The Universal Language
No, it’s not math—it’s art, according to Traverse City’s Arts for All
By Jillian Manning | Sept. 3, 2022
Martial arts. Juggling. Intro to improv. Drone flying. Printmaking.
That sounds like a list of electives in a college course catalog, doesn’t it? Arts for All of Northern Michigan will do you one better: These are just a sampling of the classes they offer to folks of all ages, interests, and abilities. (And you’ll save a ton on tuition, since most classes are in the $10 to $35 range.)
The nonprofit was originally formed as an arm of Artists Creating Together, an organization that empowers individuals with disabilities to learn, grow, and celebrate through the arts. Today, Arts for All is celebrating 25 years Up North, with the last few years focused on expanding the reach of their programming.
“Over the years, having all the knowledge of being inclusive and accessible, we opened our organization up,” says Executive Director Sue Cronover. “Our new mission—we just completed our five-year strategic plan—is to provide arts education and cultural experiences to connect people of all abilities. … Art is the universal language that we all share when we’re creating together.”
The new Arts for All vision is focused on building community in their five-county region of Grand Traverse, Benzie, Antrim, Leelanau, and Kalkaska counties. That means bringing together people from all walks of life as a way to forge meaningful connections, express creativity, and develop more spaces in our area that feel safe and accessible.
Of course, the main way those goals are reached is through the arts, though Arts for All's approach is certainly not one size fits all. In fact, that’s part of the appeal; they have a wide variety of classes offered for a broad range of participants. Board Co-Chair Ellie Vratanina explains that Arts for All is planning fall and winter programming related to fine art, music, dance, storytelling, and poetry, to name a few.
“We have top-notch teaching artists,” she says. “You might discover a talent in yourself that you didn’t even know you had, or [a class] might encourage you to continue in some mediums that you didn’t even think you were interested in. … It’s so accessible and so welcoming that you don’t have to feel as if you’re not talented enough to join or that you’re not going to fit in.”
But Arts for All goes beyond its name, expanding past artistic endeavors into games and physical fitness with opportunities for yoga, martial arts, and bowling. There are even virtual reality classes available to explore new worlds from behind a headset.
Cronover says these “access programs” are a chance to “take arts education on the road,” get out of the same old surroundings, and expand horizons.
“We were like, ‘Hey, we’re in an art-enriched community in these five counties. Let’s have these other opportunities outside of the studio,’” she explains.
Another hugely popular offering from the nonprofit is a quarterly dance, including a prom.
“Our dances are probably our most popular event,” Vratanina says. “We have about five a year…we have a DJ, and there’s fun lights and decorations. We’ve had anywhere from 40 participants to 120 at the dances. It’s something that all of our participants really look forward to.”
Speaking of happy campers, there were some this July when Arts for All offered its first-ever summer camp series. The agenda included everything from claymation to street dancing to intercultural art projects.
Cronover says the idea was inspired by her own struggles getting her daughter into summer camps in the area, many of which have scaled back since the pandemic or closed up shop altogether. The camp was billed as an “inclusive arts education camp for all ages and abilities” and offered one week for participants ages 6-11, another for ages 12-16, and a third for 17 and up.
“We wanted to start small to work out the bugs and figure everything out. And it was a huge success, so everybody wants to do it next year,” she says, adding that they hope to expand from one month of camps to the whole summer for 2023.
Even though Arts for All is opening its doors to more and more participants, it’s important to note that the original population they set out to serve—people with disabilities—has remained a core focus of their programing. Cronover tells us about a 10-year program called Art Escapes with Northwest Education Services (formerly TBAISD) that has made a huge impact on students enrolled in special education.
“In the fall, [our team] recruits and trains local teaching artists in all of the different arts mediums. January through May, they go and have arts education in all the special education classrooms in Grand Traverse County. … There’s so many wonderful classes, and without this program, without this collaboration, those special education classrooms would not have this opportunity.”
Cronover says that the six- to eight-week workshops—which are also available to alternative and general ed classes—offer experiences like pottery, music therapy, stop-motion animation, mixed media, and more. The goal is to provide an outlet for healthy self-expression, as well as for students to develop new skills and bond with their peers.
After a decade of successful and rewarding classes, Art Escapes is poised to grow, and Cronover is planning to find collaboration opportunities to offer similar classes in other counties in the region.
A new summer camp and the chance to expand the Art Escapes program aren’t the only big change on the organization’s plate. For years, Arts for All called the Tru Fit Trouser complex in Traverse City home. When their landlords decided to make changes with the space, the nonprofit had to hustle to find a new location that could support their wide spectrum of services.
They’ve landed in the old Blackbird Arts building, which Vratanina says is “a great fit,” not least of all because they’re now next door to ClaySpace, a ceramics studio that often hosts Arts for All classes.
This week, Arts for All is celebrating their new digs at 1485 Barlow St. in TC with an open house on Sept. 9 from 4pm to 7pm. Refreshments, snacks, and family-friendly art activities will be offered alongside information about upcoming classes and programs.
Vratanina hopes that not only will the event bring new faces, but also new attention to the work the nonprofit does. “I think our biggest challenge—as is the challenge with all nonprofits—is funding,” she says, noting that the low prices of classes don’t do much to offset overhead for staff, building space, and teacher honorariums.
Whether it’s volunteering, board service, taking classes, or making a donation, “The more people that understand what we do, they might have a passion for it, too, and the ability to support us in some way,” Vratanina concludes.
Learn more at artsforallnmi.org. And be sure to keep an eye out for this winter’s Have a Heart Art Mart, which will feature the work of 30+ local artists in different mediums as a fundraiser-slash-holiday-shopping extravaganza in Arts for All’s new space.