The rapid increase and persistent issues of Detroit's art gallery scene

When George N'Namdi relocated his art gallery from Detroit to Birmingham in 1988, the northern suburb was, he says, "the place for the arts." In recent years, however, momentum has undeniably shifted back to the city.

N'Namdi stayed in Birmingham for over a decade, but moved back to Detroit in 2001 to start building something bigger: the N'Namdi Center for Contemporary Art. He settled just east of Woodward on Forest Avenue, back in the days before anyone used the term "Midtown."

"This area didn't look like it does now," N'Namdi says. "It was kind of tough. You didn't stay in the gallery real late. You didn't want to work late."

N'Namdi returned to Detroit on the cusp of not only Midtown's revitalization, but also the beginning of a fresh explosion in Detroit's gallery scene. Today, the number of Birmingham galleries has shrunk, while the number of galleries in Detroit has proliferated.

In one recent case, gallery owner David Klein added a Detroit gallery to complement his Birmingham site. In another, Detroit native Gary Wasserman returned here in 2015 to open Wasserman Projects after working in Florida for years.
Artist Andy Thompson
In many ways, this moment is a return to a previous era in the Detroit art scene. Detroit artist Andy Thompson points out that several recently opened galleries are in areas that had previously held galleries. The Simone DeSousa Gallery, which opened in 2008, occupies a site next to the now-defunct Willis Gallery. Similarly, the Library Street Collective sits next to the former site of the Sherry Washington Gallery.

"The economic and national attention, the narratives, have been flipped," Thompson says. "There were galleries there before, when everybody wanted to say bad things about the city. Those galleries aren't around anymore for very complicated reasons, but for the new galleries, it's become advantageous to say that you're in Detroit."

Building the scene

Interior of N'Namdi Center for Contemporary Art

As the number of Detroit galleries has increased, a community has arisen around the art they exhibit
—according to gallery owners, their events and exhibit openings are regularly well-attended. But still there's a lingering reason for hesitation. 

N'Namdi says the millennials who flock to newer galleries place more emphasis on the "scene" in "art scene"younger scenesters enjoy the social gathering of an art show opening, but are far less likely to actually purchase a piece than previous generations.

"The art market is not driven by them," N'Namdi says. "The scene is, but not the market. You've got to distinguish between that. … People equate the scene with success, whereas I think, 'No, that's an expense.' You have to serve food and wine and all that, and that's an expense to me."

Thompson says that building a new generation of art collectors is one of the "biggest question marks" for Detroit's art scene. He describes the situation as particularly perplexing because many young Detroiters do seem willing to spend money on higher-end bars and restaurants, concerts, sporting events and other luxuries.

"You can get someone to pay $50 for a Kickstarter where they don't get anything tangible," Thompson says. "But getting someone to spend money on an object to put on a wall? I don't really know what the answer is."

Art at the Detroit Artist Market

N'Namdi is working on a possible long-term solution. He's actively buying up properties in the Woodbridge neighborhood with the intention of creating a new gallery district aimed at offering low-cost space to young prospective gallerists. N'Namdi envisions a system where about four individual galleries could share the same building and staff, with each gallerist renting his or her part of the space for $1,000 to $1,500 a month. The hope is that by recruiting the millennial generation into the gallery business, they can educate and encourage their peers to participate more directly in the scene.

Andrea Eckert, owner of Holding House
One of Detroit's newest gallery owners also has a plan to engage city residents less familiar with the art scene. Before Andrea Eckert even held a proper show at Holding House, the gallery she opened in 2014 in Southwest Detroit, she hosted a photography and printmaking workshop for 17 homeless youth from Detroit's Covenant House. Eckert wants to make her gallery an asset to the community, and has recently partnered with a nonprofit service organizations to host activities and educational opportunities related to each of her 2017 shows.

"Where are we here? In southwest Detroit, in a core city neighborhood," Eckert says. "But are those people coming here? Not necessarily. If I can organize a group, they might. This is my way of trying to get folks in here that otherwise wouldn't be, and expose them to things that make art or creative problem-solving a bit more accessible."

The feedback loop

Gallerists agree there's plenty of love for locally-made art—perhaps even a little too much.

Eckert notes the "warmth and push and support" she's received, both as an artist and a gallery owner, since she moved to Hamtramck from Portland, Michigan six years ago. She recalls the very first Detroit show of her work at Corktown Studios in 2011.

"I couldn't believe the turnout," she says. "I had just gotten here. I didn't know anybody. It was just incredible."

Art by Emily Duke at Holding House

Eckert says, however, that more galleries need to showcase work from outside the city and metro area. It's expensive to bring in work from more far-flung locales, particularly overseas, but a healthy balance between local and non-local work provides, "an opportunity to show more similarities than differences between locations and geography."

Although he's a Detroit artist himself, Thompson echoes Eckert's sentiments on non-local work.

"I like having a diverse range of people being shown," Thompson says. "There are some people in the Detroit art scene who are almost on a social justice vibe, like, 'Why aren't you showing Detroit artists?' I don't want this to be a feedback loop, an echo chamber, where you hear the same stuff over and over again."

N'Namdiwho has long exhibited national, international, and Detroit artists of national significancesuggests that it's local galleries, not local artists, who may need more support. N'Namdi got into the gallery business not to help artists per se, but to build community interest in the arts. He suggests that the local philanthropic community might spend a little more time and money supporting the galleries who get the artist's work out in the world.

"I know that sounds self-serving, but it really isn't because if you can assist the galleries, you end up assisting the artists," N'Namdi says. "If you do that, then everybody grows."

Despite some of the flaws in Detroit's gallery ecosystem, galleries remain important to local artists. Thompson works primarily with larger installations himself, so it's unusual for him to create what he describes as "discrete, viable objects" for an art show. But he says gallery shows help him make new connections in the local scene, and they're even more vital to the many artists who work in more conventional formats.

"To show your work, to be heard, to at least have a conversation with an audience, is really major," he says. "People are willing to continue to make art, even though it may not make financial sense, because they're rejuvenated when people see their work. That's meaningful. And they can have a deeper interaction than they might otherwise."

All photos by Nick Hagen

Check out our map of art galleries in Detroit, Highland Park, and Hamtramck. Is there a gallery missing? Let us know at [email protected].

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Patrick Dunn is the managing editor of Concentrate and an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer for numerous publications. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere.