News & Views

Looking Back, Looking Forward

From the Traverse City Record Eagle, 6/14/2024

This is my last column as the executive director of the Northwest Michigan Arts and Culture Network. Just writing those words brings a mix of emotions as I look back on our earliest days and forward to new chapters yet to be written.

At age 68, it’s time for this baby boomer to pass the baton to new leaders who will steer the Network into its future - opening new doors, new relationships, and new pathways for the organization to fully grow into its potential as a hub to connect, support and advocate for our “up north” creative sector. I will be retiring from my role in September while our new associate director, Troy DeShano, assumes day-to-day management this summer. Troy is a familiar face in the local arts and nonprofit arenas, holding positions at Michigan Legacy Art Park, Inland Seas and Norte, as well as his own creative practice as a visual artist. The Network is in good hands.

A local funder once asked if there was a phrase that captured the Network’s development. My response? “The Little Engine That Could.”

Looking back and looking forward, our engine has been chugging along for almost nine years as it connects the dots among artists and culture bearers, organizations and communities, resources and disciplines. Its travels have just begun. I’m excited to see where the journey leads.

The Network was a young organization with a big mission when it obtained 501c3 status in December 2018, stepping up in 2015 to fill a ten-year regional services gap to function as the only arts and cultural support organization serving our large, rural 10-county region.

It’s been hard work with a journey that was anything but smooth – winding through funding challenges, massive geography, naysayers, and a pandemic that is still impacting the sector.

But our tiny engine was sturdy, a tad stubborn, and fueled by so many artists, administrators and community builders who grew the organization from the grassroots and still keep it moving forward through obstacles and triumphs as we build up steam.

To see how far the Network has come, we just need to look to the 2024 Northwest Michigan Arts and Culture Summit, held May 7 at Interlochen Center for the Arts. There were 180 registrants in person and Zoom, 31 speakers, large panels, keynotes, deep dive topic tables, six breakout sessions, IPR recordings, performances from Edmonia, and much sharing, learning, and networking.  What a far cry from the first in 2016 when about 40 of us gathered in the middle of a blizzard to explore what a Network could look like and, then, put marker to planning pad to plot a path forward.

At the heart of that first and all following Summits was the extraordinary connecting that was done – artist to administrators, discipline to discipline, community to community, across the region, the north and the state. That’s been the soul of the Network since day one, as have our two other strategic priorities - capacity building to strengthen all for success and sharing a collective voice to raise the volume on our common commitment to advocate for arts, culture and our creative communities.

Today, the Network has grown to include 85 organizations and many artists and culture bearers across Northwest Michigan and the “Tip of the Mitt.” Each is a star in their own right, but together we have a galaxy of creative talents, cultural vibrancy, and deep artistic resources that is unmatched in most regions of our size.

The impact ripples through the region, felt by all, directly and indirectly. Community concerts, exhibitions and gallery gatherings, youth programs, public art, writers’ works, pop-ups, and festivals, murals on the trails, stories of our past, are just a few … as are the intersections of art and healing, learning, community building and resiliency.

The Network is a hub and an advocate for all. Join us in keeping the momentum going and our creative sector strong. There are exciting doings on the horizon. An expanded website is launching this month, better connecting communities and visitors with Network members and all that’s infusing arts and culture throughout region. Watch for a vibrant member directory and new Find the Arts links, maps and tours at

Other plans include fiscal sponsorships to aid funding access, such as one now supporting Minnie Wabanimkee document heritage of Native quill artists. Regional gatherings, learning opportunities and capacity building are being planned and more as we grow our branches, deepen our roots and build community champions across the map. All will be led by the new leaders of the Northwest Michigan Arts and Culture Network.

Our engine keeps moving forward and I couldn’t be more excited.

To those early founders that joined me – Leslie Donaldson, Elizabeth Calcutt, Mercedes Bowyer, Susan Wenzlick, Renee Hintz – thank you for creating this legacy. To the boards and supporters, it’s been an honor to work together to build this Network.  And, to the new leaders and next chapters, I am so proud to join the audience that cheers on your continued success. Bravo!

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Mary Bevans Gillett is the executive director of the Northwest Michigan Arts & Culture Network. Connect at or