Detroit Wants Art Now, So Here It Is

It started almost exactly two years ago with a shared dream by a small group of Detroit-area art critics, collectors and curators. People who follow the art scene here will mark that period as one of hope and inspiration, when word began to spread of a new of institution called MOCAD to open in Midtown in the fall of 2006.

Perhaps no one involved in those early meetings — which included gallery owners Susanne Hilberry and George N'Namdi, art critic and current acting director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit Marsha Miro, collector Marc Schwartz and others — could have predicted that MOCAD would have made an impression far beyond its gritty renovated brick box on the corner of Woodward and Garfield.

Yes, this long-wished for museum devoted solely to modern art made an instant splash with the public and in the local dailies, weeklies and blogosphere (and, of course, here at Model D).

The press outside Detroit also took notice, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and Metropolis magazine. Its fireball of funky energy even reached Polish and Italian media before circling back around to find still more coverage in the Times during the recent Holy Hip Hop! exhibit.
Unity in the community

But the success of MOCAD is only a prelude to what is becoming a much a bigger story.

The group that emerged from those early meetings has launched its own ambitious wide-ranging unification project called Art Detroit Now. Their first major initiative is a three-day series of interconnected openings and special events at 100 metro Detroit galleries and museums that starts this Thursday. The official kick off came in April at a crammed schmoozefest at Cass Cafe. Key players from major institutions (Detroit Institute of Arts, Cranbrook Art Museum, College for Creative Studies, Oakland University, MOCAD and others) mingled with DIY upstarts from Bohemian National Home, the Center for Creative Exchange and Russell Industrial Center.

Schwartz, a notable modern area art collector who has served on the boards of the DIA, Cranbrook, ArtServe and others, says he wants to see people working toward a common goal: to make the entire Detroit art community stronger.

"We started the ball rolling (in 2006) by having conversations with each other, trying to figure out ways to increase awareness of contemporary art," Schwartz says. "We brainstormed for a couple of months, thought about creating a contemporary arts council but we agreed there was too much talk and not enough action. We had to do something now to bring the art scene in Detroit together."

Schwartz says that developing a unified approach to art and cultural life in Detroit presents multiple challenges.

"Well, there are obvious economic issues that the city has and the fact that much of our population left the city for the suburbs — where people, for the most part, live without art as a part of their lives," he says. "There is no pocket of galleries like, say, in Chelsea (in New York), where there are a great many options to see strong contemporary art within a few blocks."

No, you cannot superimpose Chelsea on a metro area scene that meanders from Downtown to Midtown to Eastern Market to Heidelberg to Hamtown; from Dearborn to Grosse Pointe to Ferndale to Royal Oak to Huntington Woods in the inner 'burbs; from Birmingham to Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills to downtown Pontiac farther north in Oakland County (not to mention the challenge of stitching together more isolated destinations in Mt. Clemens, Wyandotte and Northville).

The dream gets bigger

Still, Art Detroit Now is attempting to build a badly-needed organizational foundation that can benefit artists and art lovers — not to mention real community builders — across the region.

Michele Perron, director of the Center Galleries at College for Creative Studies, calls the effort "unprecedented."

"Never before has the Metro Detroit art community come together in such a spirit of collaboration to build excitement for our art and artists," Perrin says.

The massive art crawl will begin on May 8 and should last until the early hours of Sunday, May 11. Highlights of the weekend will include the closing party of the Cranbrook Academy's graduate degree exhibition (6-10 p.m., Thursday, May 8); Friday Night Live at the DIA, featuring a silent film soundtracked with electronic horror music composed and performed live by Detroit electropunk duo ADULT. (7 and 8:30 p.m., Friday, May 9); the Russell Industrial Center's annual Spring Show and Sale (2 p.m. – midnight, Saturday, May 10); and the opening reception for MOCAD's Considering Detroit exhibition (7 p.m., Saturday, May 10), featuring work by Detroit artists Ellen Cantor, Maurice Greenia, Jim Gustafson, Allie McGhee, Heather McGill, Gordon Newton and the sight/sound collective Time Stereo.

Another piece of the MOCAD show is called Considering Architecture: Sustainable Designs from Detroit. It will include the designs and products of local area architecture firms, highlighting projects that include (very welcome, indeed) eco-friendly design practices. As usual, there will be can't miss entertainment at the opening, featuring noise-funk big band Nomo (who have a new full-length release, "Ghost Rock," out on the Ubiquity label in June) and Monster Island (a group of freak-out improvisers led by Destroy All Monsters founding member - and Book Beat owner - Cary Loren) performing the shadow puppet play "Rehearsal for the Destruction of Mu."

But, well, that's not all folks.

As a coda to the present energy surging through the efforts of Art Detroit Now, Schwartz talks about a long-term plan of the group to bring an international sculpture show to Detroit, something that he says "would be transformational for the city," modeled after a unique exhibition held in Münster, Germany, once every 10 years.

"It can have the effect of changing Detroit into an international destination," of profoundly changing the public space with art. "We will need a lot of money to make that happen. But our first step is to get our galleries and museums and other art institutions all on the same page," he says. "I think we're starting to reach that goal, with bigger results still to come."

As part of Art Detroit Now's inaugural event, shuttles will be running Saturday between MOCAD, Russell Industrial Center and other Detroit locations. The Center for Creative Exchange and Detroit Bikes! also be doing a non-motorized crawl of locations in the Cultural Center, Eastern Market and Downtown.       

Walter Wasacz is FitlerD editor. He doesn't like waiting for art, either.


• Marsha Miro is the acting Director and one of the original founders of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD)

• Group shot from Cass Cafe:
Left to Right (front): Valerie Mercer (DIA), Becky Hart (DIA), Marc Schwartz, Stephanie James (DIA)
Left to right (rear): Michelle Perron (CCS), Gregory Wittkopp (Cranbrook), Dick Goody (Oakland University)

• Art Detroit Now Promo

Photographs by Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the managing photographer for Metromode & Model D.

Read more articles by Walter Wasacz.

Walter Wasacz is a writer and the former managing editor of Model D. You can find more of his writings here.
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