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How northern Michigan artists avoid starving in the winter

Feb 24, 2015

Michigan’s summer resort towns like Traverse City, Mackinac and Petoskey live and die by the summer tourist season. Things slow way down in the winter. The streets are a lot quieter, the traffic is gone and many businesses close up shop. But for artists who live in the resort town of Harbor Spring year round, the boom and bust cycle of the seasons is a blessing in disguise.


80 percent of the year’s income flows in during the summer season.

Margaret Tvedten is an artist who’s owned her own art gallery in Harbor Springs for 20 years.

She says 80 percent of her income comes in during the summer season, to last her the whole year. While that season starts in May and goes through September, the real rush comes in during the six weeks after the fourth of July.

“If you haven’t made enough money within that six week time, it’s not good,” Tvedten says.

That makes things pretty stressful for artists.

But Harbor Springs attracts the kind of clientele that can allow artists to survive in Northern Michigan year round. Tvedten says the people who come to her gallery are visiting their second or third homes in the area.

That means a lot of Tvedten’s clients have the money to buy art. They are also on vacation so they have time to walk through galleries without being rushed, or listen to a band play after dinner for longer than they would have if they were back home.

Winter is time to create

When those tourists leave, business is slow. But for artists, there’s a silver lining in these winter months.

“It’s completely time to get in your little art cave and make art and not have any interruption,” Tvedten says.

Tvedten says she’s really productive as an artist when the area transforms into a ghost town. That’s when she and other artists stock up on their inventory for when the summer tourists come back. That’s a perk other businesses in the area don’t have.

Diversifying art and skills to make ends meet

Kirby Snively is an artist who lives just north of Harbor Springs. In the summer months, half of his income comes from playing music in the area. In the winter, he uses the extra time and quiet to practice music and make artistic rustic furniture out of birch bark, old nautical charts and other pieces of nature he finds in his yard or around the area.

But when things get tough, Snively sometimes needs work outside the art world to make ends meet.

"I’ve done lots of jobs: Painting, wallpaper hanging, cement work. I built my own home, did my own plumbing and electrical. I know how to do a lot of things that way," Snively says.

But for a hardy northerner like Snively, the ebb and flow of being an artist is all worth it.

“I’m a country guy,” Snively says. “I grew up here. I just love being in the woods. It’s where I feel I belong.” 

Here are two original tunes from Snively: