Collaboration Is the Name of the Game
Leland celebrates its culture on one campus
By Ross Boissoneau | Nov. 25, 2023
How long does it take to create a cultural center? As few as three years, or as many as 170. Sometimes both.
The organizations that comprise the Leland Cultural Campus have been around for varying lengths of time. The Leelanau Historical Society dates back to 1957, the Leland Township Library to 1944, and the Old Art Building (OAB) celebrated its centennial last year. Commercial fishing, the lifeblood of the tiny burg as it grew, dates back at least 170 years, though the Fishtown Preservation Society is more recent, dating to 2007.
While the four institutions have long collaborated among themselves, it wasn’t until just over three years ago that they decided to celebrate their efforts under the umbrella of the Leland Cultural Campus. “I don’t know who coined the term,” says Mark Morton, the director of the library. Nor do his counterparts, but since coming into vogue, they’re running with it.
“I like how it gets people to perk up and see this corner of Leland with greater awareness and pride,” says the executive director of Fishtown, Amanda Holmes, of the term “cultural campus.”
Location, Location, Location
Three of the four organizations call the same building home, connected by a common room. “The library is attached at the hip by the community room,” says Kim Kelderhouse, the executive director of the Leelanau Historical Society and Museum.
The Historical Society also leases space to Fishtown Preservation Society for its administrative offices. While the Old Art Building street address is on South Main, not Cedar Street as the others, it is just steps away.
“These four organizations are integral to the identity of Leland,” says Holmes. “We’re all open year round.”
There is not a formal agreement of any sort between any of the institutions. At least, not yet. If circumstances suggest something of the sort for future grant funding or some other reason, they’re open to it, though it would mean getting agreement from their four separate boards. But informally they work together all the time.
As an example, Morton points to a library presentation held in May with author, farmer, and chef Abra Berens. “We’re a little tight in terms of space,” he says, so the event was moved to the Old Art Building. Berens discussed her new book, Pulp, and the event also included interviews with local fruit producers. “This event would not have been nearly the success it was without the help of the OAB.”
“They don’t always have enough space [for] library author talks. We help host larger audiences,” says Old Art Building Executive Director Sarah Mills.
When Morton attended a conference more recently at which Berens was again the keynote speaker, she asked him what the library does to facilitate outside engagement. Morton says he used the same word over and over: Collaboration.
The organizations meet formally in the spring to review their individual programs, needs, and events. That enables them to avoid calendar conflicts as well as to brainstorm ideas to promote one another’s programs. As next-door neighbors, they also often have watercooler conversations.
Holmes notes that beside their proximity, the Historical Society and Fishtown often work together because both organizations have their roots in history. “Nearly 10 years ago we started taking early summer field trips together with our staff and summer interns, and from these outings have blossomed an even greater appreciation of the work of our organizations,” she says.
The Power of Connection
While independent, the organizations share supporters, volunteers, and occasionally board members as well. “We don’t all have the same mission, but all the organizations are here to serve the community,” says Mills.
The collaborations are ongoing, though they don’t necessarily involve all four institutions. For example, in the last five years, the Historical Society Museum has expanded its Katherine Hall Wheeler Traditional Anishinaabek Arts Room by adding a virtual exhibit with elders from the local tribe. Then it coordinated with a Native American program at the Old Art Building.
“It [the OAB] is an arts organization, but in a historic structure. Through the years, there have been lots of collaborations,” says Kelderhouse.
Mills notes that their reach extends far beyond the village. “The Leelanau Historical Society goes beyond Leland. Our reach is extended [through] artists, music, and performing arts, summer traffic,” she says. Indeed, thousands of people swarm the town each year, visiting restaurants, patronizing the many shops downtown and in Fishtown, and exploring the nearby Sleeping Bear Dunes.
So where does the cultural campus go from here? Almost anywhere, even beyond the confines of the parcel of land housing the four institutions.
“I think I speak for all of us when I say we are always looking for more ways to collaborate with each other, along with other organizations,” says Morton. “It extends our reach and our power to accomplish our various missions, which serve Leelanau County and the wider region.”
Holmes says there may be formal agreements about the team-up in the future, but regardless of when or if that happens, their working arrangement benefits them all and the community around them. “We don’t want to be in a silo,” she says.
“I feel we would always welcome conversations with anybody, even if they were outside of Leland,” says Morton. “...We certainly aren’t an exclusive club.”
Leelanau Historical Society Museum
Founded in 1957
- Their first home was the old county jail in 1959.
- The society decided to lease part of the property where the library was located and began building their space in 1983, opening in 1984.
- This is a county-wide museum, though it cooperates with other similar groups in the county, such as the Empire Area Historical Museum. “We try to dispel the myth that it’s the Leland Historical Society. We make a concerted effort to have representation from across the county,” says Kelderhouse.
- Currently, the historical society is working on digitizing historical newspapers from throughout the county’s history, 12 different titles in all, including the Northport Tribune, the Provemont Courier, and the Empire Journal.
Leland Township Library
Founded in 1944
- Books, of course, have always been the main draw, but today the library also offers ebooks, music, and other digital products. (Wi-Fi hotspots, laptops, birding backpacks, kids’ STEM kits, a DSLR camera, and even a ukulele are all available to check out. And don’t forget the seed library!)
Old Art Building
Founded in 1922
- What eventually became the OAB was started by Allie Mae Best. Then, the Walter T. Best Community Club offered social, educational and cultural events for 17 years.
- In 1939, she donated the building to Michigan State University to offer accredited summer art classes. The MSU summer art program closed in 1989.
- The building stood vacant until 1992, when Leland Township entered into a lease agreement with MSU.
- In 1994, the Leelanau Community Center nonprofit formed to preserve the Old Art Building, to promote cultural enrichment, and to provide a gathering place as a community center.
- Today it offers a variety of classes, exhibits, performances, and community events. Upcoming are The Haunting of Old Ebenezer with the Stone Fruit Collective Dec. 1 and Christmas at the Old Art Building variety show Dec. 16.
Fishtown Preservation Society
Founded in 2007
- The organization was formed in February 2007 with the purchase of eight shanties, two smokehouses, 200 feet of docks along the Leland River, other ancillary buildings, and the fish tugs Joy and Janice Sue for $2.7 million from the Carlson family.
- In 2016, FPS acquired two neighboring shanties and their deep lots on the south side of the Leland River. The property now owned by FPS comprises most of the key historic elements of Leland’s Fishtown.
- The shanties in Fishtown date from 1900 through the mid-1990s, though the name Fishtown didn’t come into common usage until the 1940s.
- While the word Fishtown may bring to mind the shanties and shops that attract tourists, it’s the commercial fishing that started it all. Holmes says commercial fishing has been in decline for the past 60 years. “It’s an industry that needs to be fought for much more visibly,” she says.
Correction: An earlier version of the story attributed the newspaper digitization to the Leland Township Library. The project belongs to the Leelanau Historical Society.