ELKHART — Elkhart County is celebrating a resurgence in the arts in recent years, with a growing community of artists and art lovers alike.
From downtown galleries and studios to public sculpture displays, art can be seen almost everywhere. Art lovers say it’s a dramatically different landscape from what they saw decades ago.
“When I arrived here in 1981, it was sort of a crumbling infrastructure downtown,” said Brian Byrn, curator of the Midwest Museum of Modern Art in Elkhart. “When the Lerner reopened in 2007, when they named the area the ‘Arts and Entertainment District,’ I knew arts were finally coming back.”
Since that time, Elkhart County has seen a blossoming appreciation of the arts – the creation of four arts councils, regular art walks, downtown sculptures and classes. Other theaters besides the Lerner, including Goshen Theatre and Bristol Opera House, also underwent renovations to give their towns new life.
Arts on Main gallery owner Steve Gruber and other art enthusiasts led the way for artists locally.
“There is a tremendous amount of artists in this area,” Gruber said. “We have a maker heritage, because of manufacturing of tool and dye. I think it’s literally in some people’s blood.”
Artists in Goshen recognize growth in their community as well.
“It really has been a natural evolution of momentum in Goshen,” Mayor’s Arts Council Coordinator Amy Worsham said.
Having a healthy arts scene is important for a city, remarked Levon Johnson, CEO and president of the Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s one thing to speak to the business environment of a place, but this speaks to the culture of the place,” he said.
The story of art
The story of Elkhart County arts goes deeper than the past decade.
Artists like Ted Drake and Kelby Love brought national attention to Elkhart County, while historic art programs like Amish Acres and Goshen College’s Stouder Hall kept the flame alive even while arts in the area struggled.
“When I came to town at age 23, it was difficult for me to circumnavigate this cultural world,” Byrn said. “This museum was the only thing that kept me in Elkhart.”
Today, the Elkhart County Museum Association features 30 member museums and, according to Byrn, an activity for every week or weekend of the year.
In Goshen, Worsham said the founding of the Goshen Clay Artists Guild in 1998 brought about a concern for protecting and preserving local sculptures. The other guilds were founded shortly after – for photographers, painters, jewelers and woodworkers.
Byrn credited the display of over 50 life-like Seward Johnson sculptures throughout the county two years ago as part of the resurgence. Painted elk and heart statues also popped up in Elkhart in recent years along with apples and flowers of Nappanee.
“These were great projects because they united the cause and made people within Elkhart County tourists in their hometown,” Byrn said. “When you can unite these communities, each with their own unique cultures, it is a great thing.”
Local art lovers agree, the artists and their work were always there. Their challenge was to find each other.
“Now we’re starting to unite under one presence and it makes us stronger,” Byrn said. “There’s been more effort into the marketing and building of these attractions.”
Making communities vibrant
Johnson said the gathering of artists and well as the art lovers speaks to the vibrancy of Elkhart County as a whole.
“As we have people leave us, the next generation is going to have to decide if they want to support this,” Byrn said. “Vibrant Communities is saying, ‘Yes, we need all of this to make our lives better.”
Vibrant Communities, an initiative started in 2017, created the Elkhart County Arts Alliance to “help county artists and musicians become more vibrant, viable, visible and vested in the public realm, by coalescing Elkhart County art and music interests.”
“People are often unaware of those with similar interests, or do not know about available opportunities,” a Vibrant Communities update reported last month.
Such was the case for Integrated Arts LLC Studio and gallery owner Kathy Stiffney in the venue of the Painted Finch.
“I always wanted to paint,” she said. “It was probably about 15, maybe 18 years ago, that I talked to someone that was in an art group in Michigan, and I said ‘I wish I could learn to paint.’”
As a kindergarten teacher, and later a tai chi instructor, Stiffney was no stranger to teaching. But learning a new skill and taking on a new title was more difficult.
“You just have to have that little intestinal fortitude to put yourself out there and finally say the words, ‘Yes, I am an artist,’” she said. “Being willing to put myself out there, it became kind of natural to be a part of this world.”
Her studio, the Painted Finch, opened in November 2017 above the Electric Brew. There, she paints, exhibits her art, seeks out fellow artists and teaches painting.
“I think a lot of people want the experience,” she said. “It doesn’t surprise me. It’s that inner draw to be creative.”
Gruber, who also coordinates the Elkhart Art Walk, said he, too, has seen the need for art classes and galleries grow in Elkhart communities.
“When I started this place (six years ago), it was the one place in town and now there are seven art galleries in the city of Elkhart,” Gruber said. “It’s just kind of feeding on itself.”
And it’s not just about looking at a pretty picture.
“We think of ourselves beyond entertainment,” Byrn said. “We think of ourselves as helping people to understand their visual heritage and create an experience outside of their everyday lives. I think that’s true for Wellfield Botanic Gardens, Goshen Museum, Linton’s Enchanted Gardens, Bonneyville Mill. It’s all about the experience and all of these things add up to cultural impact.”
“Art is a catalyst for positive change,” Worsham said. “Art can heal, art can bring people together, art is powerful beyond words.”