INTERLOCHEN, MICH. — The Interlochen Center for the Arts recently celebrated a milestone that is rare or unknown to many educational and arts institutions. After 30 years of fundraising and construction, it officially finished a master plan for growth initiated in 1991. That meant 17 new buildings or major renovations, including a small black-box interdisciplinary theater space that cost less than $1 million and a $24 million music center, opened in 2019, with dozens of practice, rehearsal and teaching studios.
Master plans are often superseded, expanded beyond recognition or conveniently abandoned. Building and fundraising become the primary institutional goals, and building never stops. But Interlochen has declared itself done with construction and is moving on to other things. That’s refreshing.
On Friday, alumni, students, trustees, and former and current staffers gathered to dedicate the last two additions to the campus, a glass-walled dance studio that seems to float above the lake on which it is sited, and a residence and visiting-artists facility that also hugs the shore of Green Lake.
“It’s a major inflection point,” said President Trey Devey. “We have been focused in an outsize way on place, and now we can turn our focus to our people and programs.”
Interlochen was founded in 1928 as a summer music camp and expanded in 1961 to become an elite, audition-only arts boarding school. The master plan, developed by the international design and architecture firm Sasaki, was designed in part to deal with some of the tension inherent in the organization’s dual academic identities (the larger Interlochen Center for the Arts includes a radio station and adult arts education center).
But it also was about managing changes in the arts, changes that can be seen embedded in the buildings throughout the 1,200-acre campus in a forest between two lakes about a half-hour drive southwest of Traverse City. Apollo Hall, a small, fieldstone building with sharply pitched roof, was donated in 1937 by the Wurlitzer company and housed the camp’s accordion program. Now it serves as an alumni welcome center. A writing center was added in 2002 to accommodate a discipline that was not part of the camp’s early focus on music and the performing arts. A 2006 film studies center includes facilities for new media, and the school is planning on adding video games to its focus on emerging creative disciplines.
All of this co-exists with the center’s other identity, as a summer camp, through which it reaches a far larger audience of children interested in the arts. While the arts academy serves about 550 students during the school year, the camp welcomes some 2,750 kids annually. So, the campus is dotted with stone and wood huts that serve as summer practice rooms, and rustic cabins for the campers. Facilities are repurposed during the summer to house the influx of temporary campers, who range from third- to 12th-graders. During the school year, when the temperatures plummet, many of the camp buildings sit empty, as if an entire pioneer village suddenly decamped.
Architecturally, that means Interlochen feels like both a camp and a campus, provisional and temporary in some areas, and slightly more organized and formal in others. The camp is rustic and, although it sits in a forest, it doesn’t express much relation to the natural world except in materials such as stone and wood. The campus, especially its better buildings, including the $7.8 million dance center designed by the Boston-based Flansburgh Architects (which also designed a dance studio at Jacob’s Pillow in Massachusetts), takes more advantage of the natural setting. Among the major improvements realized over the past decades of building is a stronger relation to the idyllic lakefront, including the terraced Corson Park adjacent to the main outdoor auditorium.
On a visit to the center in September, I toured a sprawling hive of activity. The boarding-school students were back after the summer, following only a minor disruption to in-person learning the previous academic year (with strict testing and quarantine requirements, Interlochen was able to maintain residential boarding and in-person learning except for a few weeks during which a state mandate necessitated remote learning for high school students. Vaccinations are now mandatory.). In the dance studio, dance director Joseph Morrissey was coaching students in the new glass-walled rehearsal space, joined to the old facility, which, with its fireplace and walls paneled with knotty pine, feels a bit like an American Legion hall.
“We are very excited because we are back to being able to partner,” he said, as student couples, vaccinated but masked, rehearsed different pas de deux.
In the film studies center, students were setting up a camera on rails to explore how reverse tracking shots work. Outside the new music building, musicians rehearsed a jazz number, and in the Harvey Theater, Broadway veteran Justin Lee Miller was giving pointers during a singing lesson. “Singing isn’t natural,” he said, explaining why it’s best to emphasize a word with a gesture before or after the note, rather than simultaneously with it.
With a sizable budget ($47 million in 2020), Interlochen does something rare among high schools: It teaches all the arts at a professional level — including the performing arts, which require intensive one-on-one instruction, and newer art forms, including film and video, which require deep and ongoing investments in equipment. The new facilities put many college-level arts programs to shame, with fully professional sound studios and theater spaces, costume shops, prop storage, and shops for maintaining musical instruments.
The arts are far from a unified field of creative endeavor. Some require isolation, others require interaction and social engagement. Some are as portable as the voice or the brain, and others are rooted in studios or are tethered to cumbersome, fragile or expensive instruments. Teaching all of the arts in one place, as well as the traditional academic subjects of high school, requires a huge investment in people as well as buildings.
That comes at a cost. The annual student cost including tuition is approaching $70,000 for the arts academy, while a six-week stay at the summer camp is close to $10,000. That’s prohibitive for most families, even with the $19 million of annual assistance (mostly need-based) given to the academy students and campers.
“Our goal, for both the camp and academy, is to meet the demonstrated need of all the students,” said Devey. The center recently announced it had received nearly $24 million in gifts and pledges since June to support expanding its financial aid and programming.
Like other academic institutions, almost everything at Interlochen is named for someone, including major donors. Naming buildings for rich people is probably the most powerful driver of institutional expansion among nonprofit educational institutions in the United States. Now, Interlochen wants to expand its reach, and the quality of instruction it offers. That won’t be easy.
Even with its sleek new dance studio, Interlochen isn’t an architectural showplace. The original Sasaki plan noted that fact 30 years ago, citing the forest as its primary visual attraction. Today, it feels a bit like a small city in Scandinavia, modest and hodgepodge, a collection of functional, appealing but never ostentatious buildings.
That is, arguably, what academic institutions, especially those devoted to the arts, should aspire to: a camp, or a campus, that puts the focus on the “inside” things, relationships, activity and learning. Like the arts themselves, the design here is more organic than orderly, and no doubt will continue to evolve even after the master plan has been forgotten.