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In this Traverse City gallery, strong drinks but "no watercolors of cherries"

If you’re a local in Northern Michigan, especially in a tourist town, you need a few places that are all your own.

That dive bar visitors don’t know. The private beach that’s hidden away.

For Traverse City residents, one place like that is the InsideOut art gallery.

First thing you do there is get a drink at the cocktail bar.

Then, you head to the patio that has no view of the lake (which, hey, no tourists!)

Instead, you listen to the True Falsettos play every Wednesday night while twinkly lights reflect off the parking lot shared by renovated warehouses.

And people love it.

Susan Steadman and Nan Peterson are regulars here.

They say the actual art part of the gallery is pretty good, too.

“It’s just avant-garde. It’s fun to come with your friends and hang out. And comfortable,” says Peterson.

Drink in hand, Steadman agrees.

“Traverse City is inundated with what I call ‘tourist art.’ Watercolor paintings of cherries. Some of which are absolutely beautiful! It’s just that, there’s enough of that.”

Inside the roughly 7,000 square foot gallery, Mike Curths is the guy to show you around.

The place is his brainchild, slowly put together over the last nine years.

And it’s safe to say there are no watercolors of cherries.

Instead, Curths has filled the walls with pop and “outsider” art.

“There’s schizophrenic art, [and] there’s prison art,” Curths says, standing a few feet from the half-filled bar stools. “And sometimes you wonder,” here he raps on his head three times, “knock knock knock – what the hell is in there? And it comes out and you go … fascinating!”

Maybe the best part of InsideOut gallery is that every piece brings out the fan boy in Curths.

Refreshingly, though, Curths doesn’t claim to be an art expert. Just the opposite: when he gives a tour, he’ll geek out over what makes the piece “twisted” and “crazy” and then say, “but I have no idea!”

Certainly, some stuff in here is a little twisted.

Like a painting of the Flintstones having an orgy while dressed like satanic Nazis.

But most of the pieces are pop art: graphics that recall  “‘The Twilight Zone,’ famous monsters of film land, Mad Magazine,” says Curths. “And of course, hippie underground comics.”

Curths swears this is not just the nostalgia of a guy in his late 50’s. 

But it did start as a pipe dream, a passion project after a colon cancer diagnosis 10 years ago.

Back then, the gallery was just an old warehouse.

“There was no electricity, no lighting, no heat,” says Curths.

“And I walked through, and thought, wow, this would be so cool. Wouldn’t this be cool? And then I’m like, I don’t have any money, I don’t have any time.”

Curths says he was bartending at the time, and on good tip nights he’d go to the hardware store and buy more materials bit by bit.

Nine years later, the gallery has gone through a massive expansion, put in a full bar, even built a concert and movie theater space in back.

But Curth’s goal never changed: no watercolors of cherries.

“I find a lot of the visual art [in this town] boring as hell.”

The thing is, Curths likes to set it up as his gallery versus all the mainstream downtown stuff.

But Traverse City doesn’t seem to see it that way.

The local media has done lots of adoring write-ups of the gallery, even putting it on “Best of Traverse City” lists.

And even Curths says there’s a new wave coming up north.

“More people are coming up here via the Film Festival, or the foodie New York Times articles. And they’re coming from places like San Diego or Chicago,” he says, describing what he believes is a growing market for his kind of art.   

For now, though, the gallery is still just the small group of die-hard regulars.

Like Cheri Bridgewater. She’s a wine rep, and she started out selling wine to the gallery – and then kept coming back.

“I’m just always here. It feels like somebody’s living room. Everybody’s a regular here, you know everybody here.” 

It’s a nice thing, getting together on a Wednesday night to drink, talk art, and listen to music in a parking lot under a darkening sky.  

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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