A Home for the Arts in Leelanau

by Miriam June 29, 2021

Thanks to the Northport Arts Association, downtown Northport comes alive each summer with music, art, and a sense of collaboration and community. In addition to hosting the very popular Leelanau Uncaged street fair, NAA offers classes and open studios for artists of all ages and experiences, as well as events and galleries. With the support of a $25,000 Assets for Thriving Communities Grant from Rotary Charities, the Northport Arts Association will expand its offerings into the world of ceramics. The Clay Works Studio will host classes, workshops, artist residencies and be a unique community asset in Leelanau County. 


Sensing that Leelanau County, with its picturesque landscapes and sparkling waters, was a haven for creatives, a group came together in 2013 to form an artist collaborative. The Northport Arts Association’s beginnings were humble; meetings and classes were held in each others’ homes. Then, in 2016, thanks to the generous support of a private donor, the NAA opened the doors of the Village Arts Building. “This community of artists started the Northport Arts Association, and it continues to be supported by the community. It’s really become a home for the arts in Northport and Leelanau County,” says Betsy Ernst, Executive Director. 

NAA hosts Leelanau Uncaged in the summertime, with the inaugural event being the “first big explosion of arts in Northport in a long time.” Based on John Cage and other beatnik artists who believed the arts should be an expression of free thought, the event encourages a passion for the arts and inspires through music, an art fair, and people creating art in the streets. Unfortunately, due to uncertainty around the safety of gathering en masse during the pandemic, the event has been canceled for the second year in a row.

The pandemic has not stopped the artists from creating. The NAA offers weekly workshops, including figure drawing classes and plein air painting. On Thursdays, they offer open studio time for artists to use the studio as a quiet space to paint, sculpt, collage, among many other mediums. Many artists who create works in the Village Art Building have them on display in the gallery, which frequently hosts shows of members’ works and local artists and those from outside our region. For a small membership fee, artists can access the space and receive discounts on classes and gallery rental. In addition, artists who show and sell their work in the gallery are paid a generous commission, “70% of the sale goes to the artist, and only 30% is paid to the Village Arts Building,” says Ernst.




Last Fall, NAA asked their members through a survey what they’d like to see offered in the future. “Overwhelmingly, our artists and the community told us they wanted more opportunities to work with clay. With no space in our current facility dedicated to clay, we looked for nearly six months for the right building. As it turns out, the perfect space is right next door!” chuckles Ernst. After conducting a feasibility study to determine whether the community would support the endeavor, NAA approached the Leelanau Community Foundation, which owns the office space between the Village Arts Building and their own offices. With the support of the Community Foundation, Rotary Charities, Michigan Council of Arts and Cultural Affairs, and private donors, the Clay Works Studio is coming to fruition. The Studio will be open daily, offering classes and members-only studio time. The buildout of the space includes two kilns, a slab roller, work surfaces, and tables to host classes, as well as lockers for artists to store their supplies and works in progress. 

Betsy Ernst looks forward to a collaboration with the Northport Highschool, which will offer students the opportunity to work with clay and learn about the process of throwing, glazing, and firing. Through what Ernst calls the Northport Tile Collective, she also hopes to offer students the opportunity to learn more about the business of pottery. The Clay Works Studio will also attract artists from outside of our region, who will come to Northport to participate in artist residencies and offer classes and workshops and show their work in the gallery next door. 

The Northport Arts Association and their Clay Works Studio are unique assets to Leelanau County, and Rotary Charities is proud to provide support with a $25,000 Assets for Thriving Communities grant. Learn more about the Northport Arts Association on their website,

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