Growing Grand Rapids through the arts

This story is part of a series of 50 stories we are releasing to commemorate 50 years of opera in West Michigan. Browse more stories and follow our journey throughout the season.

“[All regions] are fighting for the same things, business and talent. Having an opera company is one of the ways Grand Rapids makes a strong case as a city where skilled and sophisticated people want to live.” – Birgit Klohs, President and CEO of The Right Place

“When you drop somebody into Grand Rapids today, they’ve never known it any other way. But those of us who have been on this journey for thirty years have really seen how it has changed,” says Birgit Klohs. As the President and CEO of The Right Place—a leading regional development association in West Michigan—Klohs has been part of Grand Rapids’ explosive growth over the past three decades.

When Klohs began her tenure as CEO in 1987, she was impressed with the area’s successful business legacy, but she saw room for growth. “It was a good city, but it certainly could be much better,” she recalls thinking. “Many of us in the business community, the philanthropic community, the arts community, and public partners all pulled together and said, ‘How can we improve what we have?’”

During those years, the community’s most influential business leaders made a conscious decision to transform Grand Rapids into a richer, more cosmopolitan place over the course of a generation. “It included all of the happenings downtown, the Arena, the Convention Center, the Civic Theater, Meijer Garden,” says Klohs.

Opera Grand Rapids “Romeo and Juliet”

Creating a diverse, thriving city of the future means making West Michigan attractive for entrepreneurs and corporations, but it also means investing in the arts. “If we don’t have a robust, rich arts community, the community cannot thrive the same way,” say Klohs. She says that a regional landmark city like ours needs everything from an opera house to golfing options to attract and retain talent, and talent is the backbone of business. Klohs has watched Grand Rapids grow for decades, and she emphasizes the need to continue fostering growth in the arts. “We are really fighting above our weight class, when it comes to offerings in the arts in this region, and obviously the opera is a big part of that.”

Arts organizations like ours can be drivers for the economy on many levels. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, spending on performance arts tickets has doubled since 1998. Each year sees small but steady growth in the overall GDP of the arts and being connected to that economy helps Grand Rapids in ways both obvious and subtle. Grand Rapids’ music scene, for instance, includes avant-garde and indie acts who perform at Pyramid Scheme, our Symphony Orchestra, Opera Grand Rapids, folk festivals, hip hop groups, and everything in between. Each of these acts and organizations requires staff, accommodations, venues, and meals when they perform; the same is true of their audiences. Most people who visit the city for its music will stay in a hotel and eat two or three restaurant meals.

Besides the direct economic benefits, this variety of performance art options adds a metropolitan polish to our city. “We have to continue to work, to stay ahead of the competition, quite frankly,” Klohs says. To ensure Grand Rapids’ regional powerhouse status as a city, it is important to maintain unique offerings that draw in a diverse talent pool and keep us in the conversation. “[All regions] are fighting for the same things, business and talent,” she says. Having an opera company is one of the ways Grand Rapids makes a strong case as a city where skilled and sophisticated people want to live, according to Klohs. That’s one of the many reasons the business leader has supported the opera since moving here from Germany. Despite her professional interest in the arts as a business development professional, Klohs’ interest in opera began like any other patron’s—with a love of the music.

As a twelve-year-old, Klohs was taken to the opera for the first time in her native Germany. “I’ve enjoyed opera ever since,” she says. “I’ve gone to opera houses all over Europe, and when I moved to Grand Rapids, I was very pleased to see we had an opera company. I started buying season tickets. A few years after taking the position as CEO of The Right Place, I joined the Opera Board,” says Klohs. She thoroughly enjoyed her role in guiding the opera during her nine-year tenure on the Opera Grand Rapids Board of Directors. She is proud to help us celebrate our 50th anniversary as a patron, adviser, and friend. Says Klohs, “It’s been an unbelievably great ride, to participate in and lead the redevelopment of this area for the past thirty years. It’s just been the most phenomenal job anybody could wish for.”

OUR FOUNDERS HAD A BOLD PROPOSITION: to build a professional opera company that would put Grand Rapids on the map for a very discerning audience. 50 years later, we are humbled to be the modern bearers of classical standards and modern ingenuity. Learn more.



As an integral part of our city’s artistic fabric, it’s our responsibility to see to its continual flourishing. Please consider donating to Opera Grand Rapids to ensure our artistic excellence for the next 50 years and beyond. You’ve already made us great. With your support, there’s no limits to the height our voices can reach together. Give today.