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From Oz to Oliver Art Center

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Mercedes Michalowski named new director

Mercedes Michalowski’s yellow brick road has led her to Frankfort’s Elizabeth Lane Oliver Center for the Arts, where she has been named the new executive director, following two years as associate director. Michalowski replaces outgoing director Steven Brown, who is moving to England with his German husband, Stephan. Brown, a published author in Germany, plans to write fulltime.

Unlike the German automobile, Michalowski’s first name is pronounced with an emphasis on the first syllable, and not the second—“MERR-said-eeze.” She is half-Spanish and half-German and was named after her great-grandmother.

Michalowski’s background is in museums. Before coming to Frankfort, she was director of the Oz Museum in Kansas for three years. Among the museum’s notable specimens was one of the original flying monkeys that was used in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz.

“They actually used three- to four-inch rubber models of the monkeys in the movie,” Michalowski says. “The flying monkey named Nikko was my favorite character.”

Prior to Kansas, Michalowski was assistant curator of the now closed Schmidt Museum of Coca-Cola Memorabilia in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. It boasted one of the world’s largest collections of Coke artifacts, including a drivable van with fiberglass sculptures of people crawling out that was stamped with Coca-Cola logos.

Before that, as a 17-year-old, Michalowski was a tour guide on a submarine in Muskegon, where she grew up.
This modern-day Dorothy—along with her 8-year-old daughter, Julia—are no longer in Kansas, and that’s just fine with Michalowski.

“I felt dehydrated when I lived in Kansas,” she says. “I’m a big lake girl. I love Frankfort.”

Focusing on Kids

During his time as executive director, Brown helped to focus the Art Center’s education on area youth.

“Seeing the Art Center’s impact on kids was the first time I realized what it’s like to change lives,” Brown says. “Seeing kids come out of an art class totally aglow, because of a great teacher like Sarah Abend, is to see kids’ minds open up. Some people are seeing quality abstract art for the first time, and it changes their mind. Every community deserves world-class art.”

Michalowski intends to continue honing the vision that she shared with outgoing director Brown. A big part of that is marketing the Oliver Art Center to kids in Northern Michigan, many of whom have watched their art curriculum gutted from their public schools.

“Something close to my heart is our youth outreach,” Michalowski says. “That means getting into the community to serve more local residents. We need to be a bigger presence in the schools. I’d love to hear kids’ voices echoing through these hallways. We’ve also been developing our online social media presence, and we’re trying to reach a younger market. Every age should feel comfortable here and want to visit the Art Center.”

This year, the Oliver Art Center will offer mini summer camps for area youth ages six to 11. Mediums range from drawing to ceramics and needle felting to sculpture.
Brown had words of praise for Michalowski.

“Mercedes is the best teammate anybody could wish for,” says Brown, who was executive director for three years and who has worked with Michalowski for the last two. “Everything she has done, she has hit out of the park.”

Reflecting on his time at the Art Center, Brown expressed gratitude for the tremendous connections he made in the local community and how generous and supportive people have been. He called his position at the Oliver Art Center the “project of a lifetime.”

“When they hired me, I told them that my background was in public art and that I wanted this to be one big public art project,” Brown says. “I’m not a nonprofit wonk who lives to sit behind a desk and look at a spreadsheet—it turns out that I got the same creative fulfillment here as I would from any of my art projects.”

Members of the community are invited to welcome Michalowski as new director during the Art Center’s annual open house on Friday, June 26, from 5-7 p.m. An expanded Family Art Day follows on Saturday, June 27, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. To see a line-up of classes for the summer, visit OliverArtCenter.org online.

Featured image: Mercedes Michalowski will take over the position of Oliver Art Center director for Steven Brown this month. Photo by Aubrey Ann Parker.

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