Duane Belin is one of those people who sees the pretty in everything. His view is, quite simply, on the bright side — whether it's the beauty of a wrought-iron fence protecting a parking lot, a run-down drawbridge in a filthy industrial enclave, or a city park built entirely of concrete.
Naturally, when you get in a conversation with him about art, Detroit, or his beloved Liberal Arts Gallery
on Gratiot and Mack, you can't help but get giddy about all the pretty things, too. "We've got jewels here. All we've gotta do is look at them," he says. (Coincidentally, the gallery's web site calls the place a "jewel in the hood.")
Although he's also an artist, working in broken glass and mirrors when time allows, Belin never set out to become a gallery owner. In 1985, a simple search for a new apartment led him to a "For Sale" sign on a vacant building. A whirlwind meeting with the owners ended up in an unexpected land contract for the space that formerly housed the Area Four Methadone Clinic. He didn't find the building, he says, but rather "it found me."
Over the next few years, Belin became friends with local artists like Tyree Guyton, Michael Sephile Gardner and Frank Dooley, with the first real show as a gallery opening in 1989. "And we've been struggling ever since," he says, joking. Belin's the kind of person you love listening to, delivering lines like this totally deadpan, then following with a warm laugh.
"Art is a hard business," he says. "But it's a passion and I keep doing it and doing it 'til it gets right." He continues, "Many [artists] I met through Tyree, but many just by accident. They are all interested in doing something and I'm interested in helping them do something."
By "something" he means almost anything in all shapes and sizes. The whole reason he named his space "Liberal Arts" was so he could be "liberal" with the media he shows there. "I don't decide for an artist what to work in," he says. "If we can display it, I'll do it." Circa 1991, for example, Tyree Guyton had an exhibition called "Stairway to Heaven" in which he hung thousands of shoes from the roof. "And I mean thousands," says Belin. "And not one a single pair."
Belin supports the local art scene with a sense of humor and knack for pushing the envelope. "The artists are here," he says. "They work in every conceivable medium and are top-notch. But we struggle to get patrons to come and support and buy the art." When you buy a local artist, he says, you're getting something original, not from a bin at Macy's. "These pieces," he says, pointing around gallery, "are original works…We've got all the talent here from visual arts to performing arts. It just needs more support."
Belin and his gallery also have helped the surrounding neighborhood. Nestled between Eastern Market and City Airport on Gratiot, Liberal Arts is still the only living, breathing business on the west side of that particular corner block. Despite that—and the fact that his gallery is neighbor to a massive, four-story structure with no roof—he sees this little pocket of inactivity showing signs of revival. He points to new businesses springing up in the area, plus the Faygo facelift and redevelopments like the St. Vincent de Paul building. "Small business is coming up. The gap is closing. There's a lot going on here on Gratiot," he says.
And Liberal Arts is, of course, going to remain a part of that energy. "I see new shows every month," he says of his master plan for the gallery, "where I can draw from a variety of artists who can really invigorate the art collector. Where the artist can feel comfortable just hanging out and bringing their work and their ideas, no matter how bizarre…Tyree tried to let 'em know you can take, from what people call trash, and wake the entire world up. You can come to Detroit and see this."
In fact, he points to so many places in the city where he says "they let the artist loose." From the versatility of Campus Martius park, to the unique Noguchi vision in Hart Plaza and even to the GM Wintergarden inlays, he's happy to have come from, and be a part of, a city where one-of-a-kind pieces abound. "Let the artist loose and you'll be surprised that what you get is really what you wanted … I've seen other cities. I've seen other places in the world. And it's going to be just wonderful here," he says. "In our lifetime. It's going to be just wonderful."
The Liberal Arts Gallery is at 3361 Gratiot Ave. It is open every Saturday from noon to 5 p.m. and by appointment. Call 313-925-9578 for more info, or go to www.liberalartsgallery.com.
Duane Belin and Liberal Arts Gallery Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger