapids’ Broadway
Series, as well as Traverse City’s City Opera House, giving it greater
leverage, and control, in deciding what kind of cultural programming
comes to Michigan.
recent years, the center has also beefed up educational offerings,
“fulfilling [its] land grant,” as Brand would say, by offering local
students face time with visiting performers. In 2008, the center
celebrated its 25th anniversary with a commission by the Chicago
Symphony and the announcement of a 24,000-square-foot expansion
project. The $18.5 million renovation was finished last fall, putting a
new glass and steel face on the center and adding backstage, office and
lobby space, as well as education rooms with videoconferencing
an interview about the expansion, Ken Beachler, former executive
director at Wharton Center, credited Brand with finishing the work he
and an exploratory committee first set out to do more than 30 years ago. “[It has] not only the spaces we envisioned, but on a much larger and grander scale,” Beachler said.
Center of discussion
years later, still no performance hub
Going back over the stories on a
potential performing arts center to be constructed in downtown Lansing
is kind of like watching Christopher Guest’s 1997 mockumentary,
“Waiting for Guffman.” You have to admire the plucky dreamers who want
to see their efforts, and their art, recognized in a major way, but
it’s no less of a kick in the stomach when the famous critic (or in
this case performance hall) never materializes.
arts center rumors go back as far as former Lansing Mayor David
Hollister, who had wanted to build one along the Michigan Avenue
corridor, where the Stadium District is today.
have cited BoarsHead’s lack of a permanent home, the Lansing Symphony’s
lack of a performance space in the city for which it is named and
Lansing Community College’s outgrowing of the 500-seat Dart Auditorium
as major reasons to move forward with a new building that could house
some combination of the three, as well as other educational and
Peakes, co-founder and former artistic director of BoarsHead Theater,
who left Lansing in 2003, recalled discussion of a possible arts center
when he was still in town, which, he said, was bogged down by too many
wish lists and expenses.
newspaper reported on two such collaborative efforts for a center. In
fall 2008 there were talks of the city of Lansing and Lansing Community
College teaming up to build a center along the 300 block of Capitol
Avenue. In June 2007 a proposal was talked about to use the location of
the Towne Center building at Capitol Avenue and Kalamazoo Street that
would involve the city, LCC and Cooley Law School.
site of the former was converted into a surface parking lot earlier
this year, after the city of Lansing and LCC failed to reach an
agreement to sell the city’s North Capitol parking ramp to the college.
Cooley has since decided to use the Towne Center building for additional library and study space.
this month, the Lansing State Journal got its hands on a different plan
for a potential performing arts center in downtown Lansing through a
Freedom of Information Act request. The proposed structure would be
built at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Cedar Street, south of a new
parking ramp to be built by the city, and potentially house BoarsHead,
Impression 5 Science Center and more.
Bob Johnson, Lansing’s director of planning and development, told the
Lansing State Journal the $9 million structure would be bid in spring
of 2010, he was a lot more cautious when interviewed for a story on
BoarsHead last week. “Our project on the east side of the river is a
parking ramp,” Johnson said. “Anything beyond that is completely
speculative ... There’s nothing to it, other than sitting down and