The Arts Take Center Stage in Traverse City

November 29, 2023

By Rebecca Treon for  |


Though it has a population just under 16,000, Traverse CityMichigan, is home to some pretty remarkable amenities. Take its arts scene, for example. Encompassing visual, performing, literary and everything in between, this city’s artistic repertoire consists of things you’d expect to find in much larger cities – and it continues to grow.

“A town this size feels uniquely poised to go one way or the other when it comes to the arts, but the city decided years ago to inject a lot of arts and culture elements in various respects and really champion that,” says Roger Amundsen, who serves on the Traverse City Arts Commission and is a regional ambassador (aka Northern Navigator) for Michigan’s Creative Coast. The commission is responsible for promoting the arts in the community.

“The generally small size of Traverse City really helps facilitate a lot of collaboration between different disciplines and have [more] vibrant and interconnected conversations than you see in other cities.”

Art gallery in Traverse City

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Visually Vibrant

Visual arts can be found across Traverse City, as it’s home to several large-scale murals, museums and galleries. For example, recently, children’s book author and illustrator Brianne Farley painted a mural at Trattoria Stella, and artist Darin Knupp created a mural between Kilwins and Pangea’s Pizza.

As far as venues, The Dennos Museum Center, which is located on campus at Northwestern Michigan College, has been part of the community since 1991.

“What makes The Dennos unique is that we’re one of the largest community college-affiliate museums in the U.S. There are just a handful of two-year colleges that have a museum of our size and scale; it’s an unusual asset,” says Craig Hadley, who serves as executive director and chief curator and is also a Northern Navigator. “You’d be driving about two-and-a-half hours to find a museum of our size in Northern Michigan. When tourists come here, they’re blown away by the scale of the museum.”

The Dennos has one of the country’s largest Canadian Arctic Inuit art collections, a fact that drives traffic and interest to the museum.

Additionally, the city has several galleries where local and regional artists can exhibit their work. Art & Soul Gallery, located on South Airport Road, features handmade jewelry, lamps, glasswork, paintings, prints and woodwork. Higher Art Gallery, also found downtown, features the work of 35 artists – primarily women – from around the country using different mediums.

Many of the city’s venues work to engage the community in the arts. Examples include Crooked Tree Arts Center, which also has a location in Petoskey, the Interlochen Center for the Arts in nearby Interlochen, and The Dennos. Crooked Tree offers youth and adult classes, art exhibits and events. The Interlochen Center for the Arts offers classes for kids and adults as well as camps, both virtual and in-person. Plus, the Interlochen is a renowned arts academy, and it hosts large-scale performances. The Dennos offers events, tours and workshops for all age groups.

“We do a lot of tours for K-12 students and seniors, plus we have four temporary galleries that we rotate three times a year,” Hadley says. “We’re a Smithsonian affiliate, so that provides us with opportunities for traveling exhibits. We have an outdoor sculpture garden, too. Traverse City consistently ranks within the top 10 in the SMU DataArts survey that ranks the best arts and culture towns in America, and we always make the list.”

City Opera House

Tony Demin

Prime Performances

When it comes to the performing arts, Traverse City stands tall once again. One notable venue that’s worth return visits is City Opera House, which is one of only seven restored historic opera houses in the state that’s still in use. It features performances by national touring artists and hosts youth education programs, and public and private community events, including the National Writers Series and the Traverse City Comedy Fest.

Additionally, the Encore Society of Music is a 50-piece wind ensemble and several smaller groups that perform 35 concerts and 12 large-scale performances annually – usually at The Dennos. The Traverse Symphony Orchestra is the leading regional performing arts ensemble in Northern Michigan.

Also adding to the region’s performing arts collection is Old Town Playhouse, a community theater that was founded in 1960 and does five stage shows each year, including three studio shows and an educational program for youth actors called Young Company. They also have a troupe of actors made up entirely of retirees called Aged to Perfection. Plus, the Playhouse is known for its volunteers.

“We have about 300 volunteers, so it truly is a community effort,” says Deb Jackson, executive director of Old Town Playhouse. “We’re very proud of the quality of shows we produce, especially considering it’s all volunteers. We often hear that our shows are as good as a Broadway show, so we’re very proud of that.”

Traverse City has a burgeoning local music scene, too. The Alluvion is a 150-seat venue downtown that was built by creatives for creatives to produce accessible performances, community events, classes and workshops. Indie theater at its finest can be found at Mashup Rock and Roll Musical, a series of musicals remixed in wonderfully weird ways. The Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians hosts various events throughout the year, and The Little Fleet’s All Call Music Festival is a one-day music event that happens every September at a local food truck venue.

The arts in Traverse City

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A Love for Literature

Traverse City also shines when it comes to the literary arts. It hosts several events that celebrate writing, including the National Writers Series, a year-round festival that highlights books and authors. Additionally, Poets’ Night Out is a beloved juried poetry contest and poetry reading event held annually, and the Traverse Area District Library hosts various literary events year-round. Locals also love Here:Say Storytelling, a monthly storytelling event held October through May at The Workshop Brewing Company, where people tell stories of their lives, and EXPAND is a storytelling event that focuses on finding fulfillment.

“Traverse City is dramatically growing and expanding in a lot of ways and attracting a lot of new and interesting types of people from other cities, and that’s informing great changes in the public art and cultural sphere and the infrastructure,” Amundsen says. “A lot of different perspectives have caused a growth spurt here – it went from being a pretty small, rural place to popping up on a lot of people’s radars.”