Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Saginaw Art Museum closed and facing unknown future

The Saginaw Art Museum as seen from the back and its gardens

story and photo by Janet I. Martineau

Closed and for sale.

Those dreaded four words have plagued numerous businesses in Saginaw with the current nationwide economic downturn.

Now they may (MAY) claim one of its cultural gems -- the Saginaw Art Museum, 1126 N. Michigan.

“We’re caught in what I call a perfect storm,” says Sharill McNally, who became the board president last October. By this October, the historic structure which added two wings in 2002 will remain closed, as it now, and possibly even up for sale.

“We still want to be an entity in the town, just maybe in a different place, a smaller place,” says McNally, an associate with TSSF Architects Inc. of Saginaw. “The building is a drag and we want to sell it or rent it, lease it. We’ve already closed the doors due to our financial status, laid off all the staff except for our director, and in the next couple of months we are evaluating and looking at our options.

“I want to stress we are open to ideas, innovative ideas, on how to deal with this problem.” Now is the time, she says, for the community to step up to the plate if it sees the importance of an art museum in its midst. 

That perfect storm leading to the closed doors? 

Maintaing a stable board, paperwork not filed in time to apply for some grants, electric bills so high (upwards of $10,000 a month in the summer) and behind in payments that Consumers has sometimes cut off the power, an air conditioning unit that is kaput and has a projected $80,000 repair bill, a boiler needing upwards of $60,000 in maintenance and repairs, a leaking roof, money borrowed against an endowment, mortgage payments still due to the bank from its addition construction .. and the list goes on with some “hornet’s nest” issues McNally is not at liberty to discuss.

Close off the expansive windows, the board has been advised. Put in more refined zoned heating and cooling. But, McNally points out, that costs money; “money we do not have.”

“We are in a $4 million home we cannot afford,” says McNally, “especially in a community that is downsizing, endowments being hit (by the struggling economy), donations to us lagging.”

McNally says the museum needs $20,000 a month, “and that is the bare minimum,” to stay open; or $250,000 to $400,000 a year to really do the job right. Currently the endowment, she said fetches only $60,000 to $80,000 of that. 

She had hoped, in her presidency, to gradually build a sustainability with unusual programs and exhibits that would appeal to a wider audience, but time ran out with the overwhelming operational issues (which grants in general do not fund). McNally has a long history of community and board involvement.

One thing the board wants to preserve at all costs its the museum’s permanent collection, valued as high as the building itself. “We may have to sell it but that is a terrible road to go down. We are in talks with a couple of entities where we would be under their umbrella and retain control of the collection. Our goal is to save the collection; find a new location for it somewhere in Saginaw.”

One of its permanent collection pieces
The museum holds a collection of art and artifacts in excess of 2,500 pieces, spanning 4,500 years of art history -- and which require a consistent heating and cooling atmosphere. The oldest works in the collection include Etruscan artifacts and ceramics from Indonesia and the ancient Near East.
American and European pieces comprise the majority of the collection --  decorative arts, drawings, manuscripts, paintings, prints, sculpture and textiles from the 15th through 20th centuries. It also owns Asian, African, native American and Mexican folk art.
The museum also houses one of the major art reference libraries in the Great Lakes Bay Region -- more than 1,200 books, catalogues, and periodicals dealing with American, European, and Asian painting and sculpture; furniture and decorative arts; costume and textiles; prints, drawings, and photographs; and modern and contemporary art. 

A selection of subjects includes antiquities, architecture, art appreciation and criticism, art history and movements, arts and crafts, design and d├ęcor, drawing, graphic design, monographs, museum collections, oriental art, photography, sacred art, sculpture, and art from cultures and regions throughout the United States and the world.
The museum has a long history of financial struggles and has played brinksmanship many times. But, says McNally, “we can’t keep kicking it down the road.” 
The two-story center section of the complex was built in 1903 as a family home for lumber baron Clark Lombard Ring. It and its formal garden out back were designed by renowned New York City architect Charles Adams Platt in a Georgian Revival style.
 In 1946, Ring’s two grown daughters purchased the home and donated it to the  citizens of Saginaw for use as a museum. One of the daughters even donated money, artwork and leadership to the fledgling museum until her death in 1957.
In 1948, it opened it doors as the Saginaw Museum, housing both art and historical artifacts. When the Historical Society of Saginaw established the History Museum in 1967, the Saginaw Museum deaccessioned its historical items to them. Henceforth, the Saginaw Museum was called the Saginaw Art Museum.
Cramped for space as the years progressed, in 2000 the museum began an Art for All campaign to raise $7 million for the addition of an educational wing on the left side of the Ring Mansion and a large exhibition wing on the right side. At the same time a donor provided a $2 million endowment.
Both wings were downscaled in scope from plans when the Art for All campaign lagged and were built despite the fact the full funding for them was not raised, thus the remaining mortgage payments.
Should the Saginaw Art Museum indeed close, it would leave the Great Lakes Bay region devoid of what is considered a true art museum and one focused on fine art.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Chippewa Nature Center's Dennis Pilaske cuts a CD with three other nature folks

Dennis Pilaske in Concert
-- 2 pm Sunday, Aug. 19, Picking at the Pavilion at the Chippewa Nature Center, 400 S. Badour in Midland. In the Bus Pavilion at the east end of the main parking lot. Free. Bring your own seating.

-- 7pm Saturday, Aug. 25, Message from the Marsh series at Bay City State Recreation Area, 3582 State Park Drive in Bay City, Free but $10 state park pass required of all vehicles. Bring your ow seating (moves indoors in case of bad weather).

Dennis Pilaske at the Chippewa Nature Center River Overlook

story and photo by Janet I. Martineau

Nature “troubadour” Dennis Pilaske says he wrote his first song at age 5.

“Now I have about 20 or 25 I would play in front of people” -- which he often does in connection with his job as director of interpretation at Midland’s Chippewa Nature Center (see above Aug. 19 gig). 

Earlier this year, the Port Hope native broadened his scope when he and three other nature center guys released a CD titled “Good Four-tunes: Songs of Land, Wildlife and People from the Great Lakes.”

Joining Pilaske on it are Foster Brown, a historical/naturalist at Cleveland Metropark; Dan Best, a senior naturalist at Geauga Park District in Ohio, and Mark Szabo, a park interpreter at the Stony Creek Metropark Nature Center in southeast Michigan.

The CD contains 14 songs, all written and performed by the foursome. Pilaske will touch more than a few chords with mid-Michigan residents in his “Rivers Are Highways,” which mentions the Saginaw River and Green Point, and his “Forty to One” dealing with the making of maple syrup, which Chippewa does.

The other three men serve up such ditties as “Hoot Owl Blues,” “Gettin’ Ready (for the Winter),” “Where’s the Groundhog,” “Cloud Song,” “It Went the Otter Way” and “Leave ‘Em Alone.” And scat (yes that, in whimsical fashion).

On his three selections on it, Pilaske accompanies himself on acoustic guitars, bass and mandolin.

“Rivers,” he says, has a  nice waltz feel to it and he notes that the French Voyageur fur traders used big-haul canoes to navigate the river system as a way to build business like businesses  today use the semis on the interstate highway system. Its lyrics note the Frenchmen often traveled 50 miles a day, 60 strokes to a minute.

“A couple of the (14) songs deal with cultural history but most are about the natural world,” says Pilaske. “They’re also educational since they have what we call interpretation” -- like his “Forty to One,” how many gallons of gathered maple sap it takes to boil down and generate one gallon to pour on pancakes.

“And all the creatures that are sung about call the Great Lakes region home.”

The four men are members of Region 4 of the National Association for Interpretation, which encompasses Michigan, Ohio, Indian and Ontario. And while the CD is a first for  Region 4,  Pilaske says music always is a part of their conferences.

“The other three are friends, really good musicians,” he says. “Foster even has number of CDs out. When we had a regional workshop in Midland a couple of years ago the four of us did a session on using music in programs and came up with the idea of a joint CD.”

Thankfully, the Region 4 leaders said yes and paid for the making of the CD. The four performers donated their time and each submitted finished tracks recorded in their own locals. “Fortunately we all like the same genre of music, blues and folk, and like I said we were all familiar with each other’s stuff.”

Pilaske, who celebrated his 15th year at Chippewa in July, has two hopes for the album.

“We want people to use the songs and/or the CD  in their programs -- other nature centers, schools. It is with our blessing that the songs be shared (for free) for non-profit uses and giving us credit. 

“And I hope youngsters out there who play guitar, write songs, sing  take a listen and think ‘I never thought about writing a song or singing about that.’ Well, I  did and they can too.”

Pilaske also has written  about life on a farm, lumbering. “My way is to find a topic that I think  would be neat to have a song about. I tend to write the music first and then the lyrics."

“Good Four-tunes” is on sale the Chippewa Nature Center, priced at $15.95. And is also is available at http://nairegion4.weebly.com/good-four-tunes-cd.html for $15 plus $2 shipping (that site also includes a downloadable  mp3 of Pilaske’s “Rivers.”

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Saginaw's First Congregational Church delves into live dramas, films and You Tube productions

story and photos by Janet I. Martineau

Coming soon in the city of Saginaw: a new community theater company, a new film series and a new recording studio.

All in the most unlikely of places.

First Congregational Church, 403 S. Jefferson -- founded 155 years ago and now in  what is called the Historic Cathedral District.

Rev. Todd Farley behind the Bradley House stage curtain
“We’re calling it The Phoenix Project,” says senior minister Todd Farley, noting that the struggling church hopes both it and the struggling city will “rise from the ashes” in the process.

Mainstream churches, he says, especially those in cities, are witnessing a decline in attendance so it is it time to find other ways to serve not only their parishioners but also their cities, in particular youths.

Thus First Congregational’s Bradley House fellowship hall will become the home for live theater productions, open mic performance nights and and the showing of films as well as a recording studio where youths can create performances to post on You Tube -- “a place for the celebration of the arts and music; a place to encourage the younger generation toward self-expression; a place for people of all faiths, all orientations, all economic levels.”

Farley comes well certified to lead such a transformation. He is a mime, trained in part by the famed Marcel Marceau himself, and founded and for 23 years toured the world with a mime and ministry program called Mimeistry International. He also has directed numerous plays, receiving a best director award in Grand Rapids. And he has taught theater at the college level.

The Phoenix Project carries a $700,000 price tag, Farley says. The majority of it, $500,000, is paying for a restoration/enhancement of the church’s  1929 Skinner pipe organ in the sanctuary. Another $120,000 is aimed at the Bradley House transformation, although it already has a stage and room to seat 150.

First up is a Sept. 22 celebration of the arts night, open to high school and college age poets, dancers, musicians, actors, “as diverse as possible -- maybe even a school band or choir.”

In November, the drama series kicks off with “Big Love,” a series of vignettes dealing with women’s rights issues. “We’ll have a two-weekend run, and it will be directed by Angie Noah, our Christian education director.

“We plan to stage a drama quarterly -- and  on any and every topic; avant garde, social awareness issues, no holds barred; allowing a safe place to see such plays and then have conversations about them.

And on Nov. 3 the film series will debut “although we have no films selected yet. We want to show one the first Saturday of every month. Documentaries or narratives; dealing with social issues like ‘Schindler’s List’ did, or ‘Amistad.’ We will find an expert on the topic of each film so a discussion, NOT argument,  can follow them too; maybe bring in its director or an actor if possible.”
Exterior of First Congregational Church in Saginaw

The films will show on a theater-size screen, he said. And the new lighting in Bradley, for the plays and You Tube productions, will feature LED lights which are low energy, he said, with 20 of them the equivalent of 200 old-style theater lights.

Farley hopes the recording studio end will be up and running in October, a place where youths can record their own songs, music, dance numbers, poetry readings on video  or CD, “dealing with their own issues.” 

At first the church will only provide one camera and a sound system for those recordings, he said. A switchboard for post production and more cameras to capture various angles  will hopefully get funded later.

Farley hopes the sanctuary also will be overhauled eventually  so it  can serve as an sanctuary/auditorium  for more classical style concerts and recordings “because the acoustics in there are phenomenal.”

“I want to stress the point that we feel we are not in any way competing with what the Temple or Pit and Balcony does. We’re small. Avant garde and dealing with social issues. Heavily aimed at high school age and college age youths.”

Needless to say, the church cannot afford a paid staff to tend to all the adult support needed on the plays, films, recordings and performance nights so Farley is looking for volunteers from the church and the community, and maybe even tapping into Delta College or Saginaw Valley State University students to serve as mentors.

A gift from a foundation, personal donations and the church’s own savings are footing the $700,000 bill, although all the funding is not yet complete, says Farley.

“Churches need to change the way they do church,” sums up Farley, “more post-Christian, if I dare say that; more service to the community. Kids are less religious these days. They are more about spirituality. At First Congregational we welcome that.

“God speaks from the pulpit yes, but also to people on the street, kids in classrooms. In mime, dance, drama and music we hear the voice of God in real, authentic and meaningful ways. We can, I believe, deliver meaning and ministry behind entertainment.”