The gallery that isn't

By Lawrence Cosentino
Photo by Lawrence Cosentino/City Pulse

Neighborhood Empowerment Center raises ghost of Kresge Art Museum

This story was corrected on April7 to say the Ingham County Land Bank's Garden Program is a tenant in the Neighborhood Empowerment Center rather than the Garden Project, which is run by the Greater Lansing Food Bank.

Art is supposed to stir deep questions. Here’s one that comes to mind the minute you walk into the Neighborhood Empowerment Center in northwest Lansing:

“What is this — a gallery or something?”

The questions get more profound if you blunder into a room where two life-sized papier-mch sheep (one riding a wagon) are surrounded by a dozen ducks, with an extra duck standing on one of the sheep. According to a sign nearby, this strange tableau, called “The Candidates,” by Williamston artist Diane Wolter, was inspired by the 2012 presidential election.

So: Are the sheep rounding up the ducks or vice versa? Which critters are which candidates? Is the bossy duck supposed to be Rupert Murdoch? Is this room for lease?

Answers: Quack, b-a-a-a, maybe, yes.

The center, 600 W. Maple St., was once part of the Lansing School for the Blind. It was refurbished in 2010 and became the home of several nonprofits, transforming into a modern, light-filled HQ for spread-sheeters, do-gooders and grant-writers.

But there’s another dimension to the airy building. Its also Old Town’s west-fringe stealth gallery, with over 60 works of art — some donated, some on loan, many for sale.

The Greater Lansing Housing Coalition owns the center and rents it to other nonprofits. The other tenants — not counting the sheep and ducks — are the Ingham County Land Bank's Garden Program and Head Start. Two spaces are for rent.

This is no ordinary collection of calm-down-and-work-more-efficiently office art. The variety and stature of the paintings, sculpture, prints and photography accumulating in the building are quietly expanding toward museum quality.

The largest works hark back to the 1970s heyday of bold abstraction by octogenarian titans of Michigan State University’s art department. Sculptor Mel Leiserowitz’s “Kalamazoo” rises like a chest-high ebony mushroom near the north entrance. Painter James Adley’s “Red Passage,” a vivid swath of color some 20 feet long, stretches high over the lobby. A typically crowded canvas from politically charged primitive painter Bruce Thayer dominates the building’s steel-curtained central lounge.

On the walls are portraits by Margaret Meade-Turnbull, specialist in watercolor nudes, who taught art at Lansing Community College for over 25 years, and several canvases by longtime Lansing art teacher Mark A. Mehaffey, who paints dynamic, confetti-strewn vignettes of brightly clad people doing bright things.

Art lurks on countertops, in conference rooms, even in the kitchen. After a while, the hangers and coffee stools start looking like part of an exhibit. (They are pretty modern looking.) On one table, half a dozen ceramic pots turn a conference phone into pop art.

In a sense, the growing collection at the center fills a void left when MSU’s Broad Art Museum replaced the old Kresge Art Museum last year and zoomed straight into contemporary art. The center’s art committee is composed mostly of former Kresge supporters. Many of the artists taught at MSU and showed at Kresge back in the day.

“It definitely makes up for losing Kresge,” Meade-Turnbull said, adding that the center focuses more on local artists than the Kresge did and is and more “up to date.”

“The works show quite well because of the natural lighting,” she said. “It’s not a museum, so people don’t think to go there, but people should go and look.”

The anchor pieces are late 20th-century abstracts from the MSU art department’s silver age, but there is a lot of figurative art, photography, borderline whimsy and much else. Some of the non-permanent art is big and pricey, but Katherine Draper, director of the GLHC and coordinator of the art program, has made sure there are prints and smaller works at affordable prices, in the $30-$40 range. A 25 percent commission on works sold goes to support the coalition.

The “Kresge redux” feel is no accident. Soon after the GLHC moved into the building in late 2011, Draper got in touch with Dixie Platt, former president of the Friends of Kresge support group, and artist Nancy Leiserowitz. (Leiserowitz’s bronze bust of legendary Lansing actor John Peakes, in his role of King Lear, glowers over the center’s break area in the rear.) Back in the day, Draper took art classes from Leiserowitz, but she disclaims any talent for making art. She prefers to enjoy it — in the building where she works, if possible.

“We have all these walls and they need art,” she declared. “It puts you in a different state.”

Draper and Platt rounded up a committee of arts supporters, most of them associated in one way or another with the Kresge.

The arts committee includes Elinor Holbrook, another former president of the Friends of Kresge, and longtime Friends stalwarts like Joyce Banish, Michael Beebe and Wendy Mackey. Christine Nichols, another memeber of the center’s art board, was the Kresge’s events coordinator.

In recent weeks, Draper has seen more and more people wander in just to look at the art.

One afternoon in early March, Ron Emery, of the nonprofit Northwest Initiative, stopped in to do some business, and ended up stuck in the halls, looking at the art for over 20 minutes. He minutely examined several canvases by artist Ilene Curtis, who collects quotidian objects like dish shards, screwdrivers and doorknobs, arranges them in fraught constellations and renders them meticulously in oils.

“It’s like a gallery in here,” Emery said.

Well, that answers that question.

Neighborhood Empowerment Center
Lobby hours: 9 a..m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday
600 W. Maple. St., Lansing
(517) 372-5980