For the past five summers, Thursday nights in the town of Sheboygan, Wis., have become synonymous with community and free, live music under the setting sun. “It’s this feel-good moment of coming together, as everyone knows that’s the night of the Levitt AMP Sheboygan Music Series!” says Angela Ramey of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center (JMKAC), the nonprofit behind Levitt AMP Sheboygan.
And so it’s fitting that tonight, Thursday June 25, marks Levitt AMP Sheboygan’s entry into the 2020 Levitt AMP Virtual Music Series with the exhilarating brass and street funk fusion of Chicago-based LowDown Brass Band, plus an opening set by Florida-based R&B soul artist CeCe Teneal. The concert, recorded live last summer during the Levitt AMP Sheboygan Music Series, was a natural choice for Ramey and her fellow Levitt AMP Sheboygan organizers. “It was such a joyful and uplifting night of music that was truly a shared experience between the artists and our audience,” explained Ramey. “There was something for everybody.”
Another reason LowDown made the cut? Ramey recalled LowDown’s arrival last summer that struck a chord with JMKAC’s mission. Before the show, Ramey noticed a group of people milling about the band’s outdoor green room. When LowDown emerged from their van, Ramey realized these people were the band’s parents and family members who drove all the way from Illinois up to Sheboygan. “Just instantaneously it felt like this human family moment, and next thing I know, we’re all hugging. LowDown’s love for their family, and then for the Levitt AMP audience, was palpable.”
An “amazing alignment” of goals
Located along the western shore of Lake Michigan about 50 miles north of Milwaukee, Sheboygan boasts a family-friendly vibe, creative culture, ample access to freshwater beaches and an increasingly diverse population of just under 50,000 people. The John Michael Kohler Arts Center is undoubtedly the premiere cultural destination in the region. Founded in 1967 by a group of area residents who wanted to offer “All the Arts for All the People,” today JMKAC hosts world-class art exhibitions, music and dance performances, educational programming and workshops, and even a preschool.
And yet prior to free Levitt concerts coming to town, the three-acre site home to Levitt AMP Sheboygan consisted of a vacant big box store that blocked foot traffic and served as a barrier separating the downtown district from the city’s cultural institutions including JMKAC, the library and children’s museum. When the city was able to purchase the property in 2014 and was weighing plans to create an open green space, JMKAC seized the opportunity to show how this blank canvas could be used to bring the community together and develop a greater pride of place. It partnered with the City of Sheboygan and Sheboygan Squared (Business Improvement District) to apply for a Levitt AMP grant.
As JMKAC’s Associate Director Amy Horst explains, “At JMKAC, we eat, breathe and drink ways to generate a creative exchange between artists and the public.” (There’s even a running joke that Horst has a Venn diagram tattooed on her arm to prove it.) “We think very carefully about how that exchange can happen at various entry points, and the Levitt AMP grant opportunity was such an amazing alignment of what we were trying to do as an organization with creative placemaking—getting the community to come together and be this inspiring, connected place through music.”
A ripple effect of impact
In early 2015, Sheboygan was selected as one of 10 communities across the country to win $25K in matching funds to produce the Levitt AMP Sheboygan Music Series. The transformative impact of the music series, year after year, has enabled JMKAC to continue winning the grant, culminating in 2019 when the John Michael Kohler Arts Center was one of three nonprofits nationwide to be awarded multi-year Levitt AMP funding from the Levitt Foundation through 2021.
Back in 2015, however, it wasn’t clear what the long-term fate of the planned open space would be. The Levitt AMP Sheboygan Music Series was meant to be a “tangible experiment of what the community can feel like, especially when it’s channeled through music through art,” says Ann Brusky, JMKAC’s Director of Public Programs.
Any lingering doubts about the future of the public space evaporated following the runaway success of the Levitt AMP Sheboygan Music Series during its first year, attracting more than 1,000 community members for each show (which ended up taking place on the lawn adjacent to the proposed public space due to construction delays). “From that point on, the Levitt AMP Sheboygan Music Series became such an integral part of Sheboygan,” says Horst.
Each Thursday for 10 weeks, families, friends and neighbors gathered on JMKAC’s Festival Green to soak up the fun atmosphere, acclaimed artist headliners and homegrown intermission acts performing on M.I.K.E., a one-of-a-kind, artist-commissioned stage that delighted concertgoers each time it’s clamshell design opened. Audiences also enjoyed art-making activities at the Creativity Zone and the numerous food and beverage trucks stationed in front of the lawn. JMKAC further activated the Levitt AMP lawn by showcasing the work of local nonprofits. And the community celebration spilled over to downtown restaurants and businesses, which reported an uptick in foot traffic and sales as Levitt AMP audiences frequented their establishments before and after each show.
As Horst explains, “Levitt AMP became the tipping point for developers to invest in the community and insist that this planned new green space remain.” The success of the concerts inspired developers to build mixed-use housing on the area’s perimeter. “That experience of the community coming together in a green space through music changed everything,” she says.
With the future of the public space secured, the city set to work creating its infrastructure, naming it “City Green” and investing in the construction of a permanent outdoor stage for Levitt AMP concerts and other community events. The stage opened in 2018 as part of a new Arts, Culture and Food District.
In addition to offering top-notch music under the stars to the community free of charge, Levitt AMP Sheboygan is also credited with creating moments of instant connectivity that their entire community was craving. “The concerts really are a community equalizer,” says Brusky. “Anyone can come and have a shared experience with neighbors.” For a town with a growing Latinx and Hmong population, Horst adds, “That moment of seeing the entire community out at Levitt concerts was sometimes the only time that different segments of our community actually saw one another—these moments are so important to begin to understand who we are as a community, and how we can become more inclusive.”
Over the past five summers, the Levitt AMP Sheboygan Music Series has also inspired JMKAC to embrace more risk-taking in sparking dialogue and expanding conversations, creating “kismet moments” for many people. As an example, when Latinx band Making Movies was booked to perform as part of the 2018 Levitt AMP lineup, Brusky invited the grassroots nonprofit Voces de la Frontera to host the community engagement tent. At that time, Voces de la Frontera was still building up in Sheboygan area. “The concert put them on a platform in their community that they were so excited about. It just brought people together and brought recognition to their great work and created a dialogue,” says Brusky. “Levitt AMP gave us a chance to take risks in ways that we wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. Having that critical mass of people, and those large public moments being outside, has radically changed how we host conversations.”
Levitt AMP Sheboygan concerts have also brought more public attention to placemaking projects around town. For example, the ribbon cutting of the art installation P.E.A.R.L. (located on the periphery of City Green) was held as a prelude to a 2018 Levitt AMP Sheboygan concert, while attention was amplified for “The Living Room Project,” an outdoor community living room installed on a city corner also adjacent to City Green. “It has helped tie a lot of our programming together, and highlight all the work that we do at the Arts Center,” says Horst.
Levitt AMP Sheboygan has also inspired JMKAC to think about how it can leverage the guiding principles of placemaking around its soon-to-be opened Art Preserve, which is dedicated to artist-built environments, by making sure that they’re having authentic conversations and building trust with the mostly Latinx community that resides between its main campus and the new facility.
A theme of care during COVID-19
Back in January, JMKAC launched a year-long initiative called #JMKACcares in anticipation of 2020 being a potentially divisive election year. When the extraordinary challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, JMKAC shifted its “care” focus to ways artists can help people maintain a sense of connection during these challenging times, and began offering virtual gallery tours, synchronized screening of films, panel discussions, virtual live performances, virtual maker workshops for masks and more. JMKAC has also collaborated with artists to create various “care kits” that have been mailed to community members and contain artist prompts like sidewalk chalk ideas, design patterns for mask-making, the art of showing gratitude through thank you notes and more.
More recently, given the unpredictable nature of the pandemic, it became increasingly clear that the 2020 Levitt AMP Sheboygan Music Series would have to be postponed until next summer. Still, the team at JMKAC wanted to keep fostering that sense of community that’s become the norm for Thursday summer nights. “At this stage, it’s hard to even remember what Sheboygan was like before Levitt. It’s become such an important part of the community and of summer,” says Horst. “So we thought it was important to mark Thursday night and that moment of coming together, even when we can’t physically be together.”
And so tonight, Levitteers can experience the feel-good sounds of LowDown Brass Band as part of the Levitt AMP Virtual Music Series. And tomorrow, JMKAC will announce its plans for the remaining Thursday nights this summer, based on a surprise live event also happening tonight(!) involving JMKAC’s Art Car. With partial funding from a Levitt AMP Bridge Grant, the Thursday series of events promises to build community pride even from a distance…and most certainly will include some music (no spoilers here!).
Until then, be sure to experience the magic of LowDown Brass Band and CeCe Teneal tonight at 8pm EDT/5pm PST by visiting http://levittamp.org/virtual!