Arts and cultural organizations are helping to define Muskegon’s downtown resurgence as they innovate out of slumps in attendance and events caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Arts and cultural institutions and festivals contributed more than $56.48 million to Muskegon County’s economy before the pandemic in 2019. Although affected by COVID-19, the arts’ contribution remains significant and generated more than $41.75 million in 2021, according to a recent Visit Muskegon study supported by the Muskegon Arts and Culture Coalition.
“Coming out of COVID, I thought the 2021 economic impact number was encouraging,” said Visit Muskegon Community Development Director Robert Lukens, adding that a strong summer tourism season helped to buoy the year’s results. “The numbers suggest a strong arts and cultural community in Muskegon County that was able to survive the pandemic and maintain and grow their audiences.”
Arts events and festivals bring in lodging revenue and visitor spending, including more than 35,000 overnight stays in 2021. Arts and cultural institutions also employ more than 600 people, despite losing about 13 percent of their full-time employees and about a third of their part-time employees since the start of the pandemic, the study found.
Muskegon County is home to 15 museums, 14 libraries and more than 60 pieces of public art.
Muskegon Museum of Art Executive Director Kirk Hallman said arts festivals in downtown Muskegon operate as “an entirely parallel scene” to established arts organizations like the MMA, drawing thousands of people to the area every year. Festivals brought in $1.2 million in admission revenue and 170,000 attendees in 2021, despite turnouts still limited by the pandemic. In 2019, festivals brought in more than $2.4 million and 248,000 attendees.
Most arts and cultural institutions pivoted to online programming and events during the pandemic, but the slump in activity also gave institutions the time to develop new programs and address maintenance issues, Lukens said.
The West Michigan Symphony Orchestra, based in Muskegon, launched a virtual concert series during the pandemic. Symphony CEO Andy Buelow said most subscribers continued to support the symphony, but it was difficult to sell tickets to online events. Since reintroducing live performances in November 2021, sales have climbed steadily, though they are still 30-percent below pre-pandemic levels, a rate that holds across U.S. orchestras.
With the Muskegon Museum of Art closed to the public for three months, staff “had to be very proactive and reinvent ourselves from top to bottom,” Hallman said. The museum managed to retain all staff throughout the pandemic, buoyed by Paycheck Protection Program loans and other financial assistance. The museum also managed to hit its $11 million capital campaign goal for an expansion project that will double the size of the museum.
Attendance numbers are slowly rising back toward pre-pandemic levels, Hallman said. He is optimistic about ongoing arts growth in Muskegon as organizations continue to innovate.
Citing renovations to the Frauenthal Center in downtown Muskegon, the opening of The Block event venue and the museum expansion, Buelow said the arts have been a key driver of Muskegon’s downtown “renaissance.”
“Every time the arts grow they bring new energy and there’s a corresponding surge all around. That creates buzz, more people hear about it and get attracted, and that supports more growth. Pretty soon the whole cycle starts again,” Buelow said.
Lukens agreed that the arts are playing “a huge role” in shaping the city’s identity.
“I believe the directors of our arts, cultural and festival institutions and organizations are the real leaders of Muskegon’s renaissance,” said Lukens. “They have the vision and the wherewithal to guide our community along a path that embraces growth and creativity, and we’re seeing the benefits of this leadership in our community.”
Hallman said economic development efforts have intentionally incorporated the arts.
Local leaders at the city of Muskegon, the local chamber of commerce, convention and visitors bureau and corporate executives “recognize the crucial role the arts play in greatly enhancing their own economic development efforts,” Hallman said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story included the former name of the Frauenthal Center in Muskegon.
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