MICHIGAN CITY — The Lubeznik Center for the Arts has been stepping up in recent years to bring Chicago museum-caliber exhibits to Northwest Indiana, showing blockbuster exhibits featuring Andy Warhol, the Chicago Imagists, Robert Indiana, Theaster Gates and other prominent, celebrated artists.
Next year, the Lubeznik will feature a blockbuster exhibition showcasing Vivian Maier, a photographer from Chicago who worked as a nanny and is widely considered an unheralded genius who went undiscovered until after her death.
Maier’s work was salvaged from storage and has since been exhibited to widespread critical and public acclaim in Chicago and around the world.
Longtime Lubeznik Center for the Arts Executive Director Janet Bloch has been working to bring the quality of art one can find in Chicago to the art center between downtown Michigan City and the lakefront.
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“We’re trying to show more contemporary artists and some of the top artists in the world, with international reputations,” she said. “Why would you want to bring anything less? We want kids to be able to see the same art kids in big cities are seeing while going on field trips.
“We want the same relevance. We want works that inspire a dialogue. We want to get people talking where they’re not just watching the news and getting angry. You can bring in work that’s a bit provocative and have a much safer conversation. ”
The hope is to make the Lubeznik a must-see destination for the Region and beyond.
“We’re trying for bigger exhibits, not just with the summer blockbusters,” Bloch said. “We get a lot of word of mouth from exhibits like Warhol. We’re looking to create more interest.”
She hopes to draw more people both from Michigan City and far and wide to the Lubeznik. It’s advertised some of the bigger exhibits in recent years on WBEZ to attract visitors from across the greater Chicago metropolitan area.
“It would rank right up there as one of the top 10 destinations in the county. They reach a whole different demographic than many of our leisure destinations,” LaPorte County Convention & Visitors Bureau CEO Jack Arnett said. “It’s certainly high up the list when we talk about quality of life and quality of place.”
Bloch ran a gallery in Chicago before starting work at the Lubeznik in 2009 and becoming executive director in 2016. Bloch herself is an artist; she is a painter who studied at the Art Institute of Chicago.
“I pursued it pretty seriously for a couple of decades,” she said. “I’m trying to get back into it. It’s not time exactly, just creative energy.”
Chicago galleries represented her work in the 1990s and 2000s. Here art often featured personal narratives with a decorative influence. She moved out to Chesterton and started creating larger works that juxtaposed nature and industry, reflecting the Calumet Region landscapes she saw on her commute to Chicago.
“It was very fanciful and somewhat abstracted,” Bloch said. “You still know what everything is, like power lines but they became totems. It still had narratives but the conflicts were much larger. I saw nature and industry co-thriving in some way, which is weird. My art centers my own feeling but it became more of an exterior narrative.”
She’s been immersed in the arts since she was a child. She’s long loved visiting museums like the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Seattle Art Museum and the Folk Art Museum in Sante Fe, New Mexico.
“As far back as I can remember, I loved the arts,” Bloch said. “We went to many art museums when I was young, both for school trips and as a family. I loved to draw in high school and started to paint. I was with a friend of mine in an art store who had no inclination to buy anything. Artists are just built different. There was nothing in that art store I wouldn’t have bought. I would have tried these paints or those paints or anything there.”
Here influences are diverse, including decorative art, Medieval art, abstract art, folk art and even advertising and comic book illustrations.
“Every time we went to a city we would go to the art museums,” she said. “I’ve been to some pretty amazing museums and we’re trying to bring some of the same kind of work here.”
Established as the John G. Blank Art Center in 1978, the Lubeznik got its current name and location at 101 W. 2nd St. #100 in Michigan City after art enthusiasts Jack and Shirley Lubeznik donated the building. It’s one of Michigan City’s gems, Michigan City Economic Development Corp. Executive Director Clarence Hulse said.
“The Lubeznik Center for the Arts brings together art, beauty and natural space and is a real community gem — an amenity that Michigan City residents can be truly proud of and also a showpiece for our visitors,” he said. “They have continued to bring quality art and famous artist exhibits to educate our community and also become an incubator for new and enterprising artists in our community. We are proud to have such a fine institution and partner in our community.”
Bloch wants to go beyond the gallery exhibitions to bring more art experiences to the community, such as by commissioning public murals in coordination with local churches.
“We make sure we are doing outreach and bringing art experiences to the community,” Bloch said. “Arts are an equalizer. We want to make sure we are a driving force in arts in the community.”
The Lubeznik brings in students for field trips, does art pop-ups in community centers and does outreach in Michigan City Area Schools, such as with after-school programs and STEAM camps. It also partners to bring arts to nonprofits like Paladin, a social learning institution for people with cognitive disabilities, and The Caring Place, a shelter for victims of domestic violence.
“It really is the mission to provide education and outreach to everyone 365 days a year,” she said. “We want to make art accessible.”
The Lubeznink draws thousands of visitors to its outdoor Lubeznik Art Festival, which also helps draw more people into the galleries, including some locals who have said they had never set foot there before in their lives. Bigger exhibits like Warhol, the Chicago Imagists and “Well-Behaved Women” have helped generate buzz, luring more visitors.
“We have been stepping it up in order to attract people to see best-of-class art,” Bloch said. “We have to think of ourselves that way, whether it’s how tags are written or tours are given. Artists and museums lending to us need to trust us as an institution, to know we’ll do things in a top-notch way.
“The people who come to see the show also expect excellence. They don’t want to see talent but say it wasn’t hung as well as it could be or they could have given us more information. We want it to be really compelling whether it’s a sophisticated arts audience or kids coming in to look at the art.”
The Lubeznik is now working with the Chicago History Museum to display some of Maier’s photography next summer.
“She’s a photographer whose work was discovered in a locker in Chicago. They found this incredible body of work by a nanny who was a photographer documenting life on the street,” Bloch said. “It will cost some money to bring it and we have to weigh that with whether the community is going to be excited and what exposure that’s going to bring us.
“The staff brainstorms these exhibits that might be enriching. We don’t want to just stay at the status quo. We want to bring more people in. We want to have more educational opportunities. We want to engage a variety of audiences. We want to get people excited and build an appetite for the arts.”
Michigan City, already home to many galleries and artists, has been consciously pursuing the arts as an attraction in recent years, including by investing in the Uptown Arts District, an artist colony downtown, public sculpture and various other arts initiatives. The Lubeznik hopes to build on that momentum and expand in the coming years, Bloch said.
“The vision is that Michigan City becomes a destination for the arts,” she said. “We want to be a driving force for the arts in the whole Region and help make the quality of life into what we know it can be.”
The Lubeznik has been working to bring the arts to more economically depressed areas of town, such by bringing more public murals to the west side.
“We believe arts enhance the quality of life and economic development,” she said. “We know restaurants have popped up along Franklin Street. Art has power and value. People like living around it, as you see in some of the Chicago mural corridors. People take pride in it.”