The Other Summer Sounds
A quarter-century later, Michigan Legacy Art Park is as resonant today as when David Barr first conceived of it.
By Ross Boissoneau | Aug. 8, 2020
As with virtually all venues, the enchanting forest-circled amphitheater inside Michigan Legacy Art Park — like its hallmark series of live music performances, Summer Sounds — is silent this season.
But if you listen closely, among the chirps and skitters of birds and squirrels and the breezes blowing through the trees, you might be able to hear the echoes of the many performances the seed-strewn stage has hosted over the past 25 years, from classical to klezmer, bluegrass to Shakespeare, and more.
And, quite frankly, you should. Michigan Legacy Art Park is celebrating a quarter-century of art, nature, and music this year. Though it’s perhaps in a more subdued way than originally planned, the park on the grounds of Crystal Mountain Resort in Thompsonville is still welcoming art and nature enthusiasts every day. Explorers can easily find their way along two miles of trails that wend through not only 30 acres of towering aspen, beech, and maple trees but also world-class sculptures that merge art, nature, and personal and Michigan history like no place else.
HEARING THE MUSE
Artist, teacher, and sculptor David Barr had long championed the idea of a place that would combine nature, art and the state’s history. But it wasn’t until the early ’90s — when another landmark art institution Up North, the Dennos Museum, was under construction on the campus of Traverse City’s Northwest Michigan College — that Barr’s vision found a home.
That was when he met Bob Holdeman, the architect for the Dennos. “He expressed the desire to have the art park around the 45th parallel,” Holdeman told Northern Express. Holdeman believed in Barr’s idea, and the two thought they had found an ideal location just 20 miles north of the Dennos: the tip of Old Mission Peninsula.
But local residents weren’t so easily swayed — too many people, too much traffic — so Holdeman suggested a place and a pair he thought might be more receptive: Chris and Jim MacInnes, the owners of Crystal Mountain Resort, for which Holdeman had also served as architect. When he suggested the idea this time, it was enthusiastically received.
“This incredible piece of land, in the center of [the resort’s] property, was a beautiful forest,” remembers Chris MacInnes. When contemplating the idea of letting it become a kind of open-air sculpture museum, she and Jim walked the property with Bill Johnson of Johnson-Hill Land Ethics Studio in Ann Arbor. “He said, ‘I’d like to think this land will be in the same state for my grandchildren and theirs. This land shouldn’t be developed.’”
Jim and Chris agreed, as did her parents, Crystal Mountain founders George and Althea Petritz. “Part of our master plan was to have art. We wanted Crystal Mountain to have skiing, golf, a conference center, but also … to connect with arts and culture,” Chris said.
Within one year, with the help of countless volunteers and enthusiasts, Barr’s park became a reality in Benzie County.
“We like traffic,” said Jim with a laugh, alluding to one of the objections of those on Old Mission Peninsula. “It just seemed like all the pieces of the puzzle came together.”
They lease the 30 acres to Michigan Legacy Art Park for $1 per year. Today, some 40 sculptures by Michigan artists dot the grounds, including those by Barr, who passed away in 2015.
The timber-walled open-air amphitheater has been a part of the park since the beginning. Terry Tarnow, one of the park’s original backers, booked the concerts there the first several years. She was director then of the Traverse City Arts Council: “We had a little concert series,” she said. “I had experience and said I’ll do it.”
Tarnow said, for many years, the concerts at Michigan Legacy Art Park were low-key affairs, featuring local musicians, little advertising, and relatively inexpensive ticket prices, resulting in crowds of 50 people at most.
That changed when they booked a popular national folk singer with roots in the area.
“Our first big one was Sally Rogers. She grew up in Benzie County and was well-known. All of a sudden, we had 150 people. That was a turnaround.”
Traverse City-based pianist and music producer David Chown performed several times at the Art Park and for numerous fundraisers to support it.
“It was a lot of fun. It was cool, nestled in the woods among the art,” he said, noting that it wasn’t only the uniqueness of the space that made performing there such an experience. He said the crowds were an amalgam — of music fans, art fans, those visiting the resort, and those who simply loved nature. “They’d have their gourmet picnic baskets and a bottle of wine. They were generous. It was really laid back.”
Since its founding season in 1996, the Michigan Legacy Art Park has hosted nearly 140 concerts. Many of the performers have returned multiple times. Among them have been regional mainstays such as Chown, Marvin Kahn, The Voice contestants Joshua Davis and Laith (al Saadi); the pipes and drums of the Grand Traverse Highlanders; folk icons Rogers, Josh White Jr., and Joel Mabus; members of the Traverse Symphony Orchestra; the youngsters of Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit; and more recently, new favorites like Detroit’s Nina and the Buffalo Riders, Grand Rapids’ The Bootstrap Boys, and Grupo Aye, and Kalamazoo’s The Go Rounds.
Current Executive Director Joseph Beyer said plans for the park’s anniversary year called for a special series of concerts, with indie local-gone-national favorite The Accidentals to open the series and a strong intent — in the spirit of the park’s dedication to honoring the state’s history — to celebrate Michigan performers in particular.
While the pandemic foiled the park’s plans for an unforgettable Summer Sounds 2020 lineup, the combination of the unique venue’s perpetual draw and many musicians’ loyalty to it means the 2021 series won’t be second best: “Most said they will come next summer,” said Beyer.
Another silver lining: The temporary break from hosting and coordinating concerts has allowed Beyer and crew to devote more time to the never-ending task of maintaining the park — including restoring and preserving its dozens of artworks. “The porcupines like to chew on the sculptures,” Beyer said wryly.
And while the lack of music and other usual group activities, such as field trips, has been disheartening, Beyer said that despite the pandemic — or perhaps because of it — the park has been busier than ever this year. “People are rediscovering it or discovering it for the first time. They’re interested in it as a cultural destination or finding [art] on the trail.
“The trails aspect is a big draw. It’s dog-friendly, there’s no hunting. The park is a multitude of things.”
**Pictured above: The visionary of Michigan Legacy Art Park, David Barr, at left. The Last Gasp Collective, which performed at last year's Summer Sounds.