Picture this: A long, one-story industrial building on a prime block adjoining Detroit's cultural center, its multiple medical campuses and a university area home to over 35,000 Wayne State and College of Creative Studies students and faculty. Across the street is the Whitney, one of the city's top restaurants, and just blocks away are Union Street and the Majestic Complex, two of Detroit's longest running food, drink and entertainment haunts. The building was constructed in the 1920s as a car dealership, and later reused for storage by nearby Hutzel Hospital. But it has stood idle, and barely noticed in the increasingly noticeable Midtown neighborhood, for years. It is essentially a nondescript, well-preserved relic from another era blessed by location. A building perfectly situated, in other words, to be recast in a new role as a place to see edgy, gritty, messy, controversial modern art.

Over 10 years in the planning and working stages, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) is still rough but ready to open to the public this week. The walls and floors (one of the few interior decorative touches the building possesses is Pewabic tile underfoot) have been powerwashed at least twice, says acting curator Mitch Cope. But the grimy history of the place, its distinct historical "Detroitness" has not been scrubbed away, despite the recent addition of new doors, windows and lighting by architect Andrew Zago.

Cope says that when Klaus Kertess, the curator of MOCAD's inaugural Meditations in an Emergency exhibition, showed up recently at the building he urged that "nothing be touched ... let the building and the art evolve together." Kertess, who has been active in the art world as a dealer, writer and educator since the 1960s, had powerful first impressions of the space. "He said 'it was very Detroit,' " Cope says, "and that it didn't need to be something else." (MOCAD has a tentative four-year plan to do additional renovations that will bring changes to the façade and to other parts of the building, though Zago, the architect, says he wants to keep its industrial character intact.)

Living art, contemporary issues

Kertess was director of New York's Bykert Gallery from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, when he exhibited then-unknown American painters Brice Marden and Chuck Close. He moved on to work at the Whitney Museum of American Art and curated the Whitney Biennial in 1995. Kertess picked Mark Bradford, Christopher Fachini, Barry McGee, Roxy Paine, Paul Pfeiffer, Jon Pylypchuk, Tabaimo, Kara Walker and Nari Ward for his first show in Detroit.

Although Kertess is more associated with painting, he decided Meditations needed to be an exhibition largely made up of installations. The work on display will include Paine's sculpture-making machine, a sound piece by musician Fachini — who has performed with Detroit bands Godzuki, the Dirtbombs, Odu Afrobeat Orchestra and others — and animated works by Walker and Tabaimo, an artist from Japan. McGee, a street artist from San Francisco, was expected to arrive early the same week of the opening and paint a mural on the front of the building facing Woodward. Kertess and MOCAD gave him carte blanche to do whatever he wants, Cope says.

"We don't know what McGee's going to do, Klaus doesn't know what he's going to do," says Cope, as a metal door clangs and squeals as it rolls up in the background. "The idea of a contemporary art museum is to show living art. It's a place to deal with contemporary issues, and to come alive in interesting ways. It's not meant to be an art history museum."

What it is meant to be, is a magnet for national and international talent that shows up rarely in Detroit. Major, innovative exhibitions have long been common in cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and New York. But now contemporary art museums appear to be flourishing in smaller cities like Cincinnati, Columbus, Denver, St. Louis and Winston-Salem, N.C. Some of those museums have been designed or redesigned by global architect stars like David Adjaye (Denver), Peter Eisenman (Wexner Center in Columbus) and, most notably, Zaha Hadid, whose Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati has been hailed as one of the most important American buildings of the last two decades.

Clearly, venues that exhibit modern art create buzz in the region and get attention that often extends worldwide. 

10-year plan

The idea for a contemporary art museum in Detroit was hatched in the mid-1990s when Marsha Miro, a longtime art critic for the Detroit Free Press, began talking about it with gallery owner Susanne Hilberry. The two women, respected champions of the local art scene since the Cass Corridor scene of the 1960s and 1970s, approached the Detroit Institute of Arts with the idea of integrating modern works into the museum's art historical mission.

"They studied the proposal for five years," Miro says. "To their credit, they took it very seriously, but in the end decided against it."

While those discussions were still taking place, DIA board chairman Richard Manoogian was excited enough by the prospect to commit Manoogian Foundation money to buying the building on Woodward. When the DIA plans fell through, the foundation decided to take a chance on the fledgling arts organization, with stipulations that MOCAD begin seating a board of trustees and get fundraising machinery in place.

"We began adding boardmembers and raising money," says Miro, who worked as an archivist at Cranbrook before devoting herself to being volunteer acting director of MOCAD. The impressive board includes prominent metro Detroit art patrons and business titans Linda Dresner, Danialle Karmanos, Keith Pomeroy and Julie Taubman, who hosted one of the fundraisers.

Interventions and solutions

While Miro and Cope work on getting MOCAD's first show off to a good start, they also have their eyes set on a massive international exhibition set for early 2007.
A multidisciplinary project of the German Cultural Foundation, Shrinking Cities was begun in 2002 to study the declining populations in four urban areas: Halle/Leigzig, Germany; Manchester/Liverpool, England; Ivanovo, Russia — and Detroit. The show opened in Berlin in 2004, has traveled to Leipzig and is currently represented at the 10th International Architectural Biennial in Venice. The Detroit show will be split into two phases: the first at Cranbrook and the second at MOCAD. The opening is scheduled for Feb. 2.

Cope has served as curator for the Detroit piece of the exhibition, which has included local artists Tyree Guyton, Kelly Parker, Scott Hocking, Clinton Snider, Chris McNamara and others. Sculptural, paint, written, graphic design, architectural, video and sound media are all expressed in works at the show. Pop-historical references are also made to the trailblazers in soul, funk, rock and electronic music who influenced cultural currents in the city and around the world.

Cope says the show is so large, with over 100 contributions by artists, architects and academics, that it couldn't all be crammed into the renovated 20,000-square-foot space on Woodward. Buses will operate between the two facilities, shuttling people to and from the suburbs, consciously linking the project with mass transportation.

"The (suburban) phase of the show will focus on the analysis part of Shrinking Cities while the second phase at MOCAD will deal with interventions," Cope says. "We wanted to frame the exhibition so that concepts and questions will be introduced at Cranbrook and solutions and answers found in Detroit, which is appropriate."  

The Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit is at 4454 Woodward Ave. Meditations in an Emergency opens this Thursday, Oct. 26. Patrons can meet and greet the artists and curator Klaus Kertess from 6-8 p.m. Tickets are $125 in advance and $135 at the door. The Museum Preview — $45 in advance and $55 the night of the opening — follows at 8 p.m. The preview hours will feature ambient music by DJ Clark Warner of Windsor's Minus. An after-party ($10) with Ghostly International DJs Matthew Dear and Ryan Elliott is from 9:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. MOCAD is open to the public on Saturday, Oct. 28. For more information go to www.mocadetroit.org

Walter Wasacz is a local freelance writer, photographer and DJ. He traveled to Berlin and reviewed the Shrinking Cities exhibition for Detroit's Metro Times.

All Photographs Copyright Walter Wasacz, except shots of paint and art materials courtesy of MOCAD.

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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