In Michigan’s Thumb, Artists Find New Uses for Old Barns

In a county with 33,000 people, the village of Port Austin is turning nearly 100-year-old barns into massive art installations — and hoping it brings more tourists to see them.

At the tip of Michigan’s thumb, the village of Port Austin is banking on arts and culture tourism as a part of its economic future.

And their latest project is a barn-turned-art piece that’s sure to draw a crowd.

During the day, Catie Newell’s “Secret Sky” installation is a complicated structural concept that blurs the lines between architecture and art.


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By removing a “slice” of the nearly 100-year-old barn and splitting it into two buildings, Newell created a passageway for patrons to walk through that also frames the sunrises and sunsets of Huron County with stunning visual effect.

At night, it’s illuminated from inside via solar-powered lights to cast shadows on the surrounding wheat fields.

“I do want people to grasp that it is about the sky. It is about being in this landscape.” — Catie Newell, artist

Ryan Patrick Hooper
Ryan Patrick Hooper

With Newell’s work regularly focusing on urban issues, the two years she spent working on “Secret Sky” brought her closer to her northern Michigan surroundings, and she hopes her audience grows closer to it, too.

“I imagine that everyone will carry something differently with them — how they’re relating to the sky and the landscape and things like that,” says Newell at a recent unveiling party for her project. “But I do want people to grasp that it is about the sky. It is about being in this landscape.”

The overall project is being spearheaded by longtime Detroit-based arts advocate Jim Boyle, who says he started with a goal of converting 10 barns in 10 years (the project is loosely branded under the banner “53North”).

So far, the project has converted three with modest funding roughly $30,000 from a mix of grassroots fundraising and grants. The barns are donated by property owners.

See the art barns of Port Austin for yourself:

Newell’s “Secret Sky” joins works by fellow Detroit-based artists Scott Hocking and the Hygienic Dress League.

For the past 30 years, Carl Osentoski has been the executive director of the Huron County Economic Development Corporation.

He says these small investments in arts and culture tourism could pay off in big ways, helping to fill in gaps on main streets in small towns where retail and other attractions have dried up.

“With the arts, you increase a tourism base,” says Osentoski. “It’s creating that environment that will invite people into an area. The economic benefit is that they’ll spend money in that community.”

“This is an opportunity to repurpose barns in a creative way and to save the barns. A typical barn like the one we’re standing in will be demo’d because farm equipment won’t fit in here.” – Carl Osentoski, Huron County Economic Development Corporation 

Greater Port Austin Art & Placemaking
Greater Port Austin Art & Placemaking

There’s national research to back that up.

The non-profit Americans for the Arts released a study in 2017 that explored the economic impact of arts and culture in communities across the United States. 

One of the biggest takeaways was that travelers seeking out a cultural event like a festival or art installation spend nearly double on lodging, food and other expenses while in town than a local resident would.

Osentoski says the art barn project will also help preserve a piece of Huron County’s history: the old barns themselves.

“This is an opportunity to repurpose barns in a creative way and to save the barns,” says Osentoski. “A typical barn like the one we’re standing in will be demo’d because farm equipment won’t fit in here.

Ryan Patrick Hooper
Ryan Patrick Hooper

 

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Author

  • Ryan Patrick Hooper is the award-winning host and producer of CultureShift on 101.9 WDET-FM Detroit’s NPR station. As a longtime arts and culture reporter and photographer, Hooper has covered stories for NPR, Detroit Free Press, Hour Detroit, SPIN and Paste magazine.