Lansing Art Gallery Reopens with Strong Commitment to Art Accessibility

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Photos courtesy of Nancy McRay

Artist Nancy McRay and some of her work.

The Lansing Art Gallery has been around in some form since 1965, and with its latest move, the art gallery is poised to be even more accessible with the Lansing Art Gallery & Education Center space at Knapp’s Centre at 300 S. Washington Sq. in downtown Lansing.

For nearly 60 years, the Lansing Art Gallery has offered Michigan artists an opportunity to exhibit and sell their artwork. The gallery’s mission is to provide public awareness, education, and enjoyment of the arts.

Moving from their former location farther down Washington Sq., this 8,000-square foot space will now be above-ground, filled with natural light, something Executive Director, Barby Whitney, is thrilled for.

“Our new location has a surface lot right across the street where folks can park, it’s a daily rate only, so we’re hoping there will be regularly available spots very close by there, as well as a number of ramps within a block or two,” Whitney said. “We’re also really close to the main CATA hub, so mass transit accessibility is even more evident as well.”

Based on artist and community feedback via surveys, interviews, and anecdotal feedback, the gallery learned of people’s hopes that the space would include natural light and dedicated parking. 

People working on art projects. Photo courtesy of Lansing Art Gallery.

Whitney also spoke about the atmosphere of the gallery, and what it aims to be for the artist community. Artists can teach, exhibit art, or sell art through the retail gallery. 

“We’re a place where anyone and everyone can enjoy art, create art, and for our professional artists, it’s a way for them to earn. We’re a place where we’re fostering creativity, and self-expression, and we’re also a way for our professional Michigan artists to show and sell.”

The gallery has connections to the East Lansing community as well.

One of the artists on exhibition is Nancy McRay, a former East Lansing resident for 40 years. She attended MSU, and discovered her love for weaving while taking classes at the East Lansing Arts Workshop, housed in the old Marble Elementary School. 

Photo courtesy of Nancy McRay

Artist Nancy McRay.

After returning to school for an art degree, McRay began work at East Lansing Recreation and Arts (ELRA) as the Fine Arts Coordinator, working closely with the East Lansing Art Festival and the East Lansing Arts Commission. Though she enjoyed her work, she missed making art. 

“I left my job at ELRA after five years, and started an artists’ co-op space with Leslie Donaldson and Sue Hensel,” McRay said. “Our space was located in an upstairs room on Grand River that probably no longer exists. It was called the Art department.” 

The space was 100% self-funded and artist-run. In the back of McRay’s mind, however, was always the thought of owning a yarn store.

“There was a small room available in the same hallway as the Art department, just above PT O’Malley’s,” McRay said. “I stocked it at first with my own hand-dyed yarns. I had been showing my work at Trillium Gallery on Grand River, and the owner, Kali Halpern, encouraged me to show hand-dyed yarns. I had a practice of dying yarns for my weaving, so that I could get the right colors, in the right amounts. Eventually, I had a significant presence in her shop. It just made sense to get my own space.”

Photo courtesy of Nancy McRay

An example of McRay’s work.

This space became known as Woven Art, with McRay’s yarns for purchase, and some looms available for student use. “My customers turned out to be mostly knitters. And while they seemed to love the hand dyes, they also needed a selection of commercial yarns as well. So over time, I brought in more and more of the commercial yarns I could find.”

McRay looks back fondly, at how the business grew, relationships with longtime customers and employees, but still missed making art. “After selling Woven Art to Meg Croft, I set up a home studio, and enjoyed working there for a couple years,” she said. 

Today, she resides near Traverse City, and is happy to make art again on a regular basis, with her chosen medium of fiber. The self-proclaimed tapestry-obsessed artist enjoys discovering the ancient art form.

“I am doing lots of experimentation now with wedge weave, eccentric weaves, supplemental elements, etc.,” she said, “but always with the intent to express something of my relationship to this place.”

McRay will have three pieces on display at the new Lansing Art Gallery’s space. She spoke about ‘Burn,’ one of the small tapestries, which uses wedge weave technique.

Photo courtesy of Nancy McRay

“Burn” by McRay.

“It is still tapestry, but instead of horizontal weft over vertical warp, the weft is woven at an angle. This gives the tapestry some dynamic movement. Additionally with the piece, I used non-traditional materials, such as nettle, and other stiff, stringy stuff. I title many of my pieces after they are done, once they tell me what they are. This one is called ‘Burn,’ because it reminds me of stumps left after a forest fire.”

Having shown at the gallery before over the years, McRay is proud to be a part of the reopening.

“The Lansing Art Gallery has a long history of showing the best of what Michigan artists have to offer,” she said. “I love it for the opportunities it gives our own fabulous artists, and for the diversity of works it presents. While the gallery does show popular artists, they do not shy away from also showing more challenging and thought-provoking work.”

The pandemic provided the gallery opportunities to expand public art engagement.

After the pandemic forced in-studio events to a halt, Whitney said the gallery rethought how it could bring public art and classes/workshops in a safer way. Online videos and instructional materials led to a very successful ‘Sock Creature’ art kits, which promote art access. Kits are available online or upon scholarship, based on needs. 

This type of kit helps encourage people of all ages to revisit their own creativity, and rids any pretense of a stuffy, art gallery experience. 

“Our Education Director Michelle Carlson spearheaded the project. When she shared it with me, I said ‘it’s brilliant, it’s a great way for people to know the arts are for them,’ Whitney said. “That’s the perception I think we’re often combating, is that galleries are elitist. We feel really strongly that the arts are for everyone.”

The gallery, which will host its ribbon-cutting ceremony on Tuesday, Feb. 1, at 12:30 p.m., marks the gallery’s fifth location over the decades, according to Whitney. The gallery reopens to the public with expanded hours on Wednesday through Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

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