North Woods: Artists set up shop in Calumet

Sep 28, 2011

As part of our series, Stories from the North Woods, we head to Calumet in the Keweenaw Peninsula. The town has been struggling to re-discover itself ever since the area's copper boom died out more than 50 years ago.

The town that time forgot

Artist Ed Gray remembers when the last mine closed in Calumet in the late 1960s:

"A lot of people moved to Detroit, a lot of people moved to various areas where there was employment. The town wasn’t really a ghost town, I wouldn’t say, but...it stood still."

Gray's family moved to Traverse City to find work. A decade ago, the 73-year old artist made his way back to Calumet. Gray founded the Ed Gray Gallery in downtown Calumet, where he sells pottery, paintings, furniture and much more by artists from the region.

Gray says the town has grown over the past ten years, and he says "the biggest change is the amount of art that’s coming here."

"It starts with our artists"

Tom Tikkanen runs the Main Street Program, a nonprofit focused on redeveloping Calumet. His group did a study a couple years ago to figure out what’s driving the town’s relatively recent upswing. The answer? Culture economic development.

"It starts with our artists," explains Tikkanen. "It’s a natural development that’s taking place. The more art that’s displayed and that’s created here, the more that attracts other artists."

He also says some hi-tech businesses are moving to town. Still, he says Calumet has "a long way to go." Roughly one out of every ten buildings downtown is "underutilized." When Tikkanen started the Main Street Program in 2003, it was one out of five. So that's progress. It helps that Calumet’s been designated a National Historic Park, so restoration is a top priority.

A frontier community

Tikkanen says Calumet struggles with something a lot of Michigan cities struggle with, and that’s figuring out how to redevelop a downtown for a smaller population. In Calumet's heyday, the town had 30,000 people. Today, the Calumet area houses less than a third of that.

"What you have here is...in many ways a frontier community, where it’s redefining itself. It’s using the assets it’s always had and discovering new ones," says Tikkanen. "It's exciting."

*Support for arts and cultural reporting on Michigan Radio comes in part from a grant from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts.