If you’ve spent more than a few weekends in Kalamazoo, you know how Art Hop works here -- the first Friday of every month, it brings artists into dozens of businesses to create one big night of art and culture. Soon, though, it could spread to another Michigan city: Lansing.
Debbie Mikula, the executive director of the Arts Council of Greater Lansing, remembers the first time she walked through a Kalamazoo Art Hop. It was last November. She was here for a conference downtown, but when she walked outside on that Friday evening, she saw a transformed Kalamazoo. Twinkle lights dangled from trees and tourists rushed along the sidewalks.
"And it was like, wow!" she says. "So we went into a lot of businesses. We just kind of experienced it! It was like, this is it! This is what we’re looking for! This is the kind of atmosphere and connections that’s our job."
Ever since Mikula took over as her organization’s executive director in September 2013, she had been thinking about how to solve a certain problem. Lansing has art, but a lot of the artists are spread out through the three surrounding counties of Hingham, Eaton and Clinton. Art Hop, Mikula thought, could bring them together.
"Well, I think it’s a matter of trying, instead of to hit some targets, it’s about connecting dots," Mikula says. "We have artists, they tend to talk to themselves. And what we want to do is connect them to the businesses and the individuals that we would like to have more support for arts and culture in the area."
Now, the council is well into the planning stages of creating its own Art Hop – with a different name – in Lansing. The tentative plan is to launch the program next May.
The first step towards getting there, though, was figuring out how to pull it all together. So Mikula started by reaching out for advice from the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo, and its deputy director, Beth McCann.
"We would love nothing more than to see an Art Hop every Friday in Michigan," says McCann. "If we’re the first Friday, Lansing can be the second Friday, who knows can be the third or fourth Friday?"
She says Art Hop started organically in Kalamazoo – just a few businesses in the eighties who wanted to show off a gallery or two and asked the Arts Council for help. From there, the word spread. And over the next ten years, it grew and grew until 1999, when it officially got that Art Hop name.
But it wasn’t easy. Turning one business into a gallery is hard. Multiply that by thirty on one night, and you’ve got a big hurdle.
"I think the biggest challenge, and it still exists today, is finding a space where you can actually hang art," she says. "Because a lot of businesses don’t have the walls and don’t have the lighting. I know when Art Hop started out, there was a lot of time and resources invested in making these businesses gallery-ready. So for example, they’d install rails or proper lighting."
For Lansing, simple geography is going to make that challenge even harder. McCann says Kalamazoo is lucky. Downtown already has lots of art. In Lansing, though, cultural hubs are more spread out, in neighborhoods like Old Town and East Lansing.
"So it would be like if we just had Oakwood and Washington Square and Portage, but we didn’t have a downtown hub," McCann explains. "So while we’re sort of the wheel and spokes, I think they have more of a challenge logistically. But I have no doubt they can pull this off."
Mikula is confident, too. And right now, she’s listening to the advice of McCann and others from Kalamazoo. They’re saying to start small. Take your time. Keep it concentrated to just those few neighborhoods.
"So we’re looking at those two areas right now as being pretty primed and ready, that we’ll probably put our concentration on first and see how it goes," she says.
If done right, it could be hugely beneficial to the city. McCann says the Arts Council estimated that people spent $2.4 million at Arts Hops last year alone.
"And I think there are very few communities who can say, every month, we consistently bring something in that drives traffic into these neighborhoods in the downtown area," she says.
For Lansing, even thinking about that is a long way off, with months of planning left to get the program up and running. But for Mikula, she’s just excited to hopefully feel that same “wow” moment in Lansing that she felt on her first walk through Kalamazoo.