Lansing arts patron: “I don’t know if I’ve ever made any contributions”

Phyllis Maner
Phyllis Maner reads the Art Prize handout.

Phyllis Maner sat on the couch of her Lansing condominium and read the Grand Rapids Art Prize handout, a souvenir from the trip she took earlier that week to view the art at Frederik Meijer Gardens and Kendall College. Later that evening, she was to drive to Ann Arbor for a different — but equally anticipated — form of art in the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet.

“What I always think is, I’m an art appreciator,” Maner said. “I came to it because I started piano for many years, and when I was growing up, my parents took me to symphonies and we went to Detroit to the theater and I took dance. So I’ve had exposure to the arts, but I’m not a practicing artist in any form.

“I can’t play the piano anymore, I don’t do puppetry anymore, I don’t dance anymore. I still read,” she said with a laugh. “But I call myself an art appreciator because all performers have to have somebody to appreciate what they’re doing.”

Maner joined the Junior League of Lansing in 1945 to help build a better community, and she has been active in supporting local arts in Lansing and Metropolitan Detroit ever since. She has served on the Arts Council of Greater Lansing, Ad Hoc Arts Committee for the Lansing City Council, Lansing 150 History Committee, Lansing Symphony Orchestra board, Detroit Grand Opera Association and many others.

“I was part of the beginning of the Lansing Ballet Company, I was on the board of what is now the Riverwalk Theatre and it used to be the [Okemos] Barn Theatre, and I was chairman of the first Day with the Arts, which we formed out of the Junior League,” Maner said.

As chairman of the Day with the Arts, Maner helped bring together a variety of community organizations to demonstrate their craft. The Lansing Civic Players and the Okemos Barn Theatre performed, the Lansing Symphony played, a Michigan State University professor represented written arts, and the city enjoyed various activities and exhibitions. It was also the first time private dance organizations collaborated to promote dance in the community, she said.

Co-founder of the now-dissipated Penrod Puppets Company, Maner helped bring the international puppet festival—and, in turn, people from all over the world—to East Lansing in 1973 and 1984.

“In our company, we did puppet shows and demonstrations and workshops and brought professional puppet shows here,” Maner said. “Our whole purpose was to introduce puppetry to the Lansing area, because puppetry can be used in education, religious morality plays, and entertainment and therapy. So that really encompasses all the arts and that’s why puppetry attracted me, because it does encompass every art.”

And every art is appreciated.

“I’ve been a promoter of the arts — all the arts — so if I’ve done anything significant, it’s that,” she said.

Despite her love and support for various forms of expression, Maner said her favorite is aural.

“I can’t live without symphony,” she said “I can only go so long before I have to hear a symphony.”

Maner served as chairman of the mid-Michigan fundraising for the Wharton Center, for which she established the Inner Circle.

She said starting the Inner Circle is one of her most significant contributions to the local arts. The organization supports the Wharton Center with over 300 current members who volunteer as ushers, gift shop workers, box office workers and more. Maner is still a member of the Inner Circle and contributes to the Wharton Center.

“I’m not an active volunteer in anything right now [or] anymore,” she said. “But I’m still interested and I keep an active interest at Wharton and I attend things there.”

Maner was the recipient of the Metropolitan Lansing Fine Arts Council’s Applause Award, which she thought she won for her involvement in the arts, particularly in puppetry. She also served on the national board of the YWCA and was awarded the YWCA Diana award for arts activity in the local community.

However, she said one of the most satisfying aspects of her arts involvement is having watched the local symphony grow. She joined the symphony board just as the establishment transitioned from offering free, school-sponsored concerts to seasonal, for-pay concerts, and she helped form the now-defunct Women’s Symphony Organization to support the orchestra.

“That was a very satisfying experience,” Maner said. “I’ve seen the symphony grow from a very small, insignificant organization to a really good, solid organization.”

But after all, Maner gained more than satisfaction from her experiences.

“I think the arts feed the souls. I think they feed people,” she said. “They speak to your soul and your mind, and I think they’re so fulfilling.”